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History Blog: Victoria's Secret Love Letters

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Queen Victoria adored him, obeyed him, and praised him to everyone in sight. For nearly twenty years he was always by her side. When he died, Victoria was devastated. She ordered that his room be left as it was during his lifetime. She erected a statue of him with an inscription by the great poet Tennyson. She even wrote a book about him. Who was this paragon, described by the queen as "my dearest best friend whom no one in this world can ever replace"?

No, I'm not talking about Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, although Victoria mourned him just as fervently. I'm talking about a servant named John Brown.

Brown was a gillie (fishing and hunting guide) at Balmoral, the royal family's estate in Scotland. The queen first mentioned him in her diary in 1849. But it was not until after her husband's death (the Prince Consort succumbed to typhoid fever in 1861) that Brown began to become an important figure in Victoria's life. After he twice saved the queen from carriage accidents, he was appointed to lead her pony when she went riding. Finding him capable and dependable, she promoted him to the role of her personal attendant. He carried messages for her, walked with or drove her when she went out, slept in a room near hers, and was the only person allowed to enter her room without knocking. He ordered her about and she meekly obeyed him.

Inevitably, people began to talk about the queen's peculiar relationship with her Highland Servant. Rumor had it that Victoria and Brown were lovers, or even married. Most of the queen's biographers have discounted such scandalous allegations, believing that Victoria and Brown were nothing more than close friends.

A movie about Victoria's relationship with Brown, "Mrs. Brown," was released in 1997. In late 1998 the Times newspaper of London reported that the film's executive producer, Douglas Rae, and writer Jeremy Brocks had based their story partly on previously unknown "love letters" exchanged by Queen Victoria and John Brown. The letters, hidden in an attic by relatives of Brown for the past hundred years, included a Valentine from Victoria inscribed, "To my best friend JB from his best friend VR."

The existence of such letters hardly proves that Victoria and Brown were romantically involved. Victoria never concealed her devotion to Brown, and historians are aware of other other fond cards and letters from Victoria to her "best friend." Rae does not reveal the exact content of the letters he saw, saying only, "They were written by two people who were very close and shared an intimate friendship."

According to Rae, the letters will not be made public while the present members of the royal family, particularly the Queen Mother, are still alive. (The Queen Mother is the widow of Queen Victoria's great-grandson, George VI. She was born in 1900, the year before Victoria died.)

Victoria saw no reason to conceal the facts of her friendship with John Brown. When he died in 1883 she grieved for him openly. She wrote, "I feel so stunned and bewildered and the anguish that comes over me like a wave every now and then through the day or at night is terrible! He protected me so, was so powerful and strong - that I felt so safe! And now all is gone in this world."

To the horror of her children and advisers, the queen erected a statue of Brown at Balmoral Castle (it was removed after her death). She began writing a book about him, and it was only with great difficulty that she was persuaded to abandon the project. In the end she permitted her secretary to burn the manuscript, along with John Brown's diary. Most of Victoria's own journals were destroyed after her death by her daughter Beatrice; all that remains are excerpts chosen by the princess.

So perhaps we will never know the full truth about Queen Victoria's relationship with John Brown. All we can know for sure is that they were, as Victoria so often said, best friends.
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