She has this particular day named after her, but so few us know much about Queen Victoria. Given that this a holiday named after her remarkable identity and reign, that’s just a bit embarrassing.
Though she had much to say about the prospects for, and station of, women that would likely infuriate the average feminist of today, her life and accomplishments are virtually unmatched in history. A woman exercising remarkable power in an age where men primarily dominated every important aspect of life and influence, it’s worthwhile for us to spend a bit of time getting to know her better, this woman whose prominence got most of us the day off.
Prior to becoming queen, Victoria faced a difficult upbringing. After losing her father to pneumonia when she was only 8 months old, she was virtually locked away in Kensington Palace under rigorous adult supervision. Her schooling was private and hard, emphasizing both moral and intellectual pursuits. There was virtually no time to spend with other children and she spent every waking moment being accompanied by one or more adults. The pleasures and delights of childhood were never to be hers and later in life she reminisced: “I led a very unhappy life as a child and did not know what a happy domestic life was.” Those difficult years affected her character and, though surely difficult, provided her with outstanding toughness and intuition.
When she became queen at 18 years of age, Victoria was already remarkably intelligent, spoke several languages and held a firm grasp of history, especially that of Europe. Though people were required to show her deference, few expected much of this younger, shy woman. Her advisers anticipated that she would prove to be a weak ruler who would simply hold place until someone stronger came along. That she would live to be England’s longest serving monarch until just recently might have shocked them. She refused to defer to her advisors, surprised all the skeptics, and developed a remarkably strong will that some saw as stubbornness but others viewed as essential to be a great monarch. She rose to the occasion, quickly learning the intricacies of statecraft and diplomacy, and even at that young age began building a legacy that could never quite be matched.
Victoria looked to her own private pursuits for inspiration. She always painted and sketched and her writing was prolific. She wrote daily journals that eventually took up 120 volumes and authored two books about travelling in the Scottish Highlands. She took to self-education naturally, perhaps making up for those childhood moments she was denied in her earlier life. Her early reign was characterized by bouts of laughter and entertainment. She especially loved Scottish music and dancing.
Her personal life took a warm turn when she married Prince Albert. They enjoyed 20 romantic and adventurous years together, during which they had nine children. Sadly, Albert suddenly took sick and died from typhoid when he was 42, leaving Victoria disconsolate. She was never the same. While a middle-aged woman of remarkable powers and insights, grief was her constant companion since her husband’s loss. She was a fully human woman in deep pain, withdrawing from public life and taking on elaborate mourning rituals that would go on for years. She was so consumed by her sense of loss and personal pain that she fell into a state of depression that lasted years. She neglected her royal duties, was rarely seen in public, and slowly lost her popularity. Her subjects, never seeing their Queen anymore, grew in their disgruntlement of her royal income. When Victoria finally re-emerged in the 1870s, she remained a deeply pained woman who nevertheless understood her responsibility to her people and the empire.
The re-kindling of her people’s affection brought a sense of consolation back into her life. She was so comforted by their support that she told one friend, “The important thing is not what they think of me, but what I think of them.” Despite a grief that would last to the end, Victoria saw in her people a remarkable ability to overcome trial, to forge themselves in a resolute nation, and to turn their industry and hard work into a global economic force. She believed in them in the way that few politicians do today.
We know of her days of empire and the remarkable enlightenment that ran through the British people during her lengthy reign. In a modern era where critics abound, she hasn’t escaped becoming the target of an activist scourge. Yet she was a woman far ahead of her time, possessed of gifts that made her a true feminine champion in a masculine era. And she was tough, having survived a difficult childhood, at least 6 assassination attempts, the loss of the love of her love, and the passing of some of her children. She could always see the bigger picture, commenting once that, “Great events make me quiet and calm; it is only trifles that irritate my nerves.”
Victoria stands as one of the great and towering figures of history – a woman of her time but also of all time. Today is called “Victoria Day” for a reason. Canada has understood her importance even to our own history and development. If we are going to enjoy a holiday today, we might as well understand something of the remarkable woman who is its cause.