U.K. Celebrates Two Queens;
the World Respectfully Yawns
For many British citizens, Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee is a reason to be jolly, as their monarch completes 60 years as a mainly relic of the U.K.’s gilded past. But while the English don’t mind being called ‘subjects’ of a fading empire, the rest of the world is unmoved. In the U.S., which since its independence has completely upstaged its former lords, the anniversary is a moot point.
Elizabeth Regina took the opportunity to mark another Jubilee, that of Alexandrina Victoria, by posting her last female predecessor’s diaries online. It’s hours of minutia of interest mostly to historian and Anglophiles, and pretty much almost no one else, about the inside-palace goings of life in the 1800s, which the queen was, even if unwittingly, a dominant figure.
Which is not to say that the U.K. for what it represents to the world has become irrelevant. Not yet, anyway. The cradle of a language that’s still vibrant enough to be considered a universal tongue, this tiny island had indeed an oversize role in shaping the world as it came to be, and no other empire since the Romans was as powerful.
It thrived through the Dark and Middle Ages, and wound up dominating the seas during the Discovery Era, defeating all the great fleets of the time, including the Spanish Armada. At the dawn of the 20th century, Great Britain was still controlling a fifth of the world’s population, with the equivalent power to boot.
Before that, Queen Victoria presided over a period of material prosperity and population explosion throughout the empire, although the times are better encapsulated by the grim social tales of Charles Dickens. They mostly portray a reality of great hardship for the poor, who unlike the aristocracy, took years before heaping any benefits from the Industrial Revolution.
In fact, despite the great technological advances of the 19th century, with its machines and the promise of future of full-time leisure and enlightenment to everyone, London during Victorian times looked very much like it did two hundred years before, except with even more pollution and soot, squalor conditions in the streets and entire generations of starving families enslaved by the system.
While life in the castles was of refining taste and sophistication, it took the great and violent social movements of the late 1800s to force the upper classes to start acknowledging what was going on in the extremely unjust and dangerous world outside their windows. One would learn very little about that reality by reading Victoria’s secrets, though.
AN INSULATED LIFE
Most of the content of the 43-thousand page diaries now made available report the queen’s personal affairs, ‘thoughts, sorrows, dreams, doubts, opinions, gossip and passions,’ as The Guardian put it, with the occasional political commentary about faraway victories and defeats of the British Army in their wars of conquest.
Through it all, Victoria’s biggest heartbreak is her personal grief over the death of her husband, Albert, and it’s curious how a prestigious and almost as old newspaper such as the Guardian, tracks her irony-free recollections as if they were somehow relevant to what the country was going through at that time. But alas, the same still happens today with Elizabeth II and her own Jubilee.
Victoria digresses in profuse detail about events of her life, such as her coronation and last diamond jubilee, ‘a never to be forgotten day,’ in June of 1897, four years before her death. Since we haven’t poured over the trove of domestic bliss of a long gone monarch, we’re no position to say whether there’s any reference to the big social transformations going on at the time.
But an educated assumption would be that no, or very little. Her imprint on popular culture ended up being synonymous with conservatism, prudery and even hypocrisy; contrasting to the extreme poverty of urban life during her rule, the arts of decoration and architecture reached a feverish pitch of ornate detail and ostentatious luxury.
THE KINGDOM’S SUNSET
Victoria’s rule corresponded to arguably the last time the U.K. matched its storied past to its ability to sway and dominate geopolitics. Her death triggered a slow, painful process of decadence and unraveling of the empire’s former glory, with nations that had been under its thumb for centuries fighting and ultimately earning their own independence.
Even among Anglophiles, Victoria is considered minor compared to the two Elizabeths, who bracket England’s greatest years on top of the world. In that particular, the current one has shown remarkable staying power, even when all else falls apart around her, and despite the fact that, apart from having accumulated great personal wealth, charisma doesn’t seem to be among her weapons either.