There is an important dichotomy to recognise when discussing Queen Victoria and that is the clear line that exists between Queen and Victoria. On one hand, she was “Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India” — the public face and figure of the British Empire, its head of state and monarch. But in private, she was ever Alexandrina Victoria – daughter, mother, wife and lover, a private citizen like any other.
Victoria understood that her office required her to portray a certain image. That the British Empire needed its monarch to be stoic, dignified and unshakeable. She needed to represent British stoicism and firm leadership during a time of great global upheaval. To this end, she is often perceived as being a dour and reserved woman, a reputation that is somewhat undeserved. Her public persona, weighted by office and convention, does not reflect the passionate and vibrant woman that she was in private.
Here are five facts about Queen Victoria that show her lighter side.
1. She was a romantic
It is a rare thing for royalty to marry for love. The great game of houses, with its internecine pacts and rivalries, seldom affords such a luxury. It might come as something of a surprise then that Queen Victoria genuinely loved her husband, Prince Albert.
Victoria was first introduced to Albert at the age of 16, when it was her duty to entertain suitors and begin arrangements for a suitable betrothal. One of those suitors was the Bavarian Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Though Victoria was nonplussed with the rest of the young nobles vying for her affections, she was instantly smitten by Albert, writing in her diary:
“[Albert] is extremely handsome; his hair is about the same colour as mine; his eyes are large and blue, and he has a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth with fine teeth; but the charm of his countenance is his expression, which is most delightful…He possesses every quality that could be desired to render me perfectly happy. He is so sensible, so kind, and so good, and so amiable too. He has besides the most pleasing and delightful exterior and appearance you can possibly see.”
Victoria resisted external pressure to be wed in the early portion of her reign, seeing it as important to establish herself as a dominant and wilful monarch. To that end, Albert did not return to England for the first two years of Victoria’s reign. However when he did make his second visit to the palace, their passion was once again rekindled and within five days, Victoria would propose to Albert (not the other way around).
Of their wedding night, Victoria wrote in her diary (all emphasis from the author):
“I NEVER, NEVER spent such an evening!!! MY DEAREST DEAREST DEAR Albert … his excessive love & affection gave me feelings of heavenly love & happiness I never could have hoped to have felt before! He clasped me in his arms, & we kissed each other again & again! His beauty, his sweetness & gentleness – really how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a Husband! … to be called by names of tenderness, I have never yet heard used to me before – was bliss beyond belief! Oh! This was the happiest day of my life!”
2. She was a talented artist
While Victoria and Albert may be better known as great patrons of the arts – the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is one of the largest in the world (the laying of stone of the Aston Webb building was Victoria’s last official public act) – but what might surprise is that Victoria herself was rather accomplished with the brush. Victoria’s diaries are punctuated with numerous sketches and watercolours depicting her daily life, from observations made through her travels to countless sketches of her children and family as they went about their day – a charming insight into the surprisingly ordinary lives of the royal family and an enduring statement of maternal warmth and pride from someone who is usually viewed as austere.
Victoria’s talent did not stop with her sketchbooks, however. Victoria was a painter in her own right. She was tutored by Edwin Henry Landseer (of Monarch of the Glen fame) and several of her portraits and watercolours reside in Buckingham Palace and hold their own merit, not just for who held the brush.
3. She was an epicurean
The Victorian era is known as being something of a culinary renaissance for British cuisine. With the expansion of the British Empire hitting its peak, there was a drive amongst the aristocracy (who could afford such things) to expand one’s palate and sample the fare of the colonies. Victoria was no exception, jumping at the chance to sample new foods, flavours and experiences – and harboured no prejudices about whence they came.
One of Queen Victoria’s closest friends and confidants was Abdul Karim, an Indian munshi who was appointed to tutor the Queen in her role as Empress of India. Though Karim was assigned to Victoria as a teacher and aide, their friendship began in earnest one evening when Abdul Karim made Victoria a traditional Bombay curry, a particularly spicy and intimidating dish for any Englishman of the time, let alone a stately queen. Rather than being taken aback, however, Victoria demanded more of both the curry and the man who cooked it. Thus, one of history’s most unlikely friendships began with an equally unlikely source – curry.
Victoria’s fervour for new and exciting cuisines was a feature of her reign. There is also the (perhaps apocryphal) story of how Victoria learned of the existence of a new fruit available only in the subcontinent – the mangosteen. The fruit had become something of a legend among the English, with tales of its flavour brought back from those who had served in the colonies. A fruit whose deliciousness was matched only by the difficulty one had in growing and transporting it.
Naturally, Victoria needed to try it but was frustrated by the fact that the fruit spoiled quickly and couldn’t be grown in the climate of the Northern Hemisphere. Such was her frustration that she offered a knighthood to anyone who could bring her a single mangosteen to sample.
4. She had a fondness for the risqué
For someone with such a reputation as dour and reserved and with such an esteem for social custom and morality, Victoria had a rather incongruent appreciation for nudity. She commissioned numerous works from a variety of famed artists of the time such as Franz Xaver Winterhalter and William Edward Frost, which heavily featured classically rendered nudes.
Victoria was also noted for commemorating her husband Albert’s birthdays or their wedding anniversaries with gifts of nude paintings or sculptures. Whilst obviously a romantic gesture, this also showed Victoria’s playful streak – Albert had something of a reputation (not entirely deserved) for being somewhat of a prude, so Victoria delighted in giving him gifts that would make him blush.
Perhaps the most famous example of this behaviour was when Victoria commissioned a sculpture of Albert, depicting him as a Greek hero clad only in a loincloth and leaving “little to the imagination”. A flustered Albert responded to the unveiling of the statue by calling it “rather nude” to which Victoria was said to smirk and reply “not at all”.
5. She had a “Rose from Titanic” moment
Well…not exactly. But by the standards of Victorian-era modesty and prudishness, the so-called “Secret Portrait” is very much one of Queen Victoria painted as “one of your French girls”.
The “Secret Portrait” depicts Victoria draped across a red couch, her hair down and flowing with a white bodice just barely covering her bust whilst she stares alluringly to the side like antique Aphrodite. The painting is incredibly sensual, even bordering on sexual, and not at all what one would expect from the Queen.
A surprise 24th birthday present from Victoria to Albert, the “Secret Portrait” was considered so risqué that it was kept secret for nearly 150 years, only becoming public knowledge in 1977.
Albert, to no one’s surprise, said that it was his favourite painting. Also to no one’s surprise, he did not present it for public exhibition, instead hanging it privately in his quarters.
Perhaps more than anything else, this painting of Queen Victoria represents the duality of her nature. In public, she was ever the stately monarch, the reserved and demure queen, honour-bound and honour-branded in her duty to her empire. But in private she was a vibrant, fun and sensual woman who enjoyed life, who was not shy or coy but warm, loving and passionate.