To a certain degree, Queen Victoria's reign cannot be compared to any other in British history, except perhaps that of Elizabeth I. Victoria utterly defined her age, not just as a convenient label for a period in time, but as a symbol, an institution, an enduring pillar of British life. It was under Victoria that the enduring bond between the monarch and the people was cemented, when the monarch came not just to head the government and reign over the people, but to serve as an emblem of Britishness, as the very personification of the country.
It was in this period that the concept of the role of monarch as duty rather than privilege came to be accepted, and Victoria's court, under her own and Prince Albert's influence, reflected not the riotous, somewhat degenerate, feckless life of the aristocracy as had been the case under the Georges, but the more stolid, traditional values of the rising middle-classes. It was this increasing bourgeoisie flavour to the court that was partly responsible for the esteem and affection she was held in by her public. Indeed, Victoria was to a very great respect a very middle-class monarch. Her tastes, likes and dislikes, were all quite simple, in fashion, food, affectations, pastimes, habits.
Reading this book, one feels great sympathy for her household, forced to suffer through endless tedious dinner parties, filled with small talk, all controversial topic verboten. Evenings at Victoria's court involved tableaux and games of whist; afternoons involved painting and drives in the country. Victoria avoided London like the plague, and there were few balls, few theatre and opera visits, especially so after Albert's death. Victoria loved the simple life at Balmoral, the direct honesty of her Highland servants.
This was a fascinating read, a real insight into what life as a member of Victoria's household was like. Duty was all, all personal desires and ambitions subsumed into serving one's monarch. Victoria took an endless interest in the lives of her servants and could be immensely thoughtful of their feelings but decided less so of their own desires and comforts, and particularly if she was in any way inconvenienced. She disliked her ladies and gentleman to marry, as this required a certain amount of adjustment in her household. Victoria was very much a creature of routine, to the point of utter tedium for her staff. And with her long reign the longest in British history, many of these poor souls lived out the years of their retirement and old age serving their somewhat childlike monarch through all her whims and fancies, many dying 'in the harness', so to speak. But as Victoria might have retorted, if she had to, so should they.