Queen Victoria: An unlikely icon

Surviving seven assassination attempts, giving birth to nine children and reigning for over half of the nineteenth century, it’s fair to say Queen Victoria had a life less ordinary.

But Victoria wasn’t destined for the role of queen from birth. Fifth in line to the throne, a series of deaths and lack of offspring in a rolling a succession crisis led to Victoria becoming monarch.

At the height of her reign at the end of the century, Queen Victoria ruled over a vast empire of a billion subjects, Australia just making a small fraction of that number. Yet the image from the grainy black and white photos of the nineteenth century is of a rather dower, prudish, aloof monarch. 

To do justice to the extraordinary life and colour in the woman herself, requires a thorough historical re-telling by an expert historian. There have been many biographies written about Queen Victoria. Australian historian, journalist and writer Julia Baird has added an impressive tome to the volumes written about Victoria. Her wonderful, award-winning book, simple titled Victoria: The Queen, adds a new dimension to the life of the stoic Queen.

Doctor Baird, who has a PhD in history from the University of Sydney, gained unprecedented access to Windsor Castle archives and unearthed a treasure trove of personal, familial and political source material to add much colour to those black and white portraits of the Queen. 

The Life of Queen Victoria

Yet Victoria was a real person. While she lived a privileged life she still suffered the ‘swings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ Victoria was petulant, determined, stubborn, optimistic, starried eyed, depressed and politically astute. She loved her family and most of all her she loved Albert, her husband of 20 years who died rather tragically at 47. She was a controlling matriarch of nine children, but presented to the world the first real image of the royal family being just that; a family with a mum and dad enjoying Sunday picnics together with the kids. By the end of her reign, her grandchildren had married into almost every royal family in Europe.

The British public had never seen the monarchy presented or behaving in such a normal way. But she was also a tyrant. She bullied politicians like Lord Gladstone and cruelly excluded her eldest son Bertie from the inner sanctum of royal life until her death in 1901. Several of her children died before her.  Victoria’s own grandson, Wilhelm II, led Germany into the brutality of WW1 against her beloved British people. She waded into wars that were unjust and imperial in their exploitation of other people. 

Despite the eight assassination attempts on her life, she still loved the British people until her dying days. Perhaps most controversial of all was her friendship with a Scottish Highlander called John Brown. Much to the chagrin of the royal house, Victoria maintained a close relationships with the rough Scotsman until his death. There has been much speculation about this friendship and it was covered up by Victoria’s children after her death in 1901. Many priceless letters were destroyed so we might never know the true extent of this relationship. But Baird is pretty sure that more was going on than just a cordial dram of whisky on those cold nights at Balmoral. 

Victoria seemed to have an eye for men who fell outside the royal lineage. Her next strange relationship seemed much more cerebral, even spiritual, when she employed an Indian Mufti Mohammed Abdul Karim to be her companion for the last decade of her life. This raised the eyebrows in the establishment and Bertie was determined to rid the palace of this Indian’s presence. The day after Victoria died in her beloved Isle of Wight, the Mufti and his family were expelled from the royal house and sent packing back to India.  

Victoria lived a long life – the second longest Queen in British history. And Julia Baird’s wonderful biography gives so much colour to this long reign. 

Queen Victoria on screen and in print

There have been many films and books devoted to the extraordinary reign of Victoria. Here is a very small sample. The National Portrait Gallery in London (one of the Broad’s favourite places in London) has an extensive collection of paintings, photos and busts of Victoria and in case you can’t get to London next weekend, you can find them online.



Victoria by Daisy Goodwin is a novel that draws on the monarch’s diaries to imagine the life of the young queen. Victoria was a prolific diary keeper and is said to have penned over 62 million words in her lifetime. The book was written to accompany the TV series. This UK Vogue article on Goodwin’s book and TV series puts the sexy, spirited side of Victoria to the front.

TV and Movies on Victoria

Victoria is a British TV show now in its third series that covers the monarch’s life from her childhood to her ascension to the throne and as the head of the British Empire up to 1851. It’s written by Daisy Goodwin, author of the novel Victoria mentioned above. A fourth series is expected. It’s one to try if you want to delve deeply into Victoria’s life through the political machinations of her reign and the household dramas of being the queen.

Not surprisingly, The Young Victoria covers the monarch’s early life and is an entertaining, lively film depicting her Victoria’s blooming romance with Prince Albert and her determined efforts to fight her mother and John Conroy’s scheme for her to sign a regency order handing power to them.

Reprising her role playing Victoria, Judy Dench stars in Victoria & Abdul, a film which tells the shocking (for its time) story of Victoria’s friendship in the latter years of her reign with Abdul Karim. The young clerk from India who befriends the queen after being drafted in for her Golden Jubilee. Victoria, who’s practiced in staring down authority that’s trying to control her, has to fight of her own household’s attempts to destroy the friendship.

After the untimely death of her beloved husband Prince Albert, Victoria withdraws from public life. but some years later develops a close relationship with John Brown. Mrs Brown, this 1997 film with Judi Dench as Victoria and Billy Connolly as Brown, brings the story to the screen.

queen victoria as mrs brown

Visiting Victoria’s Residences

Kensington Palace in London has several features on Victoria that cover the story of the young Victoria’s childhood and later her life as the monarch in two separate exhibitions.

Victoria’s life from her birth in the dining room at Kensington Palace and her unlikely path to the throne in 1837 through to her marriage to Albert and her long reign as the monarch is described in detail on the website, illustrated with many historic photographs from the time.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth, a special exhibition, Queen Victoria’s Palace at Buckingham Palace, tells the story of how the young queen transformed Buckingham Palace from a private house into a working royal residence. Together with Prince Albert, she made Buckingham Palace a rallying point for the nation, a powerful symbol of the British Monarchy and a family home for their nine children.

queen victoria and family

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Rosalyn Page
Journalist, blogger and writer covering arts, culture, travel and digital lifestyle at www.rosalynpage.com and www.somenotesfromabroad.com.

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