Victorian in Name Only, the Queen Was Amused in the Bedroom and Elsewhere
One hundred and fifty years ago this month, Victoria became Queen of England. Barely 18, she was a slip of a girl fond of dancing and parties, and little concerned with politics. For the next 63 years, until her death at 81 in 1901, she would reign as Britain’s symbol and monarch, outliving by nearly 40 years her husband, Albert, three of her nine children, and eight prime ministers. She was the last British ruler to enjoy more than a ceremonial role, and she did so because she insisted on it. She gave her name to an age and its attitudes.
Yet according to an authority on her era, Victoria was far from Victorian. Researching his book Victoria: An Intimate Biography (E.P. Dutton, $26.95), author Stanley Weintraub discovered a queen who relished sex and lowbrow entertainments, and who meddled shamelessly in the lives of her children. The Evan Hugh Professor at Penn State University, Weintraub, 58, is a specialist in Victoriana and has also written biographies of Shaw, Whistler, Aubrey Beardsley and other figures of the period. He discussed Victoria, as she was and as she is remembered, with Assistant Editor Leah Rozen:
Was Victoria prepared to be queen?
No one is really prepared to be queen at 18, even if she is far better educated than Victoria. She had the schooling young aristocratic women received at the time: She was taught French, German and history, and she knew by heart the succession of kings and queens of England.
When Victoria first came to the throne, how did she like the job?
She loved it, to the point that she didn’t want to get married. She was having too good a time. She enjoyed her sessions in Parliament, the processions and pomp and staying up late dancing and eating.
This doesn’t sound like the dowdy queen of popular lore.
She wasn’t dowdy. When you see, at Kensington Palace, the dress she wore when she became queen, it’s a childlike dress. She was slightly under five feet tall and seemed to weigh practically nothing. She never was really good-looking, but there were times in her early years when she was radiant.
If she was having such a good time being a bachelor queen, why did she get married?
The British people wanted a husband more than she did, because they wanted an assured succession. And there wasn’t any at that time after Victoria.
How did she find a husband?
She had to interview prospective suitors, inviting Protestant princes largely, because she was the defender of the Anglican faith. Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was one of those interviewed, along with Dutch and Swedish princes. When Albert came, she was smitten by him. She wrote in her diary that he was the handsomest man she ever saw.
Were they really in love with each other when they married?
They were. At least she was; Albert grew into it. After all, he needed the job. He was a second son with no prospects; it was the best position available.
You contend they had a very happy sex life. How do you know?
One finds evidence in her diaries and in her letters. She says how wonderful marriage is, and it’s clear she is referring to the physical side. My favorite quote is one in which she describes being “clasped and held tight in the sacred Hours at Night when the world seemed only to be ourselves.”
What else can you tell us along these prurient lines?
Victoria bought a nude drawing for Albert for his birthday and commissioned a sculpture of a nude Lady Godiva for him. Whether this was to increase his libido, I don’t know. You always find stories about Albert having a low sex drive. Albert himself bought a Digger-than-lifesize picture by Anton von Gegenbaur that shows Hercules as the sexual slave of the queen of Lydia. Albert hung the picture in his bathroom at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. I think he recognized his role.
How did Albert move beyond the role of royal stud to become, unofficially, co-ruler with Victoria?
Biology gave Albert his job. As pregnancy made Victoria lethargic and less aggressive in her role—she had nine children in 18 years—he took over. He went from blotting the papers Victoria signed to acting as her chief of staff.
Was Victoria a good mother?
She ignored her children when they were very small. She didn’t like infants, calling them “froglike.” She, of course, did not nurse her children; tradition called for wet-nursing, so they found a succession of human cows to do that.
You say she paid “symbolic attention” to the children. What do you mean?
The children were trundled out for major occasions. Victoria was instinctively sensitive when it came to the media. This was the beginning of the age of photography, and she wanted projected the image of a happy family. Albert wanted it even more.
Were they a happy family?
When the children got older, they were a family. She played with them then. It’s one of the reasons she arranged for private royal homes, Osborne and Balmoral, away from London. She wanted places for the family away from the press.
Albert died in 1861, at 42, after 21 years of marriage. Why did Victoria drag on her mourning for the next decade?
Her hysterical mourning meant she didn’t have to act as sovereign without Albert. She had lost her feeling that she could cope. This gave her the opportunity to hide.
What brought her out of mourning?
She was forced out. Partly by selfishness, because her daughters needed dowries and her sons needed annual allowances from Parliament. In order to obtain these, she had to go out and make ceremonial appearances so that Parliament and the people could see they were getting something for their money.
It has been rumored that after Albert’s death, Victoria and her Scottish manservant, John Brown, were lovers. Is this true?
This is the primary question I am asked in England. Everyone wants to know, did she or didn’t she with John Brown? My answer is no. She never lost Albert. John Brown was like a devoted but somewhat stupid son. She treated him that way.
What do you mean, “She never lost Albert”?
The sum total of her theology involved seeing Albert in the hereafter. That was it; she had no other beliefs. She slept holding his nightshirt for years and had his picture on the pillow next to her. When she went to Florence, she held up a brooch with Albert’s picture on it to show him the restoration work on the Duomo. Everywhere she went, she took Albert along. He was so much with her that it destroys any notion that she could have had sex or hanky-panky with John Brown or anyone else.
What was the relationship between Victoria and Edward, her eldest son, known as Bertie?
She was a very bad mother to Bertie. She wanted him to be an Albert. She never understood that he had some qualities that would have made him a good constitutional monarch. He cut a good ceremonial figure, for example, and he was gregarious. She thought he was immoral. She said, on more than one occasion, “I have to outlive him.” Of course, she didn’t.
Was Victoria a feminist?
No. She didn’t even believe women should be ruling sovereigns if they could help it. In general, she felt women’s place involved bearing children.
Was she at all a social reformer?
She read Dickens’ Oliver Twist and loved it, but I think she realized early that her powers of social reform were limited. Late in her life, her ministers convinced her that all this social agitation would die down, and since she could do very little herself, she looked the other way. Her attitude was let’s keep things the way they are, because they can only get worse.
Did she have any special causes?
She was a very outspoken anti-vivisectionist. She didn’t want experiments performed on animals.
What were her cultural tastes?
Victoria worked on two levels: She liked plebian pleasures, such as those offered by the showman P.T Barnum and his midget Tom Thumb. She enjoyed Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, circus lion tamers and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. When the public found out, they felt that she liked what they liked. She was also quite sensitive to art. She began buying painting seven before she married Albert. She liked music, and she loved ballet and the opera.
Do you see Victoria in any of today’s royal family?
Look at a picture of the young Victoria and you’ll see Princess Anne. Victoria’s eldest son, Edward, before he got repulsively fat, looked a great deal like Prince Charles. And Charles is the most outspoken member of the family since Victoria. His great-great-great-grandmother would be proud.
Did Victoria ever actually say, “We are not amused?”
I can’t find any evidence that she said it. In fact, she was often amused.