When Elizabeth II ascended the throne on the death of her father, George VI, in February 1952, probably no one imagined her Diamond Jubilee would coincide with the Bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth, perhaps because no one realised she would reach her Diamond Jubilee. After all, only one British monarch had done so before, Queen Victoria, who had hers in 1897, and though she was an ancestor of the new Queen, was suitably distant, being her great-great-grand-mother.
Another thing that Victoria and Elizabeth share was that they ascended the British throne young, and lived to a great age. Victoria was 18 when she became Queen, and lived to 82. Elizabeth has already exceeded that, becoming Queen when she was 26, and thus being 86 at her Diamond Jubilee. Victoria had marriage ahead when she became Queen, and was already a widow by the time of her Diamond Jubilee. Not only was Elizabeth already married and a mother when she became Queen, but she has her husband by her side, the erstwhile Lieutenant Phillip Mountbatten, then the Duke of Edinburgh, also one of Queen Victoria’s descendants. Though a Greek Prince, he was about as German as Elizabeth’s family. A 16th century marriage of a Scottish princess to a German prince had meant that the Electors of Hanover had inherited the British throne in 1714, and the tradition was maintained of marrying off the children to German princes and princesses. Thus, Victoria’s grandfather was not only purely German, though born in England and looking upon himself as English, but so was his wife an import. So was Victoria’s mother. Victoria’s own husband, Albert, was a German, and when the House of Hanover died out in the male line with Victoria, the new dynastic name was Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. This was changed to Windsor with World War I against Germany. The House of Windsor will die with the present Queen and be replaced by the House of Mountbatten-Windsor. Anyhow, that still remains in the future, and apart from the care that is given to the Royal family, there is the example of her mother to consider. Victoria had brought in a Danish princess for her ‘Bertie’, the future Edward VII, who had in turn brought in a German princess, Mary of Teck for him who was to become George V. His eldest son, to become Edward VIII, abdicated to marry a divorcee, and Elizabeth’s father, the Duke of York, became George VI after marrying the daughter of a Scottish Earl. That spirit of adventure seems to have ended when Elizabeth, then the Heir Apparent, married Phillip in July 1947, a return to German blood. However, their son Charles married the very English Lady Diana Spencer, and only last year, their son, Prince William, married another Englishwoman. Charles has emphasised his unsuitability by marrying the divorced Camilla Parker Bowles, who now bears the title Duchess of Cornwall, not Princess of Wales, and will not become Queen when Elizabeth dies.
Elizabeth’s father died of lung cancer brought on by a smoking habit, her younger sister Margaret is already dead, at 70, in 2010, after a lifelong battle with the bottle. Elizabeth has been free of both these vices, and thus has been able to maintain a good health that makes it likely that she will emulate her mother, who lived to be 100, but also break Victoria’s record for the longest reign by a British monarch.
However, that is not the limit of her resemblance to Queen Victoria. Elizabeth I granted the East India Company its charter, but it was Victoria who, in 1877, long after the 1857 Mutiny, but because of it, became the Empress of India, the jewel in her crown which she never visited. Elizabeth did visit India, as well as Pakistan, but was also the first British monarch since Victoria not to have been Empress of India, though she did inherit the ultimate headship of state of Pakistan when she became its Queen. Though dominions were perfectly independent, their Prime Ministers did advise the appointment of a Governor General, who was practically independent, but who was the monarch’s personal representative. India and Pakistan were so memorable for Elizabeth because her wedding came just a month before their independence, with the relevant legislation coming then. One result has been that there is no Elizabethan figure to compare with Rudyard Kipling, who was only 32 at the time of Victoria’s Jubilee, for whom he wrote that imperialist hymn, The Soldiers of the Queen. Kipling, whose connection with the Empire was mainly a connection with India, or rather Pakistan (he worked in Lahore on the Civil and Military Gazette, his father founded that city’s museum), had celebrated what Victoria’s reign was about: the fruition of the British Empire, which ended with the scramble for Africa. On the other hand, Elizabeth II has been about presiding over the decline of that Empire. The colonies were almost all freed, though admittedly into the maw of the USA, which in Elizabeth’s era has become the most powerful of the capitalist nations.
Instead, there is the Dickens bicentenary. Though based on his birth in 1812, one day later than Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne, his death anniversary, on June 6, should probably count a little more in this his bicentennial year. Yet Dickens was very much a Victorian, not an Elizabethan. In not just his novels, but also his journalism, he queried and delineated the dark underside of Victorian England. However, he did not question the Empire, which was comfortably there in the background, as the West Indian setting for an Alfred Jingle cricket match as early as The Pickwick Papers, a place for the resettlement of the Pegottys and the Micawbers in David Copperfield, or a place where money is made by Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit. As the pages of Dickens show even today, the Victorian era was unthinkable with the Empire, just as today’s Elizabethan era shows that it is impossible without the Victorian era. It will require an Elizabethan to be inspired, perhaps someone who will have a centenary celebrated in some future queen’s reign. And who knows, during one of her jubilees.
n The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as Executive Editor of TheNation.