Will Elizabeth II be like Victoria?

January 22, 2001|By Neil A. Grauer

LONDON -- On Jan. 22, 1901, Queen Victoria -- 81, 4-feet, 11-inches -- expired in the royal residence at Osborne, on the Isle of Wight. An age ended.

Her 64-year reign was the longest in the 1,000-year history of Britain's monarchy. To equal it, Elizabeth II, now in the 49th year of her reign, would have to live to 91 and remain on the throne until 2016. Given the example of the Queen Mum, who turned a robust 100 in August, she may make it.

Ascending the throne at age 18 in 1837, Victoria presided over an expansion of the British Empire to an unprecedented size. By the time of her death, as historian James Morris wrote, "beneath the Queen's dominion lay a quarter of the earth's land mass and nearly a quarter of its people." It extended from the 300 million souls on the subcontinent of India to the tiny island of Ascension in the South Atlantic -- "uninhabited by any kind of vertebrate until the British arrived."

Look up Victoria. You'll find a lake in East Africa and a waterfall on the Zambezi River; a city and an island in Canada; a state and a river in Australia; a seaport in Hong Kong; a section of Antarctica; even a town in Texas -- all named for her.

Also bearing her name, Winston Churchill said in 1952, were "the august, unchallenged, and tranquil glories of the Victorian era" in which he had spent his youth. It was an era in which Britain grew to be the globe's sole superpower and "took the lead in practically every field ... technology ... prosperity, political systems and poetry," wrote Swedish historian Herbert Tingsten.

The word "Victorian" also came to mean repressed, pompous, dull, humorless. Whether Victoria inspired such sensibilities or merely reflected them is debatable.

Despite the era's dour reputation, it is noteworthy that during Victoria's reign, Dickens wrote his greatest works, Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" enchanted the world (and the queen), Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes and Gilbert and Sullivan created their jaunty, timeless comic operas, several of which Victoria had performed at Windsor Castle.

Immediately before Victoria, the British throne was occupied by the mentally deranged George III, the wastrel George IV and William IV, a blow hard sailor. She elevated the public's low opinion of the monarchy simply by being an innocent teen-ager. She married her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, when they both were 20, and embarked on a loving, 21-year marriage that was celebrated for its middle-class virtues -- and fecundity. She had four sons and five daughters, 40 grandchildren, 36 great-grandchildren. (Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, also are cousins, both great-great grandchildren of Victoria.)

Following Albert's death in 1861, Victoria's devotion to him was transformed into a grief so obsessive it became bizarre. Her protracted withdrawal from public view led to a burgeoning of republican sentiment against the reclusive "Widow at Windsor."

Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli's skillful flattery coaxed her out of seclusion. Her public appearances became all the more prized because of their rarity. Favorable mention in the popular, new "penny press" burnished her image. She was the first British sovereign to be photographed, the first of whom movies were taken. By the 50th anniversary of her ascension, the "Golden Jubilee" of 1887, and 60th anniversary "Diamond Jubilee" in 1897, she was a revered symbol, beloved more for her age and tenure than personal attributes.

That pattern may be repeated by Elizabeth II, whose reign has featured both early puffery about "a new Elizabethan age" and more recent anti-monarchist movements fueled by royal divorces and dysfunctional family behavior.

In 1986, writer John Pearson predicted: "Like Queen Victoria, Elizabeth II will grow more dignified and popular with age." She may end up being the last link with Britain's "finest hour" during World War II, when as a princess she even did a turn in a military motor pool.

She might hope for the kind of favorable assessment given to the reign of her great-great grandmother by an unlikely source: Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), the renowned, politically radical mathematician perhaps best remembered in America for his vehement protests of the Vietnam War.

Russell held a surprisingly positive view of the Victorian period.

"The Victorian Age tackled its own problems with vigor and success," Russell wrote in 1949. "They found a country deeply divided against itself -- `the two nations' as Disraeli called it -- a country full of brutality, misery, and ignorance. At the end the country was closely integrated; all the worst horrors of early industrialism had been mitigated; universal compulsory education had been in operation for 30 years; and democracy had been achieved except for the exclusion of women. All this without any violent upheaval. It is a good record; I wish it could be hoped that the present age could have one as good."

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer.

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