Great Lovers

Abelard and Heloise. Antony and Cleopatra. Tristan and Iseult. Cyrano and Roxane.

Victoria and Albert. Wait… am I the only one who heard that screeching brakes sound of a needle scratching on a record?

Whether historical or fictional, lists of the great lovers of our world don't include Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. I certainly wouldn't have not been and I’ve been wondering about why that is. Today is Victoria Day here in Canada, so I’m going to wonder out loud.

As may be glaringly obvious, I've just watched The Young Victoria, a movie about her life just prior to becoming queen and ending shortly after her marriage to Albert - a very good movie with wonderful costume and set design. Not only is it a story about the politics of the age, of the stumbles and missteps she made while trying to discover how to be Queen, it is also the story of two people meant to be together, not by Fate in a romantic sense, but by the machinations of family members who had a long-term plan to grasp more power by arranging a marriage between Albert and Victoria. And then, unexpectedly, the two fell in love. Mad, passionate, lasting love, finding the perfect partner in each other and together, escaping out from under those family members who tried to control them.

When we think of Queen Victoria, we think of the old Queen, the dumpy, elderly and likely quite cranky woman. We don't think of a young woman, bursting with enthusiasm, a desire for independence and, it appears, joy. Well, the joy seemed to come when Albert came into her life and once they were married, they lived in connubial bliss for 20 years, having 9 children. And it was clear that they had a mutual passion for each other - Albert would watch her six (!) ladies undress her every night, transfixed by the beauty of her white shoulders. and in him, she found someone with whom she could be a woman first, have a family life, someone to be her partner. I've never before thought of how valuable that could be.

I've been reading some of her letters and discovered that at the time, when engaging in correspondence with the Queen, politicians (and the like) would refer to themselves in her in the third person, as would she. What would it do to a person to have to separate/elevate yourself to that extent and that thoroughly? She could use first person when writing for family, but there weren't very many with whom she could be herself in her immediate environment. Can you imagine the loneliness? And can you imagine the blessed relief of being with someone with whom you can be completely yourself, someone who will speak to you as an equal, someone who will look at you with love? Everyone around her wanted something, constantly positioning themselves in such a way that they could try to get what they wanted, but Albert just wanted to be with her. Just look at them - they look lost in each other.

And it was when I thought of it this way that I realized the depth of grief she must have felt after he died. Not only did she lose the love of her life, but she lost the one person with whom she would be herself. As she wrote in a letter to the King of the Belgium on December 20, 1861

" But oh! to be cut off in the prime of life—to see our pure, happy, quiet, domestic life, which alone enabled me to bear my much disliked position, cut off at forty-two—when I had hoped with such instinctive certainty that God never would part us, and would let us grow old together."

She grieved him for the next 40 years, laying out his clothes every night, wearing only black and naming untold buildings after him, as if it would somehow keep the connection between them alive. I cannot imagine what it must've been like to be her, for the next 40 years to never be less than Queen and - perhaps with the exception of the time she spent with John Brown - never again allowed to be just a woman.

So why are Victoria and Albert not on the lists of great lovers? Is it because our image of Queen Victoria tends to be of the older woman, dumpy and plain by our estimation (I think she in middle age and up was more what they used to call 'a handsome woman')? I looked up images from her youth and she was quite the hottie (see also here). Is it that we judge her grief – 4 decades long – to be excessive and therefore ridiculous? Is it simply that not enough time has passed and that in another century or two, their love story and her pining for him for the rest of her long life will become the stuff of fairy tales and they will take their rightful place in the list of great lovers?

What do you think?