Loneliness in history: the case of Queen Victoria

This post also features on the History Girls blog: http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk

Loneliness is a 21st-century problem; an epidemic of global proportions, linked variously to heart problems, mental health crises and dementia among the old. We are social animals, psychologists say; we are supposed to be around other people. Thanks to social media, cuts to social care and a growth in living alone, however, many of us are alone for vast swathes of time.

There are old people who only see another human being once a month, according to some recent studies, and an unknown multitude too shy, too depressed, too unwell or incapacitated to make meaningful social connections. That's the rub, you see: the connections have to be meaningful. Not in an abstract sense, and to other people, but to us, as individuals.

Loneliness has seldom been explored as a historical problem, but it is one. It's all very well to lament the rise of loneliness in the digital age - one of many themes I explore in my forthcoming book on the subject - but people have been lonely, in one sense or another, in earlier times and cultures. One of the chapters in my book describes the loneliness of widowhood and old age, with one of my case studies being Queen Victoria.

Why was Victoria lonely? There have been many literary and visual adaptations of her life, but few have addressed this problematic question. She was lonely because she lost Albert, the man she relied upon in so many aspects of her life, at a relatively young age. And suddenly.

Victoria and Albert had married young - just 21 and 20 respectively, though Victoria had inherited the throne at 18 years old. Together they had nine children, and became inseparable by all accounts; he developed a reputation for public causes such as educational reform and the abolition of slavery, though he had only the role of consort.

When Albert died, aged only 42, Victoria entered a deep state of mourning, and wore black for the rest of her life. It did not matter that due to her rank and status Victoria was one of the least alone women of her age, or that she was attended by a multitude of servants, family members and hangers-on. She missed that special connection she had enjoyed with Albert, the sense that the two of them were unified in their emotional, political, familial and practical lives. Maybe that's why Mr Brown was so important to her; a man she could confide in about anything at all, a man who didn't only see the queen but also a woman.

There is something very specific about losing a husband, Victoria complained when her daughters later married and moved on with their own lives. Nobody could understand it, until they have experienced it. I would extend that further by acknowledging there is something very particular about losing a partner, a perceived 'soul-mate' especially when one imagined growing old with that person; being able to look back on a life lived when one is old and worn.

Queen Victoria wrote in her journal on 20 June 1884: "The 47th (!!) anniversary of my accession. May God help me, in my ever-increasing loneliness, & anxieties'.

Loneliness cares not for status. And it changes over time, depending on our age, networks, expectations, religious belief and health. Concepts of loneliness have also changed, from the 18th century to the present day. So, too, have perceptions of grief, and an appropriate time to mourn.

 Queen Victoria was the subject of considerable criticism in her day about the length of time she spent in mourning, her choice of black garb, her reluctance to be seen in public. She became known nationally and internationally as a sad and lonely figure, even though she regained some public affection in her later years. The loss she felt over Albert's death, as well as her palpable resentment, anxiety and depression about being abandoned, never ended, though Victoria lived to be 81 years old.

In part, Victoria's critics were right. She didn't move on from Albert's death, which was an understandable and conscious choice. For all intents and purposes, the rituals of the household continued as though Albert had not died: from his clothes being laid out each morning to the marble hand, a cold replica of the real thing, that sat on Victoria's bedside table.

On a regular basis, Victoria would get out all the photographs of Albert; the gifts he had given her, sentimentally recalling memories that made her sad and happy in equal measure. She would visit his mausoleum and statutes and speak of him again and again to anyone who would listen. However painful it might have been, Victoria breathed in his absence every day. And perhaps that had a function; keeping the shadow of loneliness about her was the only way to keep Albert alive.

A Biography of Loneliness will be published by Oxford University Press

 Victoria ( r. 1837-1901)

Victoria ( r. 1837-1901)