All Commentary
Sunday, March 12, 2017

Queen Victoria’s Modernity

It's Queen Victoria's world, and we're just living in it.

I decide what is the future,” 21-year old Queen Victoria angrily informs her husband, Prince Albert, in the sixth episode of Masterpiece Theater’s Victoria. It sounds like a pretentious, condescending, and just plain wrong thing to say, but she had no idea how right she was.

We don’t usually relate her reign with progressive trendsetting. Today we use the word “Victorian” to identify overly fussy wallpaper or overly scrupulous etiquette and morals that cry out for relaxation. But think of when she ruled: she reigned from 1837 to 1901, a period of astonishing economic, technical, industrial, and cultural transformation for the entire Western world. Her influence became a guiding voice for progress, not a reaction.

Perhaps it’s time to revisit the person who has an entire era named after her.So perhaps it’s time to revisit the person who has an entire era named after her. This show is just the thing to help.

The first season of Victoria only covers the first two years of her reign, but it’s enough to establish the fact that Queen Victoria did arguably more for the United Kingdom and the British monarchy than her three or four immediate predecessors, or her successors. She certainly did more for women’s suffrage, even more so than Queen Elizabeth II.

So many traditions we now accept as doctrine were actually begun by Victoria a mere 150 years ago – a fraction of the time the British monarchy has existed, and far more recently than I, at least, assumed would be the case.

Here are some traditions we can credit to Queen Victoria, who no doubt had no idea just how extensive her influence over the future was, as portrayed in Victoria.

Buckingham House

We associate the royal household with Buckingham Palace now, but when Victoria became queen it was simply “Buckingham House,” and the royal family had its official residence at Windsor Castle. The original structure of Buckingham had been built by 1703 for the Duke of Buckingham and bought (probably just taken) by George III in 1761 for his wife, Queen Charlotte. Over the following decades, it was built up until it became the huge building Queen Victoria decided should be renamed as a palace, rather than a house. She took up residence there so she and her court could spread out – she wanted to be further from her manipulative mother and those who influenced her – and to get away from the noise of the city of London.

Nearly every monarch changed residences before Victoria went to Buckingham.If you’ve watched The Crown, you’ll remember when Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were hoping to stay at their home in Clarence House, which is still used as the Heir Apparent’s place of residence. Elizabeth was strongly opposed by her secretary, who informed her that it was “tradition” to live at Buckingham Palace. Perhaps if Elizabeth had known that this tradition was only three generations old and that nearly every previous monarch had changed their place of residence, she could have won that argument.

Let There Be Light?

When Victoria took the throne, gas lighting was just starting to become a mainstream thing. Her Head of Household and former governess, Louise Lehzen, decided she wanted to bring “economy” and “modernity” to the royal household, and chose to begin with the lighting. Buckingham Palace was, of course, lit entirely by candlelight. To give some idea of what that would’ve been like: filming Victoria required 12,000 candles. They only filmed eight episodes, and they were only lighting a few rooms at a time, depending on what scenes they were filming. So it’s easy to see why Lehzen wanted to replace the candles with the latest gas technology.

It was a great idea, but the technology was still too new to catch on. Installing it meant taking apart the walls, revealing an unknown rat infestation that was as horrifying to watch as you’re imagining. As Victoria’s steward Penge said, “This is what happens when you interfere with nature.” Obviously the answer is to get rid of all the rats, instead of carrying on as before and pretending it’s all fine, but for some reason, his argument convinced a lot of people. Apparently, it simply wasn’t natural to have gas light.

However, the gas lines were installed in a few rooms in an attempt to make it work. But employees in the palace didn’t know how to work it, and they burned their hands trying to light the gas. In the end, Lehzen decided that in this case at least the old way is the good way, and Penge is left to smugly order new candles.

Married in White

It’s highly unusual in Western culture for a woman’s wedding dress to not be white now. It’s said to be highly traditional, highly symbolic, and special because it’s difficult to keep clean (or was, before washing machines and drop-off dry cleaning became widely available). But it’s really just a fad that began with Queen Victoria and never stopped.

The white wedding dress is not symbolic or even very traditional: it’s a fad that began with Victoria and never stopped.Before Victoria’s wedding, brides simply wore the nicest dress they had. Fabric was very expensive before the Industrial Revolution, and most women couldn’t afford a new dress for their wedding day, let alone a fancy one. In fact, white had historically been reserved for the opposite occasion – mourning.

Royal wedding clothes were the robes of State, heavy and cumbersome. Victoria didn’t want that and decided she wanted to get married in a white dress, because she wanted to. Her decision sparked a trend, and 150 years later, we’re still carrying it on.

The trend became even more historical after the 1960s. Before that, wedding dresses were white, but cut in whatever dress style was popular at the time. After the 1960s, wedding dresses became longer, fuller, and fancier. In a word, they became more Victorian.

The Transportation of the Future

Throughout the sixth episode, Victoria and Albert fought about whether or not locomotives should be allowed in England. In the scene where Victoria declared her ownership of the future, Albert had just returned from a clandestine visit to her political enemy Robert Peele to see the “locomotive” Peele had running on his property. Victoria had been against locomotives from the beginning, citing the inevitable disruption to the land that the railways would have to cross, and she was furious that he would risk his life riding the machine (which would both leave her alone and possibly leave the throne open to her unpopular uncle in the case of her dying in childbirth), and attempt to support something she doesn’t want.

“This is the future!” Victoria yelled from the locomotive car.However, after taking a couple days to think about it all, Victoria decided it was only fair to see and test the thing for herself. So she went off, very very pregnant, to Peele’s. Locomotives were still very dangerous, and childbirth was still very high-risk, so Peele, his train engineer, and Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting were all extremely concerned for Her Majesty and the heir she was carrying. But she waved them all aside, even though she was clearly very scared herself, climbed on board, and instructed the engineer to start the train.

At first she was terrified to be moving so rapidly, but Victoria’s fear quickly turned to exhilaration as she waved at anyone she passed and marveled at the machine’s ability. Albert, meanwhile, heard his wife had gone off to try the locomotive, and ended up running beside her train carriage for a bit (locomotives weren’t nearly as fast then as they are now, and Peele’s small, private train would’ve been even slower). He called up to her, asking what she thinks, and she yelled back, “This is the future!” Needless to say, locomotives were brought to England and used throughout the country.

The Modern Kitchen

While Victoria and Albert were deciding the future of transportation in Great Britain, there was an arguably more important side story being carried out in the kitchens of Buckingham Palace: the invention of the “bombe Victoria,” a kind of Baked Alaska. Victoria’s Chief Chef and Maître d’Hôtel, Charles Elmé Francatelli, was an artist of a chef, and he knew it. One of the first celebrity chefs, he wrote several cookbooks filled with his own inventions, was known for his elaborate sugar work and confections, and was generally wasted on the English queen and her German husband, who preferred plain food to his couture French cuisine.

Francatelli ended up leaving the royal household after only two years, and went on to work for private aristocratic clubs, marketing himself as the Maîre d’Hôtel to Her Majesty the Queen, continuing to act as the creative genius behind the food trends of the day, transforming food from mere sustenance to an experience, making high-quality foods accessible, and bringing flavorful recipes previously kept for the rich to the middle classes via his cookbooks.

Royal Births

There was a practice in England (and other countries) to have a crowd witnessing royal births: midwives, ladies-in-waiting, and members of court – including the men. The idea behind it was to make sure nothing untoward was done to the mother or the baby, and to ensure that if the baby was born stillborn, it wouldn’t secretly be replaced with another, live baby to falsely continue the royal line. Victoria didn’t know about this practice until she herself was in labor and looked up to see a couple dozen men standing around talking and joking and watching her. As the first Queen of England to ever give birth, Victoria finally had the authority to announce that she would give birth without the court watching her.“What are all those men doing there?” she asked Albert. “Apparently it is the custom, in case there is a substitution,” he responded somewhat apologetically. Victoria was having none of it, of course, and immediately said, “Tell them all to go away!”

Victoria was undoubtedly not the first English royal woman to wish the crowd would leave, but as the first Queen of England to ever give birth, Victoria finally had the authority to do away with the custom. She did allow the Home Secretary to stay, and this became the new custom until Elizabeth II was due to give birth to Prince Charles. After his birth at Buckingham Palace, royal babies were born at St. Mary’s Paddington hospital. Much improved over the old way.

Just Beginning

There are many other examples of Victoria determining the future as well: postage stamps were first introduced in England with her approval, and she made her country realize that a Queen could be monarch, wife, and mother all at once. As her rule extended into the late 19th century and even into the 20th, she started dozens more trends and introduced hundreds of things. But since Season Two of Victoria isn’t out yet, those will have to wait.