Monday, March 24, 2014

Spending an Afternoon with Queen Victoria

The film "The Young Victoria"

Ever since reading Lytton Strachey's 1921 biography of Queen Victoria, I have had a thing for the tiny but formidable queen. That book gave us the full story of her life --  her childhood, her marriage to Albert, and her long reign as queen and empress of the British empire. But the story was far from dry. It was entertaining and delightful, written in a sparkling prose. In fact, one reviewer called the book "one of the surpassingly beautiful prose achievements of our time." It brought the great monarch to life like nothing else had before and portrayed her as a real person with some endearing qualities. It was an affectionate biography, laced through with Strachey's trademark irony, wit, and irreverence. It was and still is considered one of the great biographies. I love that Strachey dedicated it to Virginia Woolf.

After seeing the fabulous new photography exhibit at The Getty Museum -- A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography  -- I pulled out my copy of "Queen Victoria" to take a look. I remembered that even though Strachey gave a definitive picture of the queen, warts and all, he seemed to emphasize some of her more charming qualities --

For one thing, she was madly in love with her husband Prince Albert. Though not at first. After being her own mistress for two years as queen, she struggled to maintain her independence as monarch while giving in to her love for her husband. Strachey tells a famous anecdote about their marriage:

"One story, indeed survives, ill-authenticated and perhaps mythical, yet summing up, as such stories often do, the central facts of the case. When in wrath, the Prince one day had locked himself in his room, Victoria, no less furious, knocked on the door to be admitted. 'Who is there?' he asked. "The Queen of England' was the answer. He did not move, and again there was a hail of knocks. The question and the answer were repeated many times; but at last there was a pause, and then a gentle knocking. 'Who is there?' came once more the relentless question. But this time the reply was different. 'Your wife, Albert.' And the door was immediately opened." Once Victoria accepted her love for Albert, he became her everything.

After his death in 1861, Victoria mourned him for the rest of her life and retreated from public view for ten years. She allowed herself to be photographed only as a grieving widow, dressed in black and looking bereft. The public expressed its sorrow by buying photographs of the late prince along with those of the widowed Victoria.

Another thing -- her heart was in the Highlands. She loved all things Scottish and her happiest times were spent in Scotland with her husband and children. Everything about the Highlanders delighted her -- their customs, their dress, their dances, their musical instruments. When she and Prince Albert built Balmoral Castle they decorated it in the Scottish style, covering everything with tartans. The Balmoral tartan, designed by the prince and the Victoria tartan, designed by the queen, were featured in every room. When in Scotland, the queen and the prince would go on expeditions through mountains and across rivers, led by their loyal servant John Brown. They loved the adventure of it and would travel incognito, meeting the locals.

And the third endearing quality I remember from the biography was that she was a devoted mother. She loved her children and she and Albert were attentive parents. As the nursery kept growing -- they had nine children -- Victoria and Albert became obsessed with the welfare of their children, especially their education. Their lives were organized around the care of the children. And the public loved it. As Strachey writes,

"the queen was now once more extremely popular. The middle-classes, in particular, were pleased. They liked a love-match; they liked a household which combined the advantages of royalty and virtue, and in which they seemed to see, reflected as in some resplendent looking-glass, the ideal image of the very lives they led themselves. Their own existences, less exalted, but oh! so soothingly similar, acquired an added excellence...from the early hours, the regularity, the plain tuckers, the round games, the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding...It was indeed a model court...The Victorian Age was in full swing."

In her later years Victoria had a bracelet made featuring the pictures of all of her grandchildren. You can see this bracelet as well as other examples of her private life at the photography exhibition at the Getty Museum. That is where I recently spent a lovely afternoon. The Getty is one of the treasures of L.A.

Exhibition at The Getty Museum

The two themes of this exhibition, Queen Victoria and the history of photography, are surprisingly connected. On January 1839, photography was announced to the world. Two years before, the nineteen-year-old Victoria became queen. There was a relationship between the new art of photography and the young queen, whose passion for collecting photographs began in the 1840's and whose photographic image came to represent an entire age. This show at the Getty gives us a peak at the queen's private and public life, showcasing her images as wife, mother, widow, and empress.

Queen Victoria was the first British monarch to have her life recorded by the camera. The Getty exhibition looks at her role in shaping the history of photography as well as photography's role in shaping her image. There are many loans from the Royal Collection in this show. They include private photos of the queen and her family never seen by the public before. It is fascinating!

Queen Victoria with some of her children

The beautiful book from the exhibition. You can order it here.

I loved this exhibition. I learned so much about the early years of photography. And it was fun revisiting the story of Queen Victoria as told by Lytton Strachey in his famous biography. If you are interested in learning more about Victoria, pick up a copy of this book. It is such a delightful read and a great introduction to this show at the Getty.

All photos except for the first two via here


  1. I have never been to the GETTY I must get myself there soon……Sounds like she was a good MOM and a loving soul.

    1. I think you would enjoy it. They have an amazing photography collection. And right now they have a Jackson Pollock mural that they have restored. It hung in Peggy Guggenheim's apartment in New York and is really something to see!

  2. Hi Sunday,
    Just wanted to let you know how much I adored this post on Queen Victoria. I also think she's a really interesting woman. I have just finishes reading a book of her letters and watching the wonderful movie, 'Young Victoria'. You have inspired me to look out the book 'Queen Victoria' by Lytton Strachey. Thanks!
    I hope you enjoy my book blog too:

    1. Wasn't that film wonderful? She was such an interesting woman. I will be by to visit your blog!

  3. Another beautiful and interesting post. Thank you!

  4. I read that biography after my brother told me how good it is! You're so lucky to have been able to see the photography exhibit.

  5. I learned something new. I have a friend who is fascinated by everything to do with Balmoral. I even bought her a book from their gift shop for her birthday. But I hadn't realized that it was Queen Victoria who had built it.

  6. Wonderful post - will try to see the show.