Mostly whimsical reflections on life
Students complain history is dry, meaningless and lifeless. It is anything but.
In a Sunday New York Times op-ed, Julia Baird, who is working a biography of Queen Victoria, bared some surprising, if titillating news about the British monarch who presided over an era known for its “suffocating morality.”
Curating morsels of evidence, Baird writes confidently that Vickie had a boyfriend.
Queen Victoria has come down through history as a fusty, not a lusty lady. Made queen when she turned 18, Victoria married her first cousin, Prince Albert. They produced nine children, who eventually married a smorgasbord of royalty on the continent, giving Victoria the nickname of “grandmother of Europe.”
When Albert died in 1861, the Queen’s world was dashed. She went into seclusion and slept with a plaster cast of Albert’s hand at her side. But she also was only 42. Eventually she re-emerged and reigned, most would say successfully, for another three decades. This is where Baird fills in the void about her secret love life.
Widows in those days weren’t encouraged to remarry. While a hardship for many workaday women, for a powerful queen with a vast entourage and multiple castles, it was mostly inconsequential.
Hanging around a royal court all day with little to do spurred gossip, lots of gossip. It was rumored that Victoria had taken a lover. Much time was given to guessing who the lover was.
Few would have guessed it was her Scottish servant, John Brown. Tall and seven years younger than Victoria, Brown was deeply devoted to his sovereign, “carrying her over muddy highland paths, tackling potential assassins and pledging to be with her always,” according to Baird. His ardor for Victoria earned him the perhaps ironic title as “the queen’s stallion.”
Being that constantly close to the longest-reigning monarch in Britain is bound to generate some resentment. Brown took barbs from Victoria’s children and courtiers who pined for his intimacy. After Brown died, Victoria decided to write a memoir about him, but her private secretary, sensitive to her legacy, advised against it.
Apart from vague, inconclusive references, there is no proof Victoria carried on with Brown. Or, as Baird said, no one actually saw them cavorting in the courtyard. Until Baird came across a letter in the archives of Victoria’s doctor, Sir James Reid, who apparently did.
In his immaculately maintained notes, Reid reported seeing the queen flirt with Brown. He lifted his kilt. She lifted her dress. For a woman and time period associated with the corset, this was pretty wanton behavior. Revealing a limb at this time was thought immodest. Showing more was its own revelation about a relationship that went considerably beyond servant and queen, or even just good friends.
Reminiscent of a soap opera scene with Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal, Queen Victoria was placed in her coffin with mementos of Albert, her children and her epochal reign. But Reid was given secret instructions to place the wedding ring from Brown’s mother on one of her fingers and his picture and a lock of his hair in her hand.
Then there is the story about Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, an Indian confidante. Vickie, it appears, had a hefty appetite for passion.
None of this subtracts from the legacy of Queen Victoria or the Victorian period. But it reminds us that those stiff looking figures in our history books were real people with desires and foibles and lovers. Living history may be buried, but it isn’t dead.