• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Game of throne

Queen Elizabeth II is taking on Victoria’s mantle as Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. So what does it take to be a royal record-breaker?

QueenMain
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip on the Queen’s coronation day, June 2, 1953. Photo/Getty Images


As Elizabeth II surpasses Queen Victoria’s record for longevity on the throne this month, it’s tempting to make the obvious comparisons.

She who observed 10 years’ mourning seclusion after her husband’s death – and was widely criticised for it – eclipsed by she who refused publicly to grieve for her former daughter-in-law – and was widely criticised for it.

She who presided over a prissy, repressed society in which a curvaceous chair leg was swathed in fabric lest gentlemen become overstimulated by it – and has been widely mocked for it – eclipsed by she whose family is riven with extramarital carry-on and divorce – and is widely mocked for it.

She who presided over the pinkening of the atlas, as Britain became the imperial world power, eclipsed by she who can barely keep a grip on Scotland, let alone claim an empire.

THE MYTHOLOGISING MONARCHS


Few of those comparisons stand much prodding, but they endure as part of the necessary mythologising of monarchs. Historians now agree Victoria wasn’t the prudish old battleaxe of her customary caricature. They also concur with the version of Elizabeth depicted in the movie The Queen, that she is a product – victim, even – of her upbringing, a sacred tenet of which is that stoicism is her duty.

Actually, we know far more about Victoria than we probably ever will about Elizabeth, because the former was a prodigious journal writer. It’s been estimated that if all her daily epistles had survived her embarrassed children’s purging of them after her death, they’d run to 700 volumes. The vast tracts that do survive reveal a lively, opinionated, witty woman somewhat stultified by her role. We’ve never had a sniff of Elizabeth’s personal diaries, nor will we in all likelihood. In this age of blogs, tweets, bugging and leaks, it’s a massive achievement of ­Elizabeth’s that we still know so little of her private communications and unguarded thoughts.

Equally, Elizabeth’s family can hardly be called racy alongside Victoria’s, even alongside Victoria herself. Though it is doubtful she had an affair with her manservant John Brown, she let rumours eddy around the possibility for years, refusing to curtail them. She eventually decided to write her own account of their relationship to rebuff the tittle-tattle, but was talked out of it by family and advisers.

Her son Bertie’s amorous adventures make those of Prince Charles, during his playboy Prince of Wales years, look decidedly timid. At least Charles strayed only after marriage – and that was with his true love. He did not – that we know of, and given the British media’s rapacity, we would know of it – shack up with mistresses or father children with any. Victoria’s wider family was in a constant roil of personal or political controversy, to a degree the present royals would never contemplate.

As to the great lurking question, “Wither the monarchy?”, even that’s old hat between the two queens. The monarchy was thought imperilled before and during Victoria’s reign. Such was its unpopularity at various times during her era that PR schemes to save it were 10 a penny. Prime Minister Gladstone urged the Queen to turn her court into a sort of think tank of superior ethics, and shape her family into moral exemplars. Disraeli trumped that by getting her to agree to the more achievable window dressing of becoming Empress of India, which did the trick.

QueenVictoriaCoronation
Queen Victoria in her 1838 coronation robes. Photo/Getty Images

 POLES APART ON PARENTING


Elizabeth and her naturally spartan husband, Philip, are often pinged for flinty parenting, such as sending sensitive Charles to boot-campish boarding school Gordonstoun, whereas the soppily devoted Victoria and Albert appear to have doted on their nine children. In fact, Victoria was merciless on her children when they started making their own decisions, criticising them for being too fat, dressing badly, marrying dullards or giving their children ridiculous names.

Elizabeth did look meanly protocol-bound in not attending her eldest son’s second marriage. From all accounts, Victoria would have attended – but probably only to supply a displeased critique of Camilla’s gown and to deplore afresh her smoker’s wrinkles.

It’s a peculiar job, being queen, perhaps as much a prison – a deprivation of free will and normal self-development – as it is a palace – a guarantee of luxury, privilege and unearned authority. Psychologists say the healthiest response to insane circumstances is to go a little mad oneself. If the monarchy does survive, it’ll be partly because the idiosyncrasies, excesses and obsolescences of the role are forgiven as all too human.

RIGHT ROYAL STYLE TIPS


Photo/ Thinkstock
Photo/ Thinkstock


On no account try this at home.

•  Bright, clear colours – and only one palette – when out in public. On anyone else, the Queen’s fashions would scream 80s colour-blocking, and the ultimate sin, “matchy-matchy”. From (compulsory) hat, through bag and (sensible medium-heeled) pumps, it’s all meticulously toned together. She wears bold yet unambitious ensembles out of courtesy, because when people throng to see her, these make her easy to spot. Both Diana and Catherine have followed similar strong-colour rules – albeit in more fashionable styles. The very formality and calculation of the royals’ public ensembles are intended as a courtesy, too. They wish to look as though they have put time, thought and effort into dressing up for the public. The false modesty of, “Oh, this old thing!” is anathema to Her Maj.

•  Traditional English wool and tweed, tailored but relaxed in fit, when not in public. On most of us, this would be dowdy, and not a little scratchy. The Queen is, however, upholding Britain’s anti-fashion, pro-quality and -durability tradition. Her private wear is perfectly practical for Scottish woodland walks, horse events and stewardship of corgi packs. One does not have to replace such garments every year or two because of pilling, sagging or other wear issues, and certainly not for fashion’s sake. And although one does say “dowdy”, it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s this very palette and fabric range that informs much of Italian high fashion.

•  The headscarf. Because it is not done to spend every day having a new wash-and-set. That would be a shameful indulgence. One’s ’do needs protecting from the elements. Wild and windswept might be fine on twenty-something ingénues, but it’s not a becoming look for everyone. The Queen most certainly does not do bedhead.

•  Tiaras and bling. Tiaras, because the queen never has an undressed head. Jewellery, because it’s our heritage – gifts from other dynasties of old that deserve to be seen, and even though much of it is not conventionally flattering wear to the modern eye, it is by way of being art. It wears one more than one wears it, and that is perfectly appropriate. Again it’s a high-vis thing. To be seen by all at a glittering event, one needs to glitter commandingly.

•  Frugality. There was an instructive put-down of politician Michael Heseltine by aristocratic libertine Alan Clark: “The trouble with Michael is he had to buy all his furniture.” The import is that one inherits and makes last. One does not shop at Ikea or decide it’s time for a “whole new look with the ‘Now!’ colourways” every few years.

One’s inheritance was built to last. It is still perfectly serviceable and all the more beautiful for being used and loved over many years. If it is worn, faded and redolent of dog, that is not to be taken as déclassé. Daily Mail journalist Jan Moir fell into this trap when she famously micro-analysed the historic photograph of the Queen in her sitting room at Balmoral Castle during John Key’s 2013 visit. In 40 paragraphs of incredulous commentary, Moir exclaims at the shabbiness, non-splendour and “Brigadoon bric-a-brac” of the room. Why, she sneers, would not the Queen have the fire lit in the splendid marble fireplace rather than that humble convection heater?

That Moir had to ask such questions showed she didn’t get the Queen at all.

QueenVictoria
Photo/Getty Images

Victoria’s secrets


 SHE WAS USUALLY HIGHLY AMUSED


As more recent biographies of the monarch have established, Victoria’s public image is largely myth. She was good-humoured, full of opinions and not at all self-repressing. There is plenty of evidence she had an earthy, liberal approach to relationships. Her daughter Alice is on record as saying she vehemently denied ever having said, “We are not amused.” She might well have said that Gladstone addressed her as though she were a public meeting. She greatly preferred Disraeli. She did, however, have a snitch on Elizabeth II because …

SHE NEARLY WAS ELIZABETH II


The other royals, and even by some accounts the British public, resisted the name Victoria as being too foreign. Meaning: too German. Victoria was named after her German mother. According to biographer AN Wilson, she and her mother were left at pointed remove from the court during her formative years, despite the early death of her father. It was by no means certain during her early years that Victoria would remain heir to the throne. Other interests connived against it right up to her coronation. Pressure to take the name Elizabeth was incessant. At home, she answered in fact to Drina, a contraction of her given first name, Alexandrina.

PICTURES CAN LIE


Perhaps the No 1 myth machine behind Victoria’s awful image was the era’s reverential approach to the then-new art of photography. It’s hard to find a smiling portrait of anyone, let alone a royal, from that era. To have one’s portrait taken by camera was a serious matter. A modern commentator might say the Queen was cursed with a bitchy resting face.

SHE NEARLY DIED, AND WITH HER THE MONARCHY


Aged 16, Victoria succumbed to an apparent viral infection, possibly typhoid, and for several days as she lay gravely ill, it appeared her uncle King William’s widely disliked younger brother, Ernest Augustus, might become the heir. He was subject to persistent ugly rumours about his political and personal life, and whenever they do counterfactual exercises, historians are pretty sure his ascendancy would have brought the British monarchy to an end quite quickly.

SHE NEARLY MARRIED AN ORANGE


King William tried to make her marry one of the Princes of Orange, at the same time as her mother tried to set her up with one of her princely Coburg cousins, Ernst. To everyone’s surprise, Victoria eventually defied them both, falling for Ernst’s younger brother, Albert. “So much for the Oranges,” she wrote to her uncle.

SHE DIDN’T KEEP CALM, BUT SHE CARRIED ON


Wilson says accounts of her having had a complete breakdown during the decade after Prince Albert’s death – possibly from the complications of untreated (as unknown) Crohn’s disease – are exaggerated. She withdrew from public life and did at times worry she was literally going mad with grief. But she continued assiduous work in domestic and foreign politics, including advising tactful handling of Germany, and on various causes dear to her, including the advancement of nursing. And she took part in family life. It was just the public appearances she declined.

SHE WAS SMOKE-FREE


Victoria was much given to lecturing on the evils of tobacco. She was also a fresh-air fiend, and visitors complained she kept her rooms jolly cold.

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.