Lynne Vallone reviews the life of the woman who has occupied the throne longer than any other individual, and considers the tensions between her private and public selves.
As a symbol of domesticity, endurance and Empire, and as a woman holding the highest public office during an age when women (middle-class women, at least) were expected to beautify the home while men dominated the public sphere, Queen Victoria’s influence has been enduring. The historian Dorothy Thompson (1990) suggests that the present queen has extended and emphasised the tenets and trends of Victoria’s reign to the present day.
The symbolic importance of Victoria’s reign (1837-1901) cannot easily be separated from assumptions made by her contemporaries about gender and age. Adjectives such as ‘simple’, ‘modest’, ‘innocent’, ‘lovely’, commonly applied to Victoria as evidence of her appropriate placement on the throne, would almost certainly not have been used if she had been a man. Similarly, after her death from old age in January, 1901, paeans to the Queen praised her embodiment of traditional feminine virtues rather than acts of bravery, statesmanship, or guardianship. For example, best-selling novelist Marie Corelli, in The Passing of the Great Queen: A Tribute to the Noble Life of Victoria Regina (1901), prefers Victoria’s model of ‘blameless’ feminine authority to masculine privilege. Corelli remarks that:
Personal influence is a far more important factor in the welding together and holding of countries and peoples than is generally taken into account by such of us as are superficial observers and who imagine that everything is done by Governments.