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What made Victoria laugh?

By Willa Beall / May 18, 1987



LIKE a cocklebur attached to a trouser, certain sayings or anecdotes are inextricably a part of certain well-known persons. Trying to separate the two, though, is much more than arduous; it is futile. We can be told, as we have been, over and over, that ``I cannot tell a lie; I did it with my little hatchet'' never issued from the mouth of George Washington. Cherry trees and you-know-whats in red, white, and blue wrappings will continue to be on candy counters every February of every year.

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There is another category of saying inseparable from the sayer - the bona fide. One hundred and fifty years ago when Victoria came to the throne she was 18 years old, but the image symbolic of her name is of a tiny, plump, elderly woman. As much a part of Queen Victoria's portrait as her widow's cap is her ``we are not amused'' pronouncement. Queen and quote are forever fused. In this case, though, the attribution is a matter of fact. Victoria said it.

Why she said it and why she unchar-acteristically used the royal ``we'' is explained in Alan Hardy's delightfully anecdotal book ``Queen Victoria Was Amused.'' Prince Charles, in praising it, speaks of ``the Queen's glorious sense of humour - and of the ridiculous - that Mr. Hardy reveals with the greatest effect and which gives the reader such unbounded pleasure.'' Read it; see for yourself.

There is a rare smiling photo of Victoria, taken in 1898. Why rare? As Marina Warner points out in ``Queen Victoria's Sketchbook,'' photographs of the 19th century had to be exposed too long to capture a smile. Off film the smile was there, the amusement abiding. ``If any fault could be found it might be that she laughs a little too much,'' Lady Salisbury said of the young Queen. ``Her laugh is particularly delightful,'' commented the American minister's wife, ``it is so full of girlish glee and gladness.''

At a later date: ``They are so easily amused,'' said Eleanor Stanley, lady-in-waiting, about both Victoria and Albert. The characteristic remained with the Queen throughout her life. At her ``Ladies' Dinners,'' where there was more informality than usual, the Queen, Lady Ponsonby reported, would be amused ``almost beyond endurance till she was simply breathless and could bear no more.''

Rather than the ``we are not amused'' tag that has been attached to Victoria, ``amused by everything'' would be more apropos. A partial list of things cited by Hardy: dancing (throughout her long life), Ascot, children, a lecture on physics, the opera, her voice teacher, the theater, jokes. Lord Melbourne delighted, as did her Coburg cousins, riddles, charades, cards, stories with unexpected endings, Lord Macaulay, her children's remarks, misadventures on ceremonial occasions, Irish jigs, visits abroad, Disraeli.

She enjoyed ``God Save the Queen'' played as a polka, John Brown's forthrightness, inviting to court politicians who were at loggerheads with one another so that she could watch their reactions, dear Albert, Arthur Balfour's fibbing, Tennyson's bluntness, the Com'edie Fran,caise, circuses, barrel-organ monkeys, Carlyle's remark on her accession, a tract on temperance being given to a lord who needed it, inadvertently comic remarks by foreigners whose English was imperfect, faux pas, the Battle of Flowers at Grasse, Neapolitan strolling singers and guitar players.

She loved being incognito and being mistaken for someone else, a happening not uncommon, for her apparel was ordinary and her manner could be.

When she first visited Louis Philippe and was strolling the deck in her black gown and bonnet, she was given by a Frenchwoman a parcel of cookies which had been sent over to the Royal Yacht after Victoria had praised the delicacy. ``Take this, they are cakes for the Queen. Take care of them. Now mind, don't fail to give them her.'' She was once greeted by old Lord Portarlington with ``I know your face quite well, but I cannot put a name to it.''

And yes, Hardy says, she was so inclined to laugh that she sometimes found it an embarrassment. Sometimes at church. A plea in Crathie Church that the Almighty ``send down His wisdom on the Queen's Meenisters who sorely need it'' almost made Victoria choke. The gibe at Gladstone echoed her own sentiments. But she was just as convulsed when, once more at Crathie, a minister prayed for her at length, ending with the wish that ``she may skip like a he-goat upon the mountains.''

Victoria was still laughing in her latest years. ``Her wonderful laugh'' (a grandson); ``Grandmama laughed till she was red in the face'' (young Vicky of Prussia); ``The Queen laughed till she cried'' (Sir Victor Mallet). And the laugh? ``A very delightful laugh, a sort of gurgle of pleasure'' (Archbishop Lang). ``I was Very Much Amused Indeed,'' so said the Queen herself, over and over and over again.

Long ago, when I read nine volumes of Queen Victoria's letters, I marveled at the irony of connecting the writer with the stuffy image, now largely debunked, of her age. I was astonished that the printers of England had enough capitals and italics to set up the type and though her fervency has been much ridiculed there is something endearing about such enthusiasm and involvement. She really did see life and people in italics. But on one occasion she used four words. They are welded to her.

Alan Hardy explains that she spoke in quick-thinking reaction to end a situation. Young ladies in her care must be protected from indelicacies. Even on that occasion, though she said ``we are not amused,'' at least she, Victoria, no doubt was. She said it, but she probably fibbed.