May 18, 2020 - by Robert Carter
Canadians are celebrating the unofficial start of summer with the May long weekend, a.k.a “May Two-Four,” a.k.a. Victoria Day – an official holiday that marks the birthday of Queen Victoria on May 24 (or the Monday preceding that date). While created to honour Victoria, it now celebrates all ruling British monarchs over the Commonwealth, even if our knowledge of the royals comes more from tabloids than political proceedings.
But Canadians are still curious as ever about the royal family, even if we don’t have the most realistic view of them. ExpertFile talked to royal historian and author Carolyn Harris to find out more about who Queen Victoria was, where our obsession with royals comes from, and what myths she wishes would disappear.
ExpertFile: What are the most common questions you receive from the press about the royal family?
Carolyn Harris: In 2020, of course, there was a lot of interest in January and February in Harry and Meghan and their decision to step back from their duties as senior members of the royal family. There were questions about which other members of the royal family have done this and what their experiences have been. Certain questions come up again and again about historical precedents whenever a new royal baby arrives. I’ve been asked about the history of the ceremony surrounding the arrival of royal babies so often it inspired my book Raising Royalty: 1000 Years in Royal Parenting. Several questions constantly recur regarding birth rituals, the education of royal children, which names will be chosen, how much time do royal parents spend with their children over time, and so on. Media interest rises with major milestones within the royal family, whether it’s coronation jubilees, weddings, births, or deaths.
ExpertFile: Where do you think this interest comes from?
CH: Royals are born into the public eye and grow up in the public eye, so the public has a sense of feeling as though they know them. And that came out when Harry and Meghan stepped away from royal duties. I provided expert commentary for some call-in shows, and it was interesting that people calling in to these radio shows were speaking about Harry as though this was someone they knew, that this was a family friend or someone they’d watched grow up. And they had quite strong opinions on how Harry and Meghan should proceed going forward.
ExpertFile: What are the most common misconceptions about the royal family you’d like to set straight?
CH: My specialty is royal history, so I’m always interested in placing things in historical context. One of the ideas that I push back against often is that particular circumstances are unprecedented.
For example, there’s a perception that the tabloid press has only become an issue in recent decades when, in fact, if we look at 19th Century royal history, we see examples of royalty having to deal with the the challenges of press critiques and how they were perceived in editorial cartoons and broadsheets that were increasingly available to the public. Certainly, Queen Victoria and Albert had some conflict when personal family portraits were leaked to the press. And Victoria and Albert emphasized that they were a respectable couple of nine children who epitomized the values of what became known as the Victorian era; they were very conscious of their image. Queen Victoria closely followed how she was perceived by press coverage, which was also very critical of her for going into seclusion after Prince Albert’s death.
ExpertFile: There’s a rumour that Victoria married her butler, is there any truth to that?
CH: Victoria made very clear that she was against second marriages. But by our standards, she was fairly young, around 40, when she was widowed. So she dealt with a lot of speculation about her remarrying. And with that is the fact that she came to rely heavily on her Highland servant John Brown. He clearly became a strong emotional support for her and spoke to her in a very informal way, “Woman, get on your horse.” And he didn’t have a lot of patience for her view that she could do very little now that she was in mourning. Towards the end of her life, she formed a very strong friendship with another one of her servants, Abdul Karim. Her children were quite hostile to both John Brown and Abdul Karim and they felt that these figures had more influence over their mother than they did, so of course, when Edward VII came to the throne, he was eager to simply get rid of any papers relating to John Brown or Abdul Karim.
ExpertFile: Where do these false ideas about royals come from?
CH: A certain topic idea can appear to be factual when it in fact has just been repeated over and over again in popular culture. With The Crown on Netflix for example, some people immediately start Googling to know if it’s accurate or not, but there are others who simply watch it and enjoy it. And there can be a distortion in terms of which stories are dominating the news cycle. To look at Prince Charles in the 1990s, a lot of the press coverage of him related to the breakdown of his marriage to Diana and his relationship with Camilla. It’s only been in recent years that we see a lot more press coverage of his charitable work. Looking at Prince Harry, there was a time that he was only covered as the “party prince.” All of these figures have many more interests and philanthropic initiatives, but often there are particular aspects of their lives that capture the popular imagination