Queen Victoria loathed being pregnant. She felt more like a pig or cow than a queen, she said, which was unfortunate, given that she had nine children. As several of her relatives had died while giving birth, she was also, quite rationally, terrified of labor. She was given chloroform for her last two births, to her great delight. Until then the use of anesthetics for women in labor had been vehemently opposed by priests on the grounds that women should suffer for original sin, and prominent doctors because they believed it aroused women's libidos. But when the respectable reigning monarch happily inhaled deep breaths from a cloth soaked with chloroform, every 10 minutes, at the birth of her son Leopold in 1853, it soon became acceptable. Oh, how she would have loved an epidural.
With the release of the movie The Young Victoria, starring a luscious and almost credible Emily Blunt, about the relationship between Britain's stout, steely monarch and her husband, Prince Albert, as well as a biography, We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals, by Gillian Gill, there has been renewed interest in the romantic life of the woman who ruled the British Empire for 64 years. Much of the literature about Victoria has focused on her relationship with her German husband. Theirs was one of the greatest partnerships—certainly one of the most fruitful and stable—in political history. When the two are depicted meeting and falling in love, we see the fairy tale. What the film skips over is what Victoria called the "shadow side" of marriage: reproduction.
Historians have long been reluctant to recognize that Queen Victoria was not just a monarch but one of the most prominent working mothers in history—one who was both deeply in love with her husband and resentful of the demands on her as a mother and a wife. She became queen when she was only 18, and while she made some foolish mistakes, she was greatly admired for her confidence, her calm authority, her conscientiousness, and what Privy Council clerk Charles Greville called her "great animal spirits." She confided in Prime Minister Lord Melbourne that she had no desire to get married. The "beautiful" Albert changed her mind, and before long she fell pregnant—again and again. For more than a decade she struggled with pain and postnatal depression, describing infants as ugly and froglike. She frequently told her husband he did not understand the sacrifice involved, and the exhaustion. "I own," she later wrote to her daughter, "it tried me sorely; one feels so pinned down—one's wing's clipped—only half oneself … I think our sex a most unenviable one." Victoria's private struggles are part of the reason we have for so long failed to understand how cleverly she exercised power, and why she insisted women did not rule naturally, as men did. Allowing Albert to take over much of her political work is unerringly seen as a weakness or simply deference and not, at least in part, a canny delegation of bureaucratic work. If I spent 81 months pregnant, I'd pass a few matters over to my husband, too.
These are some of the central contradictions of Queen Victoria. First, while she is defined by her relationship with Albert, she was also cynical about "very selfish men" and marriage. She told her daughter she was tired of congratulating brides: "The poor woman is bodily and morally the husband's slave. That always sticks in my throat. When I think of a merry happy free young girl—and look at the ailing, aching state a young wife is generally doomed to, which you can't deny is the penalty of marriage." If properly warned, she was certain, no woman would go to the altar. Second, Victoria's competence and popularity bolstered the case for women's suffrage, even though she dismissed women's rights as "mad folly." One of the strongest arguments for the vote rested on domesticity, the kind that Victoria paraded and perfected: raising a brood of children without (public) complaint and bowing to her husband. Shouldn't such noble women have a voice in the government, argued the suffragettes?
Today Queen Victoria seems severe, remote, alabaster. It is good to remember her as a pink-cheeked girl who loved dancing and flirting with prime ministers. But let's not also forget that while in public she was a dutiful wife who advocated obedience, in private she was a mother whispering words that could well incite revolt.
Julia Baird is the author of Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians.
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