Queen Victoria, ‘Consumption’ and Goth Culture

"The disease added quite a chunk of outlook to fashion trends, the simplest of these being the demand for black mourning clothes at a time when people were dying at any given time in any family."


The first thing that many will visualise upon the mention of ‘Goth’ is the mohawk, black lace, powdered faces, spikes and metal on ‘uncivilised’ bikers. These images are nothing but pop stereotypes. Goth culture came into being at the end of the 70’s punk rock era, when alternative rock music gained its popularity through its gory, morbid, loud and relatable existentialist music. It began almost as a subculture in England amongst the more angsty youth and went on to become its own muse; promoting many other subcultures till the present day such as the Neo-Goth subculture. If one delves deeper into the history of this cultural movement one learns that alongside black lace, tight corsets, taxidermy and chokers the presence of death itself has provided symbols that paved the way for the rise of this culture. A notable historical event, the tuberculosis pandemic during Queen Victoria’s rule in the late 18th century,  may have introduced these symbols to the people.

To examine this further we must go back to the 1800s in Kensington Palace, England. The Queen, who had had a controlling childhood living in her mothers shadow, gained autonomy at the age of 18 when she was crowned Queen of England in 1837. This came as a shock after the death of the then King William XII. According to state law  at the time only the monarch could ask for a hand in marriage and so she did. Nine children and several years later, after the death of her beloved Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria became aggrieved and withdrew from the matters of the court for about a decade. The appropriate mourning period for a monarch after the death of a loved one had thus far been believed to be about two years. In the case of this monarch, however, what seemed to initially be an onset of black skirts and gowns soon resulted in an everyday extravagance of black lace and heavy gowns. It was as if the mourning period had become its own person and had taken over her body in the form of long ribbons and exquisite veils. By the end of the 1870s it was clear that the Queen had to resume her duties at court since the public was growing vexed in her absence. 

Tuberculosis or ‘consumption’, as it was then known, was widespread in the lower and middle class, especially amongst young children. The disease added quite a chunk of outlook to fashion trends, the simplest of these being the demand for black mourning clothes at a time when someone was dying at any given time in any family. The more known symptoms during the times were weakness, paleness, loss of weight and coughing blood. It became an extremely dangerous trend for many women to want to contract the disease, for it made them paler and thinner. This rather unsettling wish was common amongst the rich who wanted to wear the best clothes and flaunt their figures. In the early 1900s a trend of shorter and more practical skirts came about, focusing more on the shoes and stockings; one could run this trend parallel to modern goth trends of high boots and heels or exaggerated shoes with spikes. By the end of the 1880s a more straight and elongated silhouette started to come about to exaggerate one’s thinness and frailty; women were wearing more straight, narrow sleeves and skirts with a low waist, their hair tied up tightly while men took to longer tail coats, three piece suits and high collars with long top hats. In about a decade’s time women, too, were noted to wear ties and high collared shirts quite frequently.

Gothic literature may have emerged as a genre by the end of the 18th century but began to flourish only under  Victorian rule. It was a well known fact that science and research had developed massively during the Queen’s rule. Industrialisation took shape, famously raising the middle class to a higher status while the lower class still suffered. Many caricature-ish depictions of The Queen surfaced, such as Queen Titania  from Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and the character famously known to  be written after her–the Queen of Hearts from ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll. The licence to speak up in literary works was not frowned upon by the matriarch, which perhaps led other artists and writers to explore their respective styles, ideas, comments and concepts.  

While writers with various mindsets published, it paved the way for many others to explore. Writers such as Horace Walpole first used the word Gothic as a joke in one of his genres’ in 1765 but later, Ann Raddcliffe (Mysteries of Udolpho) and Mathew Lewis (The Monk) became some of the first to write in the genre. The genre Gothic typically referred to a story with a big (Gothic) Mansion and a secret unraveling within, be it the story of a ghost, murder of something unsettling and gruesome. The main theme was gore and morbidity. Many writers adopted the genre in the Victorian Age, such as Mary Shelley for ‘Frankenstein’ in 1818, R.L. Stevenson for ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ and later, towards the end of the century, the Magnum Opus in the genre, Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. It is also important to mention the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, with his stories and poems such as ‘Raven’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’  Poe managed to grasp the genre, arising from the UK quite well. The fact that Goth culture had started to seep into the works of those overseas was not so strange after all, considering that the British Empire was spreading across the globe.

The Victorian Era was also a time for the group of Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood of artists to shine, for their rejection of the generic school of art and its teachings, echoed the Queen’s own rejection of many unswerving ideas of court, culture and society. The focus at this time, for many painters, shifted to fairytales, symbolism, mythology and Shakespearean tales. This change towards fuller portraits of women, fairies and nudity was condemned by many artists even though it provided employment to artists as illustrators for story books. The paintings which helped fuel the advent of Goth subculture were full of mysterious lakes and forests, dark colours, sirens and damsels.‘Ophelia’, painted in 1852 by John Everett Millias, depicts the terrible death of Shakespeare’s character Ophelia from the play Hamlet. The painting depicts a rather pale young beauty floating dead in a river stream swamped by plants and moss. Another one, famously painted by John William Waterhouse called ‘The Lady of Shalott’ painted in 1888, directly derives its name from the poem written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The painting depicts a scene from the tragic poem, where the Lady decides to row her away into the river, escaping the tower, but unable to escape her cursed fate. The Lady was cursed never to look outside into the world from her tower, or her death was assured. So she sat and wove tapestries in her tower, of the scenes she saw in her mirror being reflected from her balcony. Waterhouse paints this Arthurian Folktale beautifully depicting a damsel in a contrasting white background against the dark and eerie colours of the water and forest. Lastly to mention another important painting of the genre, ‘Love and the Pilgrim’ by Sir Edward Coley Burne Jones painted at the end of the century in 1898. Sir Edward painted a depiction from Chaucers, ‘The Romaunt of the Rose,’ a poem which had caused a stir amongst the writers, critics and literaries for the difference in style of work. The painting in its dull colours and dry lands depicts an angel, possibly serving as a metaphor for love, with dark grey almost black wings leading a traveller, draped in dark robes, out of thorny bushes onto stepping stones while many robins watch. The dry land in the background serves as a parallel to the loneliness of the pilgrim seeking love. The entire painting is a metaphor for the hardships of loneliness before one finds love.

The usual interchange of nobles and royals within the ruling institutions of colonies made a major impact on the cultures of the respective countries. The Queen was also famously known for protesting against her unreasonable Ministers and making her objections clear. It was also believed that her lifestyle as an open and broad minded woman, compared to other Royals before her, added to this. Her bedazzlement and fancy for foreign men had become more prominent over time. She was often referred to as, ‘Mrs. Brown’ because of her close (although inconclusive) relationship with Scotsman James Brown. The story was a scandal in its time and was believed to have been hushed up by all near and close to her; a woman of her stature, position or age would not be expected to be found in such a relationship. It is also said she asked her close servants to carry out secret instructions after her death, which was to hide a lock of his hair and his handkerchief in her coffin. Her affair with her Muslim Indian servant, Abdul Karim, claimed it own place in history of her timeline, as the royals did their best to burn away all evidence and diaries containing any traces of their relationship. Although there was a major age difference between the two, the Queen heightened his ranks making him her Urdu language teacher. He was believed to accompany her, in court, where the ministers, royals and nobles were not comfortable having a brown man amongst their ranks. Having an Indian man as the Queen’s closest confidant at the height of the British empire, made almost everyone’s blood boil. Yet knowingly the Queen did as she pleased. She was known for her humour and writing. When It came to her own detailed letters and diaries, it was a fact that she liked to document her life in them.

The bravery of the Queen and her motto to love on her own terms dictated the lives of many people in her kingdom and colonies, influencing further those who were a part of them. The willingness to ‘mind one’s own business’, without hurting anyone and to accept her love even after death and take comfort in doing so; to promote and inspire people under her rule without cause for conflict, provided a shifting focus in the hearts of people to channel their inner Goth.

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