Queen Victoria reigned for over sixty years. At the start of her reign, in 1837, passenger railways were still a novelty, the British Empire was half the size it would eventually become, and Australia was a gaggle of small squabbling settlements clinging insecurely to the coast.
A very different world to that of 1901 when she died.
And over that time fashions changed, attitude changed, life got better for some, worse for others, there were economic depressions, strikes, and even the threat of insurrection from those damn’ Chartists.
But our view, conditioned by years of BBC serialisations of Victorian novels doesn’t reflect this. In our mind women always wear billowing crinolines (in fact many Victorians thought the fashion ridiculous) men wear frock coats (not completely untrue), and even the poor are presentable – none of the half naked boys and girls pulling coal trucks in the mines – and know their place.
And this is for a very simple reason. Most of the novels are mid Victorian novels and written by the middle class for the middle class, and even if the writers had unorthodox home lives, the world portrayed is sensible and proper with none of the messiness of human life.
That mad aunt Agatha was locked away in an asylum in the country to stare mad eyedly at the trees while Uncle George took up with the housemaid is never mentioned, as is Albert who got one of the farm girls pregnant and left for Canada while the scandal was hushed up and the girl paid off. None of this intrudes.
The world is nice and mannered.
I always thought this was little bit pat. J did actually have a great great great uncle Albert who did get one of the farm girls pregnant. Sent to Canada, he continued to have trouble maintaining the decorum required of a Victorian gentleman and had children by at least two indigenous women as well as his ‘proper’ Anglo family.
And when I became fascinated with Madeleine Smith case I discovered a world that was different from what we think is the Victorian period with its primness and prudery, and one that is more real, one in which real life with all is messiness was played out