When I was a little girl women’s roles were still mostly traditional. Few of the women that I knew worked full time outside of the home. My mother was forced into such a situation when she became a widow, otherwise I doubt that she would have been anything other than a homemaker. I had a couple of aunts who were trailblazers in terms of having careers and some of my neighbors were employed in very interesting jobs. One was a commercial artist who wore exotic clothing and furnished her house with ultra modern furniture. Another was a lawyer who sometimes cried when speaking of her inability to have children but seemed to truly enjoy her work. She often invited me over for tea and to play cards or checkers, all the while encouraging me to do something remarkable with my life just as she had. All in all though not many women were yet ready for the feminist revolution that would eventually off like a rocket when I became a teenager.
As a very young child I dreamed of being a princess or a queen. Fairytales had me convinced that women lucky enough to live in castles and bear titles were the most fortunate maidens on the planet. I recall my disappointment the first time that I realized that I was never going to be discovered at a formal ball by a handsome prince. I was not born of noble blood and therefore would always be deemed unworthy of the notice of a monarch. I would lead the life of an ordinary soul without benefit of riches and fame unless I earned such things myself.
I got over my sadness rather quickly and made my own way in the world. I haven’t been showered with wealth but I have had a great life all in all. I have always found time for my favorite hobby which is reading. Biographies have fascinated me for as long as I can remember and among those that I enjoy learning about are women who became queens. For that reason I have been particularly excited about watching Victoria on PBS and The Crown on Netflix. The stories about Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth respectively have been quite fascinating while also convincing me that I am rather lucky not to have to wear their shoes.
Both women spent the majority of their lives locked into responsibilities that were thrust upon them at very young ages. While there were jewels, lovely clothing, expansive gatherings and adventurous trips to keep them entertained, they also had to adhere to rigid traditions and rules that impinged on their freedoms far more than I would ever be willing to endure. They had to be careful of every utterance and action lest they do irreparable harm to the monarchy or the country. They were expected to select their spouses from a very limited field of candidates, most often from a band of royal cousins. They were in the public eye continuously and criticized readily for any perceived missteps. To me the lifestyles that they were forced to accept were akin to living in a cage in a zoo.
Victoria quite unexpectedly ascended to the throne and because she was quite young there were those who felt that their claims to office were far more reasonable than hers, making her first forays into ruling much like walking through a minefield. Nonetheless she did her best to rise to the occasion only to be criticized when she chose to marry her first cousin, Albert, a man of Germanic heritage deemed unworthy of the position. As it happened, Victoria and Albert had quite a love affair and together created a very large family of children whose influence would spread across all of Europe and ultimately lead to a world war. Sadly Victoria was a rather uninvolved but highly critical mother who made life very difficult for her offspring. Albert was the better parent but he died fairly young leaving Victoria in a state of depression that lead to a total breakdown. She would wear her dark widow’s weeds for the rest of her days and for the most part lose interest in both her country and her children. She ultimately became known for her melancholy and nagging nature, hardly the possessor of happiness that I had imagined a queen to be.
Years later on of her descendants, Elizabeth, would be entrusted with the same role that might not have been hers had her uncle Edward not abdicated the throne to marry a twice divorced American woman whom he passionately loved. Elizabeth was barely in her twenties when her father, the king, died from lung cancer. Like Victoria she had also wed a cousin, Phillip, whose lineage was traceable back to the same Victoria from whence she garnered her birthright. She had to learn how to put the crown before all else in her life and as we have all witnessed over the years that role has placed her in difficult situations again and again. Even though she is the monarch she has no say in the politics of her nation and she must be incredibly discreet in both her commentaries and actions.
As the head of the Anglican Church Elizabeth was forced to rule against her sister who wanted to marry a divorced man. The resulting feelings of betrayal and unhappiness that her sibling experienced would blight the two women’s relationship for years to come. A similar scandal played out decades later when Elizabeth’s own children found themselves in unhappy marriages that publicly broke apart. I have often wondered if the idealistic Princess Diana had imagined that her life would be as magical as a fairytale only to find that the reality of royalty is routine, dreary and devoid of the most basic freedoms that the rest of us enjoy. The moment when she felt trapped in a nightmare must have been devastating and her dutifully trained mother-in-law would not have been able to empathize to ease some of her concerns.
The more I learn about being a royal personage, the less I am inclined to want to have anything even remotely resembling such a way of life. I am the one who is fortunate in being able to go wherever I wish without worry that someone is stalking me or judging my every move. The only restrictions on whom I would marry were the qualifications that I had deemed important to a good relationship. I have been able to choose my career pathway and determine how many children to bear. The fact that I had no male heirs matters not at all. I can openly utter my political views and chart my daily course. If I want to disappear for a day or a week, I am free to do so. My anonymity is a grand gift that allows me to be myself.
If I were to rewrite fairytales for modern girls, I would create heroines who spurn the trappings of a princess in lieu of liberty. Snow White would divide the household duties among each of the dwarfs and go to work with them as the forewoman of the mine. Cinderella would create a professional chimney cleaning service with offices worldwide and a reputation for paying her employees well above the minimum wage. Beauty would write a best selling book and marry the Beast as an equal partner. None of these brilliant women would have the goal of becoming a monarch or a regent. They would understand the pitfalls of being trapped in such occupations and create lives of their own.
I put my girlish beliefs away long ago. I no longer envy the lifestyles of royal personages who must become figureheads for a nation. I believe that I have found far greater satisfaction and meaning in the humble life that I have lived. I suspect that there have been times when those who must endure the titles of monarchies may agree with me.