Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Myths and Facts: Queen Victoria Never Smiled

“Queen Victoria was not amused. Ever.” Just look at this picture above. Permanently grim-faced, right?  It is an assumption so pervasive that it has its own question tag on Google: ‘Did Queen Victoria ever smile”. The genesis for this belief was probably the famous saying attributed to her, ‘We are not amused’, and the myth grew inflated by the many photographs taken throughout her life where she almost always looked somber, if not staring icily in the distance. I have heard it said over the years that she never smiled because she was in constant mourning for Prince Albert, or she was too regal and grand, or too grumpy, too puritan, or even constipated.

In fact, the idea that Queen Victoria never smiled is, as its implausibility implies, just a myth. And the ‘We are not amused’ anecdote is probably also just a myth since Victoria herself assured her granddaughter, Princess Alice of Athlone, she had never said it. The story of a smile-less Victoria gained traction over the years because of her dour-looking photographs, but there is one thing to consider regarding her countenance. Take a look at these photos below of famous contemporaries of Queen Victoria:  

Famous 19th century people pulling classic 19th century long faces.
Clockwise from top left: Alfred Lord Tennyson, Benjamin Disraeli,
Florence Nightingale, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin.

It’s a pretty miserable-looking bunch of people, but at the same time pretty typical of 19th century photographic fashion. The main reason Victoria never smiled in her photos was because seriousness before the camera was de rigueur in the 19th century (also called the age of frowning). It was caused by fashion, and also by the fact that early daguerreotypes and photos took up to 60 seconds to capture exposure: many people just didn’t want to keep up a smile that long. However, when circumstances allowed it, Queen Victoria did smile long enough for the camera to capture it, as the lovely picture below shows:

Everyone’s favorite grandmother (in the 1880s).

Victoria was actually reported to have had a lovely smile. Marie Mallet, one of her ladies in waiting, wrote many letters from court reporting on the Queen’s laughter: “…she was immensely amused and roared with laughter, her own face changing and lighting up in a wonderful way…”; “…the Queen laughed more than ever…”; “…she was very funny at the evening concert…in excellent spirits and full of jokes…”. Once, when Marie brought her little son to court Victoria “laughed till she cried” when the young boy went up to her obsequiously to bow and kiss her hand, and then pulled out a little toy pig and said “Look at this pig! I have brought it all the way from London to see you!”

She also enjoyed a good bawdy joke—if it was non-intentional of course. Once at a dinner she was sitting next to a rather deaf admiral who was droning on about a salvage operation on a ship recently rescued off Portsmouth. After a string of boring details the Queen tried to change the conversation and asked the Admiral “How is your sister?” The deaf admiral misheard the question and continued on the previous topic saying “Well, Ma’am, I am going to turn her over, take a good look of her bottom and have her scraped for barnacles.” While everyone at the table fell into horrified silence, the Queen sank her head into her hankerchief and shook with laughter while tears rolled down her face.

A rare photograph showing a smiling Victoria enjoying the company of her daughter Beatrice (standing) her granddaughter Victoria of Hesse (sitting) and her great-granddaughter Princess Alice (Prince Philip’s mother).
Off camera, the Queen could be quite jolly.
The wife of a French ambassador once remarked that “I never saw a smile make so much difference to a face. Hers is quite beautiful and lights up her whole face.” The wide British public eventually caught a glimpse of this transformation when a photographer captured Victoria smiling during her Golden Jubilee celebrations, as the Queen rode in her carriage among the people. The picture was widely circulated and became so popular that a special edition postcard was printed bearing the words, “Her Majesty’s Gracious Smile”.

Before TV and movies, postcards like this brought the sovereign’s face
to the masses.

So obviously, Queen Victoria did smile. And was amused. She just did not walk around like a smiling doofus all the time. And who can blame her? After all, wasn't that the Prince of Wales’ job?

You can read more of Victoria's amusing stories in Alan Hardy's book "Queen Victoria Was Amused", available as used via Amazon. Alternatively, there are many amusing stories in Christopher Hibbert's excellent biography "Queen Victoria: A Personal History".    

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