The Past and Literary Heroines

Condervatives love the past, or an idealized version of it. “The Past” is an important but imprecise concept for Christians convinced a “return” to Biblical morality will solve all that ails us. They may mythologize certain archetypes of American ancestry: cowboys, tycoons, pilgrims. They tend to favor historical or classic fiction to history texts. 

While many raised in conservative Christian environments have low literacy, especially children homeschooled by under educated parents, I was blessed with books and a family who love to read. I read Shakespeare and Poe, C.S. Lewis and Jo March, Robert Lewis Stevenson and Lewis Carol, all before middle school. 

We also had an amazing video library. Before Netflix and TiVo, there was my Giggy. She’d comb through the TV Guide movie listings to decide what to record on VHS that week. Tapes were labeled using a color coded system by genre, and she’d tape the synopsis from the Guide on the side of the box. I always had something wonderful to watch.  

I realize now how many literary heroines helped me stick up for myself, rebel, and fight for what I believed. Because they were women of the mythic godly Past, I was allowed to read about them or watch movie adaptations and learn from them. So long as a feminist icon wears long dresses and can’t vote, she can be snuck past ideologically entrenched parents. 

Jo March with her tomboy streak, Anne of Green Gables breaking her slate over Gilbert’s head, Sarah Crewe finding hope in despair with the power of her imagination. Real life Hellen Keller and Anne Sullivan were celebrated for their “miracle”, so I was able to learn about their socialism.These girls and women were role models I was allowed to have. It shouldn’t surprise me how connected I feel to the eras they lived in.

Memories of Major Events

This post reflects on significant traumatic events including the shooting at Columbine High School, the twin towers attack of 9/11, and the shooting death of an Iranian women during the Arab Spring. 

“Where were you when JFK was shot?” It’s an American question people of a certain age can answer. Some events feel so monumental as they happen, our minds preserve the moments in all their incongruous context. I was born well after that assassination. But this idea of a significant event everyone could have an inconsequential story about stayed with me. 

I was sixteen, sitting in the art classroom at my high school. It was the teacher’s free period but he let advanced students come in to work on projects, so long as our others teachers approved. Mr. R. was a Volvo driving hippie with a chip on his shoulder. He had the radio tuned to NPR. Suddenly the song cut out and a live reporter was talking breathlessly about a school shooting in progress. Screams of children in the background almost drowned her out. 

And I knew I’d remember the moment, even before the dead and injured were all accounted for. The victims and killers were all my age, my lover’s age, my best friend’s age. It was impossible not to think of myself and people I loved in either role. “This is my generation’s shot heard round the world” I thought. 

I was eighteen. It was morning and I worked the graveyard shift at a diner the night before. I was asleep and didn’t understand why my mother was getting me up. She was crying, a rare thing for her. “A plane hit one of the twin towers and people are trapped.” I walked out to the living room just in time to see another plane hit the second tower. I retreated to my bedroom, pulled out a bottle of vodka I kept hidden in my closet, and drank. After a few shots I was able to face the live broadcast again. 

My brother went into survivalist mode, filling all the family vehicles and a few handheld tanks with gasoline, and bringing over his small arsenal of hunting rifles and ammunition. I couldn’t stay in the house with all those guns, so I went out driving with my friend and some boy I was seeing. (I can’t remember his name or what he looked like.) My friend and I drank wine in coffee cups in the backseat of his car and noticed which things stayed open that day: strip clubs, liquor stores, and churches. 

I was 26 years old and sunning myself by a pool in Florida. No one else was there on the weekday afternoon I spent furiously retweetung first aid instructions and updates on the Iranian election protests. It already felt strange to think of panic and chaos and tear gas in the night from that idyllic scene. A woman almost exactly my age Neda Agha-Soltan, born five days before me, was shot in the back and killed. Over the next three or four minutes I saw her name become an international hashtag, and I could feel how symbolic her death would become. 

I remember it was sunny. 

Women Who Ruled: Queen Victoria, part 17 (FINAL)

​Over the next few years Queen Victoria visited mainland Europe many times, though by 1900 European opposition to the war over gold in South Africa (known as the Boer War, the Second Boer War, or the South African War) made such visits inadvisable. She took her first trip to Ireland since the Famine, to thank Ireland for its military contributions. 

In July 1900, Victoria’s second son Alfred died at a week shy of 56, of throat cancer. His only son to survive to adulthood had died the year before, following a suicide attempt. In her diary she wrote, “It is a horrible year, nothing but sadness & horrors of one kind & another.” She spent Christmas with her family, then early January weak and sickly. She died January 22, 1901 and 81 years of age.

By the time of her death Queen Victoria had outlived a father, mother, husband, daughter, two sons, and eleven grandchildren. She lived for the births of all 44 of her grandchildren, and the first several births of her 87 great-grandchildren. Her empire expanded, stretching across the globe. The monarchy survived rebellion, industrialization, and an expansion of voting rights to more men. 

At the time of her death, Queen Victoria’s reign of 63 years,  seven months, and two days made her both the longest reigning British monarch and the longest reigning queen regnant in world history. A queen regnant rules in her own right, not by virtue of her husband or son. Both titles remained Victoria’s until sixteen months ago when, on September 9, 2015 her great-great-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II surpassed her. 

When she passed away Victoria was at one of the high points of her popularity. She was seen by nationalist and imperialist Britains as a kind of maternal, benevolent figure, a mother hen watching over her territories. The Grandmother of Europe ensured there would be future royal generations by her prodigious reproduction, and by the marriage alliances she brokered for her children and grandchildren. The last of her children Princess Beatrice lived until 1944, and her last grandchild Princess Alice of Albany lived until 1981. 

Women Who Ruled: Queen Victoria, part 16

Only four British monarchs before Queen Victoria had reigns of fifty years or more: King James VI of Scotland and I of England (57 years), King Henry III (56), King Edward III (50), and King George III (59 years) who was Victoria’s grandfather. In 1887 the fifty year anniversary of Victoria’s ascension to the throne was celebrated with a two-day Golden Jubilee. 

She began the day with breakfast outside at Frogmore, the estate were her beloved husband Prince Albert was buried. Then she took a private train to Buckingham Palace. A banquet hosting fifty kings and princes was held in Victoria’s honor, followed by a ten mile royal procession the next day. Fireworks finished off the evening. This was a time of renewed popularity for the aging monarch, and the celebrations and cheering crowds lifted her spirits. 

She employed two Muslim Indian waiters from the festivities to work in her household. One of them was Abdul Karim, a scholar she promoted to be her Munshi, a Persian word adapted by British colonials for a language tutor domestic servant or Indian personal secretary. Rumors circulated that Karim like John Brown before him had an inappropriate relationship with the queen. Victoria brushed off such complaints as racial prejudice. 

In September 1896 Victoria became the then longest reigning monarch. She asked that no special commeration of that fact be observed until her Diamond Jubilee, or sixty year reign anniversary, the following year. The Diamond Jubilee was a somewhat smaller celebration owing the Queen’s deteriorating health. A six mile procession culminated in an outdoor service in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, to spare the monarch climbing the steps into the church. Still there were crowds of supporters cheering for her. 

This time the banquet guests were the prime ministers of self-governing dominions of the British Empire, rather than foreign heads of state. Victoria’s eldest child Vicky had become widowed only 99 days after her husband became King of Germany and Prussia. Victoria’s hot-headed 29 year old grandson Wilhelm was now the ruler of those nations, and he was not trusted to behave at such a gathering  

Women Who Ruled: Queen Victoria, part 15

“In case an exaggerated report should reach you, I telegraph to say that, as I drove from the station here a man shot at the carriage, but fortunately hit no one. He was instantly arrested. I am nothing the worse.” 

That telegraph was sent March 2, 1882 following the seventh and final assassination attempt against Queen Victoria. The shooter was a poet named Roderick MacLean, who first told police he was London born before they determined he was an Irish native. MacLean had written the queen with a poem and did not find her reply sufficiently appreciative. He shot at her carriage in the yard of Windsor station as she entered her carriage. Three or four policemen immediately apprehended him. 

When he was found not guilty due to insanity, Victoria was incensed. She asked Parliament to allow such would-be assassins to be found “guilty, but insane” leading to the Trial of Lunatics Act of 1883. MacLean himself was “detained at her Majesty’s pleasure” in the Broadmoor Asylum for the remainder of his life. The attempt and her survival raised the monarch’s flagging popularity. She said it was “worth being shot at, to see how loved one is.” 

Victoria had from the death of Albert in 1861 increasingly relied on a Scottish manservant named John Brown. Rumors of a romance or even a secret marriage persisted for years. In 1883 Victoria fell down a flight of stairs, causing a long recovery and permanent damage. Ten days later John Brown died. She began eulogizing him in a book about their friendship, to the consternation of advisors and relations who feared it would only fan the flames of scandal. The first volume was destroyed but she published the second in 1884. 

On the first anniversary of Brown’s death, Victoria got word that her eighth child and youngest son Leopold had died of a slip and fall at age 30. The following month came the wedding Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine, daughter of Victoria’s deceased daughter Alice, to Prince Louis of Battenburg, who was her first cousin once removed. Prince Louis’s younger brother Prince Henry and Queen Victoria’s youngest child Princess Beatrice met and fell in love at that wedding. 

Women Who Ruled: Queen Victoria, part 14

In April of 1857 Queen Victoria gave birth to her ninth and final child, Beatrice. The next January her eldest, Princess Victoria, was wedded to Crown Prince Frederick William of Germany and Prussia. Both Victoria and her consort Albert were sad to see their pride and joy go. In one of the Queen’s frequent letters to her daughter she wrote, “It really makes me shudder when I look around to all your sweet, happy, unconscious sisters and think I must give them up too — one by one.” 

A year later the younger Victoria and Frederick welcomed the Queen of England’s first grandchild Wilhelm. Victoria and Albert had hoped their daughter and son-in-law might be moderating influences on the fast growing kingdom’s authoritarian leanings.  The younger couple were well suited together, and planned to reign together as Victoria and Albert. Unfortunately Frederick was already dying of cancer when he inherited his father’s crowns, and he reigned only 99 days before expiring. Wilhelm reigned with an iron fist and his actions spurred the First World War. 

Queen Victoria’s domineering mother the Duchess of Kent died in early 1861. Going through her effects, Victoria leaened her mother had loved her deeply. She felt tremendous anguish over the rift between them and the years apart, and blamed her governess and her mother’s advisor for souring things. While she grieved Albert, plagued by constant stomach ailments, took over most of her duties. 

Victoria’s heir Crown Prince Albert Edward had never been the great pupil his older sister was, and he longed for an active military service his mother forbade. In 1860 he took a grand tour of North America, to see and be seen.  It was a success, although word of immoral conduct crossed the Atlantic to his parents. In 1861 the Crown Prince was sent to Dublin “to watch military manoeuvres”, really to meet the woman his parents wanted him to marry, Princess Alexandra of Denmark. 

During this trip to Ireland, the prince spent three nights with an Irish actress his army buds snuck into the camp. He was back at Cambridge University by the time his parents had been alerted. Prince Consort Albert went to chastise him. Two weeks later, in August 1861, the king died. At the time his death was attributed to typhoid fever, but due to his illness for at least two years prior, modern historians think abdominal cancer a more likely culprit. Victoria blamed her eldest son. 

Women Who Ruled: Queen Victoria, part 13

The 1861 death of her 42 year old husband shook Queen Victoria deeply. In that era mourning was a formal affair, with different degrees of mourning based on intimacy of relationship and time passed since the death. Victoria went into full mourning, and never ceased to wear mourning black for the remaining forty years of her life. Among other things this communicated clearly her intention to never remarry. 

Although Albert had asked that no memorials be erected in his honor, the grief stricken queen and a public which had loved him could not follow this request. Libraries, colleges, theaters, and memorials were built in his honor. The queen commissioned biographies of her late husband, and reserved final editing approval. He was eulogized endlessly. 

The two decades Victoria shared with Albert were arguably the happiest of her life, and she fell into a deep depression at his passing. While she continued to carry out her official duties behind the scenes, she had no will for public appearances. By 1864 her declining popularity, and ther nation’s rising republican sentiment, alarmed her uncle King Leopold of Belgium. At his urging she began taking carriage rides through London and at the Royal Horticultural Center in Kensington, where she’d been raised. 

In 1878, on the anniversary of her beloved Albert’s death, Victoria’s third child and second daughter Alice died of diphtheria at 35 years of age. Victoria turned 60 the year, and felt old and defeated. She had no inkling then she’d live another twenty-two years. She had attempted to abdicate the throne five times in the months preceding, so tired of it all she was. 

Queen Victoria became a great a grandmother in 1879 with the birth of Princess Feodora of Saxe-Meiningen, daughter of Princess Charlotte of Prussia, daughter of Victoria’s eldest child, Victoria, Princess Royal. Princess Charlotte was a bright, sparkling socialite who hated pregnancy and announced she’d not be repeating the experience. Victoria was sorely disappointed, not having liked pregnancy any better yet having put herself through it nine times all the same.