Was Queen Victoria Victorian?
More like a royal flirt.

"I was very very amused," Queen Victoria wrote many times in her journals. The woman who became Britain's longest-reigning monarch, ruling from 1837 until her death in 1901, was full of passion for life, fascinated by those with colorful pasts and forgiving of moral peccadilloes. But we think of her as a stick in the mud, presiding over a strait-laced, morally hypocritical age.

When she was born in 1819 to Prince Edward, the fourth son of King George III, her father wanted her to receive a name with royal associations, such as Elizabeth. He was sure she would one day become queen. His elder brother, furious at such presumption, decreed that she should be named after her mother, Victoire. When it became evident that the young princess would be queen, the politicians failed to alter her name to something more stately. To everyone who heard it, the name Victoria sounded invented, ridiculous and deeply unsuitable for a Christian queen.

Her contemporaries would have been shocked to know that one day they would be viewed as Victorians and that the silliest name in royal history would come to signify a fervent obsession with moral strictures — and an age when, so the myth goes, the curvaceous legs of pianos were covered up so as not to offend delicate sensibilities.

Victoria had the bad luck to be the first British monarch to be photographed — before people learned how to pose. The dour photos unfairly color our view of her. For most of her reign, which she ended as ruler of a quarter of the world's population, she had more in common with Jane Austen's fun-loving heroines than with a matron of strict rectitude.

The queen arrived on the throne at just 18, full of enthusiasm and verve. She hoped not to marry for some time, for she wanted to enjoy her freedom. When she met her cousin Albert — the son of her mother's brother — in 1836, when she was 17, she was not impressed by him. She resisted her family's attempts to push her into marrying him. Yet, when he visited again three years later, she realized that he had turned into a handsome man and fell in love with him. On one day, she noted in her journal, he wore white trousers with "nothing underneath them." She soon asked him to be her husband. They had a passionate physical relationship — and nine children.

Victoria always loved laughter and jokes, even during her mourning for Albert, who died in 1861 at age 42. It was part of her attraction to her Scottish servant, John Brown, and her Indian servant, Abdul Karim. She adored Brown's gruff sense of humor, and she was fascinated by Karim's tales of India. They ate curry together, she practiced Hindi and Urdu, and he would fan her in a marquee in the garden.

When the queen reached her Golden Jubilee in 1887, the people rejoiced. There were receptions and fireworks in parks across the country. One particularly dramatic firework was a bunch of flowers that exploded into a giant face of Victoria, queen, 200 feet wide and 180 feet high. Unfortunately, when it went off, the firework had a malfunction: One eye was blinking uncontrollably. It looked like as though the queen was throwing out saucy winks to her audience. The firework was an apt tribute to a woman who was always much more vibrant than she let on.


Kate Williams is the author of "Becoming Queen Victoria."