She appears first in late medieval decks of cards, perhaps representing the biblical Judith or some contemporary Queen, and experiences a great expansion in her popularity in the nineteenth century, first with Charles Lamb’s poem, and then with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Now she is ingrained in our culture, certainly more so than any of the other queens in the pack. For this Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d examine the evolving image of the Queen of Hearts, even though (to be honest) she’s not really the most romantic character.
A silver queen of hearts from an Augsburg deck, 1595-1600, after the French suits of hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs had been standardized across Europe.
I know it seems like she’s been around forever, but the tart-baking queen does not appear in printed verse until the later eighteenth century, and a few decades later the English poet Charles Lamb published the King and Queen of Hearts: with the Rogueries of the Knave who stole the Queen’s Pies (1805) which really took her out of the pack. This is our most earnest Queen of Hearts, working hard to please her man, only to have her efforts foiled by that dastardly knave! Though this little story was not intended to be a nursery rhyme, it became one, primarily through the efforts of children’s book illustrators in the nineteenth century. A more elegant tart-baking Queen became the focus on one of Randolph Caldecott’s “Picture Books” in 1881, and the playing card Queen merges with the lyrical one in the “Nursery Rhyme” transformation deck from about the same time. And since she bakes, the Queen of Hearts was a perfect character for Victorian greeting cards celebrating hospitality and domesticity, at Christmas or throughout the year.
Title and first page from Charles Lamb’s King and Queen of Hearts (1805); Cover and illustrations from Randolph Caldecott’s Queen of Hearts (1881); Cobbler advertisement from 1890 (British Library); Prang of Boston Christmas Card from 1896; The Queen of Hearts card from the “Nursery Rhymes” deck, c. 1880.
The Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) is impatient, scary, and of course judgmental, pointing in the iconic John Tenniel illustration and for at least a century afterwards. She doesn’t seem to be able to break free of that posture until after World War II, but even when she does, she is a formidable presence.
John Tenniel illustration from the first edition of Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1665); the Queen in a dramatic version of Alice adapted by Emily Prime Delafield (1897), and a rough drawing and finished illustration of the Queen by British illustrator Marvyn Peake for the 1954 edition of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
Peake’s post-war Queen is more than formidable; she is menacing–especially the drawing on the left. He started his work on Alice right after he returned to Britain from war-torn Germany, where he had seen not only devastated cities but the newly-liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, so clearly he had a darker vision than Tenniel and his immediate successors.
By about 1890, the Queen of Heats makes her appearance on a succession of mass-produced Valentine’s Day cards. She is at first rather recognizable, as in the first Raphael Tuck card below, and then rather more generic. That’s the impact of mass production in an age of insurgent democracy: everyone can be a Queen.
Then again, several very distinct personalities also took on the persona of the Queen of Hearts, including the “it” girl Evelyn Nesbit Shaw a century ago and Diana, Princess of Wales, more recently. Even though she doesn’t quite fit this theme, I have got to put Ginger Rogers in here as well, if only because she wore (in Carefree, 1938) the best Valentine’s Day dress, ever.
Evelyn Nesbit as the Queen of Hearts, Punch Magazine, 1904; a still from Carefree (1938) with Ginger Rogers in the iconic hearts and arrows dress.