Volume XXVII · Number 1 · Winter 1971-1972
Victoria and Her Circle
Remarks made by Robert F. Metzdorf , '33, at the opening of an exhibition of materials from his Victoriana collection, March 7, 1971, Rush Rhees Library
A superficial look at the Victorian era shows that it was an age of violence. Powerful empires waged open or disguised wars in distant places against comparatively defenceless peoples; sometimes, but not often, the "little guys" won. Economic and political power were intensely expansionistic. In Britain, the most opulent luxury contrasted with the most abject poverty: slums were numerous and unspeakably degrading. Small, loudmouthed minorities attempted to disrupt the country in any way possible, in order to win their selfish and illogical goals. Corrupt and doctrinaire journalists perverted the means of communication to further their own partisan objectives. Advertising was blatant, largely uncontrolled, tasteless, and utterly irresponsible. The electorate constantly returned to office scoundrels of noisome private and public immorality, even after exposés which followed transparent whitewashes from a purchased press. Candidates were merchandised like soap. The rivers were open sewers and royalty itself was stricken by filth diseases; factories created unbelievable effluvia; and the land was defaced by open wounds for unneeded and poorly engineered routes of communication. Everyone tried to get somewhere in a hurry, even though what he had to do when he arrived may have been of no importance to anyone, including himself. The populace was an unattractive lot -- greasy, hairy, clad in outlandish clothes of ridiculous cut and abominable color. Everyone was determined to grab as big a slice of pie and as much publicity as he could, and the devil take anyone who got in his way!
Over this land and over this people, both so unlike our own, reigned a granddaughter of George the Third. She had come to the throne in 1837 as a girl of 18, after a stormy adolescence, and she at once put the stamp of her personality on her household, the Court, and the country. She was the first Queen-Regnant in over a century, and as Sir Sidney Lee once pointed out, she had been preceded on the throne by "an imbecile, a profligate, and a buffoon." Things were to be different. Although she was scarcely four feet eleven inches in height, she had a towering personal dignity, a regal carriage, a freshness, and a graciousness of manner which enchanted everyone. The Victorian era had begun.
The object of my collection and of the exhibition prepared from it is to bring together anything which will tell us what sort of a person this Alexandrina Victoria was. Frustrated in attempts to realize the true nature of Elizabeth the First, I thought it might still be possible to secure, somehow, elements which would capture the personality of her great successor -- to gather in letters, drawings, memorabilia -- perhaps even a recording of her celebrated silvery speaking voice (although I later learned she had caused the only existing recording to be destroyed), and to come closer to the personality of a fascinating historical figure.
So the chase began, about ten years ago, and a merry one it has been! Until Lady Longford's splendid biography of the Queen appeared in 1964, historians and biographers had not been fair to Victoria. The most influential book was written by that psychological cripple, Lytton Strachey; other authors had either followed his lead, or had treated their subject scantily, obsequiously, or sensationally. Lady Longford has changed all that -- and the net effect is not only a better understanding of Victoria, but also a breath-taking rise in the value of all material associated with the Queen.
I can only outline some of the impressions I have received in searching out Victoriana, and give a capsule view of the Queen-Empress as I now see her, revealed in her letters, books, drawings and pictures.
She was not only a woman, but also a lady -- to her fingertips. One reads again and again of her exquisite manners and of her thoughtfulness. She could also be harsh and cruel, but it took a great deal to bring her to this point: the things which would arouse her most quickly were the mistreatment of children and animals, a slight on Prince Albert's memory, or a derogation of the dignity of the Crown or of England. She worked very hard at her job of being Queen: she was driven all her days by a sense of duty which became almost an incubus. No detail was too trifling for her attention, if it were something the Queen were expected to do.
She also played hard. She was an excellent horsewoman, and she was an indefatigable dancer; she trod the floor (until age, weight, and widowhood put a stop to it) in waltzes, schottisches, reels, and all the other terpsichorean fashions. Music was the art which meant most to her: she played the piano well and had a most pleasing singing voice (a light soprano). Her sense of pitch was excellent. She studied under the best masters of the time.
Art was a lifelong passion with her, and she was truly gifted. But she never had opportunity really to work at her talent and remained a good amateur draftsman and water-colorist, never a great one. Again, she had lessons from the best persons available and she passed on her interest to her children and some of her grandchildren. Albert shared her love for music and the other arts, and far surpassed her as a practitioner (a matter which created some jealousy on Victoria's part). They studied etching together, and together they studied photography and set up the first privately operated dark room in England, in a closet in Buckingham Palace.
Victoria was an ardent collector -- in certain fields, she was almost a magpie. She encouraged Albert in building up the Royal art collections, which he did to his own as well as to the Queen's taste, and greater advances were made than at any other time since the reign of Charles the First. For her own part, in addition to building and interior decorating, Victoria kept a life-long interest in her household toys, her wardrobe, her photograph albums, and all the possessions by which she was surrounded. An extremely wealthy woman, she could be lavish at one moment and cheese paring the next.
The Queen was not an intellectual. Albert felt much at home with scientists, philosophers, economists and statisticians, and writers; such persons made Victoria nervous and she became brittle and regal. She had received a sound historical training and she had an elephantine memory, but she never thrilled to the greatest in literature. She loved theatre and the opera, and she encouraged private theatricals at Court and in country-houses; but it is doubtful that she ever truly appreciated the literary and abstract scientific accomplishments of her age. She eagerly embraced technological advances, however, and was especially delighted with the telephone. She had a bright mind and her intelligence was well above average.
Next to duty, one of her strongest emotions was loyalty. This got her into trouble a number of times during her long life, for she was stubbornly uncompromising, and refused to listen to any adverse criticism about anyone to whom she felt committed. This left her a helpless prey to any scoundrel who once succeeded in penetrating the defences which her true friends and family attempted to erect. The Queen's attitude derived in part from her innate sense of loyalty, but it was not unallied to feeling that she, Victoria, could not have been mistaken in an earlier judgment. Hence the Flora Hastings scandal, the tragi-comedy of John Brown, the jumped-up Scottish Ghillie, and the laughable career of the lying, ridiculous Indian servant in later years. And yet in politics she was a mistress of the art of compromise.
Her strongest trait, closely allied to loyalty and perhaps not divorced from duty, was love, both sacred and profane. Victoria was a passionate woman, and a romantic to the core, and she came close to wrecking her life and throne because of this. Her morbidity was the opposite face of love, perhaps. But love she certainly had and cherished, in great abundance, and she gave it to Albert, her children, her grandchildren, and many more. Especially did she give it to her country and her subjects. There was no greater patriot in Victorian England than Queen Victoria herself.
What more can we say of her? A matriarch and a fun-pot: calm in great crises, occasionally hysterical over a minutia: arch, and sometimes terrifying. As Lady Longford notes, her "extraordinary character was honey-combed with contradictions," and the biography devotes several pages to listing them, with specific instances.
Much more could be said, as much has likewise been written, about Victoria. Duty, loyalty, and love -- disregarding fashion, there are worse guides for a life, whether that of a Queen or a private person in the humblest circumstances. Let us close this attempt simply by saying that she was a womanly woman -- a warm, talented, opinionated, aggravating human-being, the study of whose character is as rewarding as it is amusing, and as instructive as it is cautionary. May our successors be able to say as much about us!