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Just Like Us: Victoria, Albert and the middle-class family

2019 December 3
by Elly McCausland

Part 1: Christmas past and present

 

David Tomkins is a curator and project manager at the Bodleian Library, including on the ‘Queen Victoria’s Journals‘ project, which reproduces high-resolution, colour images of every page of the surviving volumes of Queen Victoria’s journals, from her first diary entry in 1832 to shortly before her death in 1901. In this, the first of a series of four articles, ‘Just Like Us’, David explores how Victoria’s journals showcase her would-be-middle-class identity.

They say no Sovereign was more loved than I am (I am bold enough to say), and that, from our happy domestic home—which gives such a good example’ [1]

Queen Victoria, letter to her uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, 29 October 1844

During more than two decades of marriage, Victoria and Albert were to cultivate a family persona which in many ways reflected that of the mid-nineteenth-century middle class, combining the Queen’s state and ceremonial duties with a family construct that would be familiar to many of her subjects. By establishing themselves as the archetype for the nineteenth-century family – she as sovereign but also as wife and mother, and he as head of the household – the royal couple would appeal to, and identify with, a social class which recent electoral reform had endowed with political influence through increased enfranchisement. [2] Reference to primary sources such as Victoria’s extensive journals, helps to clarify and elucidate the means by which Victoria and Albert positioned themselves in the public consciousness, both through the way they were represented in various forms of visual media and in the domestic spaces they chose to inhabit. [3]

Discussion of Victoria and Albert’s domestic life as reflecting middle-class normalcy in the nineteenth century might well begin with the celebration of Christmas, a season which to the present day retains strong traditional associations with the Victorian era. Bedecking houses and churches with ‘Holm, Ivie, Bays, and whatsoever the Season of the Year afforded to be Green’ at Christmas was a tradition in England dating at least from Tudor times, when John Stow described the custom in his Survey of London, but it was to take another two centuries before the decoration of actual trees was introduced, and a further half-century or so before it became the norm. [4] Queen Charlotte is generally credited with importing from northern Germany the tradition of tree decoration as a festive focal point for the royal household in the early nineteenth century, where its place seems to have been secure during Queen Victoria’s early years. [5] In the first year of writing her journal, her entry for Christmas Eve 1832 records ‘two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the tree. I had one table for myself and the Conroy family had the other together.’ [6] At this time, few other thirteen-year-olds across the country would have enjoyed such an experience, the practice remaining largely confined to the upper echelons of society. Yet by the time Victoria reports the same event eighteen years later, this time both as a wife and mother and as Queen (and therefore at Windsor rather than Kensington) – ‘At a little after 6 we all assembled & my beloved Albert [fi]rst took me to my tree & table, covered by such numberless gifts, really too much, too magnificent’ – the custom had become considerably more widespread, at least amongst the country’s middle class. [7] This was largely thanks to the royal couple themselves, and to Albert in particular.

By the middle of the twentieth century, the narrative that it was Albert who instituted the decorating of trees as a customary Christmas convention seems to have been firmly established. Writing in the Illustrated London News in 1958, William J. Forbes asserted that

‘… there is no doubt that the custom became popular only when Prince Albert brought the Christmas tree to Windsor in 1841… Emulating the enthusiasm of the Royal family, people of all classes quickly adopted the tree which Dickens, for all his zeal for Christmas, scorned as “the new German toy”’, and that the ‘bright, sparkling tree which gave the Royal family so much joy had conquered Britain.’ [8]

The centrepiece of Forbes’ article was a reproduction of an engraving by J.L. Williams that had appeared in the same periodical a century before, depicting the royal family gathered around an ornately decorated tree. The stylized informality of the grouping does not give centre stage to the sovereign, however; rather it is Albert who seems to take precedence, standing tall to the right of the tree, half-turned toward the viewer and glancing benignly down at his children, while Victoria stands in profile to the left, almost as if in attendance, sharing pictorial space with the children’s governess. The scene firmly suggests that it is Albert who is head of the family, a dynamic that would be familiar to the journal’s largely middle-class readership, and especially to those of similar age bringing up young families of their own. Indeed, such imagery was to play an important part in the way the royal couple positioned themselves in the nation’s collective consciousness as being ‘just like us’.

Notes & references:

[1] Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria in her Letters and Journals (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2000), p. 73.

[2] <https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/evolutionofparliament/houseofcommons/reformacts/overview/reformact1832/> [accessed 25 October 2018].  See also Dror Wahrman, ‘”Middle-Class” Domesticity Goes Public: Gender, Class, and Politics from Queen Caroline to Queen Victoria.’, Journal of British Studies, 32.4, (1993), pp. 396–432, <www.jstor.org/stable/176030> [accessed 25 October 2018] for discussion of how the concept of the ‘middle class’ might be construed pre- and post-1832.

[3] <http://www.queenvictoriasjournals.org/> [accessed 26 October 2018].

[4] Strype, Survey of London (1720), [online] (hriOnline, Sheffield). Book 1, Chapter 29: Ancient Customs for Trade and Merchandise, page 252, paragraph 15, <https://www.dhi.ac.uk/strype/TransformServlet?page=book1_252&display=normal> [accessed 29 June 2018]. A frequency visualisation shows that the term “Christmas tree” rarely appears in British Library Newspapers [online] until the mid-nineteenth century but rises dramatically thereafter, reaching its peak in 1881 when it appeared in 648 documents. <http://gdc.galegroup.com/gdc/artemis/?p=GDCS&u=oxford> [accessed 25 October 2018]

[5] ‘Christmas tree’, Wikipedia (17 July 2018) <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_tree> [accessed 31 July 2018].

[6] RA VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W) 24 December 1832 (Queen Victoria’s handwriting) <http://www.queenvictoriasjournals.org> [accessed 21 June 2018].

[7] RA VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W) 24 December 1850 (Princess Beatrice’s copies) <http://www.queenvictoriasjournals.org> [accessed 21 June 2018]. See also the watercolour by James Roberts (ca. 1800-1867), The Queen’s Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle (1850) (RCIN 919812), in Pam Clark (et al), Treasures from The Royal Archives (London: Royal Collection Trust, 2014), p. 228, and at <https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/search#/1/collection/919812/the-queens-christmas-tree-at-windsor-castle-1850> Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018 [accessed 1 August 2018].

[8] William J. Forbes, ‘The Story of Christmas Trees.’, Illustrated London News, 14 November 1958, p. 9, in The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, <http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6b9r80> [accessed 30 May 2018].

 

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