Queen Victoria and Public History

Queen Victoria Portrait, 1893

     Queen Victoria of England has proven to be an everlasting image of the British Empire during the nineteenth century. Victoria served both as Queen of England and Empress of India throughout her extraordinarily long rule from 1837-1901. Through her status as a monarch, a celebrity, and a representation of England and the British Empire as a whole, Victoria’s influence has left its mark on the world. While harnessing power through her monarchy, Victoria also proved to have cultural influence, being the face of female domesticity, and creating an era that bore her name. 

     Victoria led a life that was balanced between maintaining both a public and private identity, and further, a life that represented the relationship between Britain as a country, and the greater identity of the British Empire that spanned around the world. Most prolifically portrayed through photography and both fictional and documentary film pieces, Queen Victoria represents an important part of the history of the British Empire, and has affected the manner in which the public history of the empire and the royal family is interpreted and remembered. Further, these media forms have both supported and challenged the commonly accepted representation of Victoria as both a matriarch and a monarch. Photography, fictional film, and documentary representations of Victoria serve as forms of public history that attempt to analyze and further understand Victoria as both a public and private individual.

A Life Portrayed Through Photography

     Victoria’s attachment to the medium of Photography is directly correlated with the development of the technology as a whole. Victoria famously embraced the practice of photography for both personal and political reasons. As a famous figure, she was one of the first to utilize the medium for not only personal and artistic endeavors, but also for the creation and distribution of images of the royal family. Victoria’s connection to, and adoration for photography shifted across the span of her rule, as displayed through the plethora of archival photos in the royal collection.

Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Portrait, July 1893
Portrait of Queen Victoria Holding Portrait of Prince Albert, negative July 1854

      In her book, A Royal Passion, Anne M. Lyden profiles Victoria’s relationship to photography through the public, private, artistic, and political lenses throughout her reign. The combination of both private and public collections of photos in Lyden’s book allows the opportunity for readers to delve deeper into the royal fascination with the camera.  Perhaps the best example of Victoria’s photographic passion is the creation of the cartes de visite or “visiting cards” that portrayed the royal family in a public manner for the first time. Lyden writes that in reference to the cartes de visite, that “the format was already fashionable, (the queen herself was an avid collector), so it was no surprise that the royal images were enormously popular.” (181). Previously, only private photo collections of the royal family existed, and in conjunction with the rise of the medium of photography in the 1860’s, the public identity of the royal family also developed.

Carte De Visite of Queen Victoria

     In addition, there are a plethora of private photographs of the royal family that differed greatly from those that graced the public calling cards. The themes of these photos included a more “behind-the-scenes” look at the royal family, which included the domestic role of Victoria as a wife and mother, as also portrayed in the public photos, but, in a much more casual setting, minus the elegant clothes and stature. Lyden writes that “in these intimate views, we are presented with an image of Victoria as a loving wife and caring mother, and her vitality and youthful appearance are in contrast to the imperial guise of her later portraits.” (146).

     These private photographs were taken at the height of the developing medium of photography, in the 1840’s. Photos included family portraits of Victoria and her children, portraits of the children alone, and single portraits of Victoria and Albert. With the release of these private photographs, the more casual and less imperial persona of the Queen and the royal family became understood. 

Royal Family Portrait, 1852

Further, it is interesting to examine the differences between the look of the private photographs and the public photographs, which differ immensely in composition and grandeur.  In the photograph below, Victoria famously scratched out her face because she disliked her appearance in it. This photo displays a great example of the differences between the public and private photographs of the Queen.

Filmic Portrayal of Victoria

     In conjunction with the photographic representation of Queen Victoria, filmic representation has proven to greatly affect the public perception of the history of Victoria as an individual, and the British empire as a whole. With the plethora of both fictional and documentary film representations of the royal family and Queen Victoria specifically, two fictional films and one documentary film prove to be outstanding in their portrayals of Victoria’s life as queen. Mrs. Brown (1997), Victoria and Abdul (2017), and the U.K. History documentary, Victoria and Albert (2011), are worthy of examination, for their presentations of the life of the queen span from the agreeable to the controversial. Each film piece represents the Victorian age in a global context and further, the balance between Britain and its global empire directly through the personas of Queen Victoria and her closest confidants.

          Through the format of a two part documentary, Prince Michael of Kent, the great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria, retraces the idealized relationship between his Great-Great-Grandmother and Prince Consort Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. In part one of the documentary, Prince Michael focuses on the immense influence Albert harnessed over Victoria’s rule, and further, the contributions Albert made to English society, including the constitutional monarchy, the embracing of the Victorian transformative values of progress, and re-establishing the prestige of the royal family. 

     Part Two of the Victoria and Albert Documentary focuses on the Queen’s life after the death of Albert, in which she “ plunged the entire country into a state of mourning.” (Albert and Victoria Part 2). Not only were the queen’s duties affected by her intense mourning, but also, the demeanor of the entire country shifted to that of a depression. Additionally essential in Victoria’s rise from mourning was John Brown, Albert’s favorite servant/ gillie, with whom she struck a deeply personal relationship with. The fictional film Mrs. Brown also portrays this relationship with a high level of historical accuracy, and coveys the importance of Brown in Victoria’s life after Albert’s death. Both parts of this documentary focus on reinforcing the ideal representation of Victoria as an individual who exemplified Victorian age values, and a leader who loved her husband, family, and country.

     Mrs. Brown (1997), directed by John Madden, chronicles the relationship of Queen Victoria, to her servant, John Brown, in whom she spent a significant amount of time with during her isolation at Balmoral, the Scottish home to the royal family. In her time of mourning the loss of Albert in 1861, Victoria became deeply attached to John Brown in 1865 during her stay at Balmoral. The film makes note that this period of time is one of the only in which Victoria claimed to be happy after Albert’s death. Initially summoned to Balmoral to help the Queen rediscover her love for horseback riding, the relationship between the two blossomed to the point of romantic speculation.

     Notorious Victorian-age gossips insisted that there was a romantic relationship between the two, and upon her death, Victoria asked that a lock of Brown’s hair was buried alongside her in her casket. Interestingly enough, the film portrays the relationship between the two as one of simply deep friendship rather than anything else, putting the gossip and speculations to shame with the graceful and charming manner that the story portrays this piece of history. Also important is the political shift that occurred during the time that Victoria became so intensely close to Brown. A new shift towards republicanism occurred during Victoria’s time at Balmoral, and was directly correlated with the Chartist Movement that spurred from the British financial crisis of 1866. All in all, this film is worthy of examining, for it portrays Victoria in a manner in which the royal family, and the biographers that have covered her life would approve of; free of underlying scandal and the upholding of the prestige of the monarchy.

     In a further investigation of the personal relationships of Queen Victoria after the death of Albert, Victoria and Abdul (2017), directed by Steven Frears, depicts the relationship Victoria develops with another one of her servants, Abdul Karim of India. Set in the time in which British Imperial Expansionism is at its height, during the Raj era in England, in which the British imperial oppression was especially harsh, the film focuses on an unlikely relationship. With the light approach in portraying these issues in the film through a more comedic tone rather than delving deeper into the thornier issues that are connected with the Raj Era, the film falls a bit short in conveying the struggles of the Indian people during this time. The idyllic relationship between Victoria and Abdul does a successful job of masking the more painful pasts of Anglo-Indian relations in the Victorian age. In opposition to this, the film does portray Victoria as a much weaker figure, which represents the more private side of her extremely public life. In this sense, the film slightly challenges the common representation of Victoria that the monarchy would more typically be approving of.

     Regarding the historical context of the friendship between Victoria and Abdul, the filmmakers and the author of the book in which the film is based off of, Shrabani Basu, believe that the story is worthy of being told because the British did everything in their power to erase any remnants of its existence. In a Time article in which she was interviewed, Basu states that “this was a story [the British] were trying to erase, and it’s a very important story to tell. Queen Victoria learned Urdu for 13 years; that’s a big deal, especially these days when you have so much racism around, so much anti-Muslim feeling.” (Basu, Samuels, Time).

     For the majority its runtime, this film, like Mrs. Brown, and the Victoria and Albert documentary, portrays Victoria in her ideal state: a champion of the Victorian values of domesticity as a mother and wife, and as a perfect exemplification of a ceremonial monarch. With this, viewers and historians question the accuracy and the truth behind these portrayals. Is it problematic to depict Victoria in a manner that romanticizes Raj nostalgia, as seen in Abdul and Victoria, and her absence as a ruler during her time of mourning as displayed in Mrs. Brown? Is the persona audiences know so well through Judi Dench’s performances true to who Victoria really was? With media based portrayals, it becomes difficult to discern between what is real and what people wish was real, therefore causing issues in how historical figures are remembered and presented to the public through various media forms.

Media Representation of Queen Victoria and its Relation to British Public History

     Through photography and film, the life of Queen Victoria has become extremely accessible to those interested in discovering more about her. With this accessibility comes a shift in the comprehension of her identity across decades, for prior to the development of film, people only knew of Queen Victoria through photographs. Prior to the development of photography, people only knew of information that they heard about their Queen rather than being able to see her, unless they were able to attend a public gathering in her presence. Visual identity became so important in forming ideologies about distant figures, and this growth in importance began with Victoria’s close relationship with photography. Through the cartes de visite, Victoria birthed the idea of monarchs also becoming celebrities in their own right, and further, publicized the ideologies associated with her identity as queen, all of which supported the values of the Victorian age.

     With the development of film as a medium, the documentary and the fictional film also have played an intrinsic role in determining the opinions and perceptions of Victoria and the history of the British Empire that is attached to her. With the filmmaker’s ability to build a world and recreate a reality that was once alive, viewers are able to step into the past in an unprecedented manner. Without visuals, it is almost impossible to imagine what historical events were truly like as they occurred. Whether it be fictional representations in films, illustrations in books, or photographs that accompany historical prose, it is the visual components that often aid in one’s entire comprehension of an event or identity of a person. It is also important to understand the integral role that visual histories play in conveying values and ideals of a time period, more often than written records do.

     Overall, Queen Victoria of England has proven to be an everlasting image of the British Empire during the nineteenth century. Through her status as a monarch, a celebrity, and a representation of England and the British Empire as a whole, Victoria’s influence has left its mark on the world. From her fascination with photography while she reigned, to the filmic portrayals of her over the years through both fiction and documentary forms, the identity of Victoria will forever be engrained into the public’s perception of the history of the British monarchy, and the British Empire as a whole. Further, the media representations of Victoria serve as public history forms that add to the ongoing discussion of the legacies of the British Empire in today’s culture.