Historian Lucy Worsley to give talk on Queen Victoria at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on Sunday
The popular image of Queen Victoria is that of a little old lady, spherical in shape, dressed in black and perpetually grumpy. Lucy Worsley wants to make us think again.
Lucy looks at the life of a complicated, contradictory woman, who had a traumatic childhood, loved dancing, who suffered calamity and bereavement, before emerging as an eccentric, powerful and rather magnificent woman.
This illustrated talk will take the audience into the life, the palaces and the rich colourful age of the woman who ruled a quarter of the globe – and ties in with the release of her latest book, Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow, which was published earlier this month.
Lucy, 44, told the Cambridge Independent that she is enjoying promoting the book. “It’s the best part, really,” she says, “because I very much like going out and talking to people about history. That’s the kind of historian I am – I’m one who in America would be called a ‘public historian’.
“It’s not a thing we really have a name for here, but my work is for people who don’t think that they like history, whether they might be coming to visit us at Hampton Court or Kensington Palace – which is my main job, I’m basically a museum curator – or who might be tempted into it through a television programme or a book.”
Queen Victoria has always held a strong fascination for Lucy. “When I was a kid, I remember being intrigued by her own very dramatic childhood,” she recalls, “which took place at Kensington Palace. She was kept there in something quite sinister-sounding – the Kensington System – to keep her safe. She wasn’t allowed to play with other girls and was always kept under watch.
“Then as a grown-up I’ve ended up working as a curator at Kensington Palace, so I spend a lot of time in the rooms where she was born, where she grew up, where she learned that she’d become queen... I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about her.”
Queen Victoria was born in May 1819, so next year will be the bicentenary of her birth. “We’re opening new exhibitions at Kensington Palace on May 24 next year, which is the date of her actual birth,” says Lucy. “We’re working on them at the moment, getting in all the exciting objects and loans and things for people to see.”
Lucy also took pleasure in researching the book. “I did. I really felt I got to be, if possible, ‘intimate’ with this dead woman – and it is easy to get intimate with her because she was such a fantastic recorder of her own life.
“She wrote extremely full diaries every day of her life – some days she would write two or three thousand words. The Royal Archives have recently digitised her diary so they’re much more accessible than they used to be.”
While agreeing that a lot of people have in their minds that image of Queen Victoria as a little, rather rotund old lady dressed in black, Lucy says that there’s also another side to her that’s recently been dramatised.
“There’s another lot of people who come into Kensington Palace now who’ve been watching ITV, the Victoria drama series,” she explains. “And they think that Queen Victoria is Jenna Coleman: young and passionate and beautiful and in love with Albert and loving dancing and late nights – the glamourous Queen Victoria. And she was both of those things.”
Does Lucy enjoy the series? “I do, I love it,” she says, “but it’s entertainment, not history. You’ve got to be pretty clear about that – and some of the values that it presents are modern values, not quite how Victorian women would have seen themselves.
“But that’s fine because I like that sort of thing as a way into history, and once people have watched that series and fallen in love with Jenna Coleman, some of them will go on to read non-fiction, read biographies and perhaps study history at university.”
On what those attending the talk at the Arts Theatre can expect to hear, Lucy says: “I shall be talking about what I learnt, and I want to try to fit Victoria into the world in which she lived, to show how her life was like – but also different from – the lives of other Victorian women. I’m quite intrigued by that; how she fitted in, what sort of rules she had to break to get away with being the queen – quite a lot of rules is the answer.”
Lucy adds: “I also hope that we’ll have some questions and answers, and I always enjoy that – people can turn up and ask any question that they want about Queen Victoria or history or television or royal palaces, or anything they like. From past experience, the people in Cambridge are always full of good questions.”
Lucy Worsley will present her talk on Sunday, September 23 at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. Tickets: £24-£29 Box office: 01223 503333 or cambridgeartstheatre.com.