Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Queen Victoria, Part VI: Party Animal

Imagine that you’re Princess Victoria…

You’ve spent years muffled away in Kensington Palace with only occasional contacts with other girls your age (apart from Sir John Conroy’s daughters). You’ve had to stand firm against the wheedling and blustering of not only Sir John himself, but your mother, aunt, and half-brother. Then, just three weeks after you turn eighteen, you wake up one morning to find that you’re now the Queen of England.

So what do you do now?

Well, I don’t know what you’d do, but I’ll tell you what Victoria did. The day that she awoke and found herself queen was a busy one, but she still found time to record in her diary what she did…and repeated five times (I counted) was the fact that she did many things ‘alone’--that is, without her mother hovering over her whispering directions. Remember, she hadn’t even been allowed to walk down stairs without being held by the hand. Can you imagine what it felt like to suddenly be free?

Victoria moved out of dreary, decaying Kensington and into Buckingham Palace. Her mother, of course, came with her…but her rooms were located at the opposite end of the palace. In fact, the Duchess had to make appointments to see her daughter--appointments which Victoria was often “too busy” to keep. She appointed her household with the help of Lord Melbourne, her first prime minister whom she would come to regard (for better or worse) as a father figure. And she partied.

Yes, really. I know you've got that image of the chunky, beaky-nosed old lady dressed in black in your mind...but that's decades down the road. And as for the conventional view of the queen as prim, proper, and narrow-mindedly judgemental...to be honest, that's more her future husband Albert than it was her. Despite her repressive upbringing, there was definitely a strong wild streak in Victoria's family and forbears--don't forget her even wilder uncles and her fifty-six illegitimate cousins.

So in 1837 Victoria was 18, full of energy, and ready to cut loose after years of seclusion. She went riding every day, and as a dinner guest (and prominent society diarist) noted, "A more homely [meaning natural and unaffected] little being you never beheld when she is at her ease, and she is evidently dying to be always more so. She laughs in real earnest, opening her mouth as wide as it can go...She eats quite as heartily as she laughs, I think I may say she gobbles....She blushes and laughs every instant in so natural a way as to disarm anyone." She went to the theatre, read novels, and danced at balls until 5 a.m.

But not all would remain rosy. Sir John Conroy remained in the background, ready to extract some revenge for having lost, and soon found an opportunity to contribute to one of the few scandals Victoria had to deal with during her reign (at least until her oldest son got busy). I'll tell you what happened in my next weird history post.

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