Skip to main content...

Chapter 6

The Second Victorian Era

The reign of Queen Victoria (1837−1901) is considered by many to be one of the finest periods in British history. The “Victorian Era,” as it came to be called, marked the height of Britain’s power and influence on the world stage. The British navy ruled the seas and British colonies covered so much of the earth that it was said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.”

As England’s longest-ruling monarch, she reigned during a period of world history that covered everything from the invention of the first pedaled bicycle (1839), through the invention of the automobile (1885), to the Wright brothers’ first Wright Glider (1900).

Mark Twain, attending the queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, said, “British history is two thousand years old, and yet in a good many ways the world has moved farther ahead since the Queen was born than it moved in all the rest of the two thousand put together.”

And like all periods of great change, the Victorian Era was a time of stark contrasts. With one foot in the Old World and one in the Industrial Revolution, you had bucolic agricultural landscapes on the one hand and filthy industrial inner cities on the other. You had the rise of scientific reason on the one hand and the rise of evangelical religion on the other.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was written during this period since balancing these contrasting and sometimes contradictory philosophies and aesthetics was one of the defining characteristics of the Victorian Era. People often found themselves having to balance logic and reason on the one hand and a love of sentimentality on the other. Or having to balance a sense of frugality and simplicity on the one hand and a love of excessive ornamentation on the other.

While the modern-day Princess Victoria shared a name with the former monarch, there were very few people who believed that life under her rule would require that same sort of personal rigor. In fact, the general consensus was that if Princess Victoria ever assumed the throne (and that was a very big “if”), the only thing you’d need to balance during the second Victorian Era would be a Prada bag in one hand and a cocktail glass in the other.

This public cynicism regarding the youngest member of the Royal Family was a relatively new development. In fact, her parents’ romance and marriage had marked a time of great optimism in Britain. After decades of recession, labor unrest, and political gridlock, the announcement of the royal wedding had been a shot in the arm that seemed to revitalize the entire country. Her father, the serious and dutiful civil servant, and her mother, the bright and vivacious society girl, were an unlikely but compelling match, and when Victoria was born a year and a half later, the picture of the happy family seemed complete.

But by the time Victoria turned six years old, the picture had changed. Rumors of her parents’ marital troubles had filled the gossip columns for almost a year and even the respectable newspapers were finding it hard to ignore the fact that the Prince and Princess hadn’t appeared together in public in over six months. When they finally did appear together, at the funeral of a former Prime Minister, it was obvious that something was wrong.

As the the Prince, the Princess, and their daughter came out of cathedral, they paused at the top of the steps, and a newspaper photographer snapped an iconic photo that seemed to say it all. It showed Princess Victoria’s parents standing about three feet apart, both looking quite uncomfortable and avoiding each others’ gaze. Victoria stood between them, her brow furrowed, looking at the ground. They were not a family anymore. They were three individuals who just happened to share proximity and genes.

Within a week, the Palace announced that the Prince and Princess had separated:

“It is announced that, with regret, the Prince and Princess have decided to separate. Their Royal Highnesses have no plans to divorce and their constitutional positions are unaffected. This decision has been reached amicably, and they will both continue to participate fully in the upbringing of their daughter.

Six months later, their divorce was announced in similarly antiseptic bureaucratic terms.

Immediately after the divorce, Princess Victoria didn’t appear in the public eye very often. She attended an elite boarding school and was trotted out a few times a year at press events where she would stand (with furrowed brow and unfriendly eyes) beside her sparkling and engaging mother and respond to questions from the press with monosyllabic answers.

These orchestrated press events were the result of a gentlemen’s agreement between the Royal Family and the tabloid press. The tabloids left Victoria alone during the school year and in return they were invited to official photo opportunities during school holidays and family vacations. This allowed Victoria to attend school in relative privacy…until the summer she turned fourteen when she was photographed vomiting into a bush after a night of underage binge drinking at a friend’s birthday party.

The shocking photo, accompanied by the unfortunate headline, “PRINCESS VOMITORIA,” sold a record-breaking number of newspapers, launched hundreds of websites (whose domain names highlighted just how many synonyms there are for the word “vomit”), and signaled the end of any sort of restraint on the part of the tabloids. The previous gentlemen’s agreement was replaced by a new one: The paparazzi hounded Princess Victoria everywhere she went and in return she had ample opportunity to practice her impressive repertoire of rude hand gestures.

With her every move being documented, even minor changes in the Princess’ appearance and behavior became “news.” Much to the delight of clothing retailers, she seemed to completely redefine her personal style every four to six months. (Notable recent examples included a leather-pantsed punk phase, the aforementioned surly, goth flapper phase, a Eurotrash arm candy phase, and a vegan hipster phase.)

The only constants in her appearance seemed to be her trademark scowl and a pair of lips that had, on more than one occasion, evoked comparisons to Shakespeare’s 145th sonnet, which begins, “Those lips that Love’s own hand did make…”

The scowl was normally reserved for the press, but since the Princess seemed to change boyfriends almost as often as she changed outfits, the lips apparently enjoyed a wider audience. In the last year alone, she’d been photographed kissing an American teen pop star, the son of the Prince of Monaco, the heir to a mobile telecommunications fortune, the star of a popular episodic television program, the lead singer of a post-punk rock band, the drummer from a different post-punk rock band, and, in an impressive display of completism, each and every member of a rival school’s crew team.

Unfortunately, there was a certain segment of the British public (often referred to in news reports as “the majority” or “everyone”) who felt that a mercurial fashion sense, an ADD-ish romantic life, and a few dozen well-documented youthful indiscretions were not appropriate résumé material for a future queen. They felt that Princess Victoria’s temperament and skills were better suited to a future in pop music. Or rehab.

But it was hard for them to get too worked up about a future scenario that was starting to seem unlikely at best. It was obvious that the Queen had no interest in handing the job off to her son, and as news items about her granddaughter became standard fare in all the wrong sections of the newspaper, it looked like she was out of possible heirs. Bookmakers currently had the odds of a Queen Victoria II at 60 to 1 against, and with everyone talking about a “post-monarchy Britain,” most anti-monarchists had started looking for new hobbies.

Granted, there were still a few aesthetes and romantics who held out hope for a second Victorian Era, but with the Princess showing absolutely no interest whatsoever in taking over the family business, they might be faced with the unenviable task of trying to pull off a second Victorian Era without a second Victoria.