Resources to Explore Marriage, Childbirth and the Conflicts of Sexual Desire in the Victorian Era
Depictions of Queen Victoria often make the long-reigning matriarch out to be prudish and matronly. But a recent BBC Masterpiece Theatre miniseries called Victoria, which just concluded in the US, has enraptured viewers with the passionate love story of her marriage to Prince Albert. It was a relationship that resulted in pregnancies over the course of 17 years.
In an era when childbirth was a frightening, potentially fatal, and excruciatingly painful experience, Queen Victoria’s libido seems strikingly modern.
Daisy Goodwin, who wrote the miniseries, said “Growing up in England, I wasn’t all that keen on Victoria—she represented everything that was stern, sulky, disapproving.”
Then, as a university student, Goodwin received an assignment that involved reading the queen’s diaries. She recalled one of the entries when Victoria and Albert had just gotten engaged and were caught in the rain while riding horseback. “[Victoria] wrote ‘My dearest Albert, he was wearing cashmere britches and nothing on underneath!’ When I read that, I whooped out loud. I thought, ‘She wasn’t the grumpy, boot-faced old bag we all imagine; she was a feisty, spirited teenage girl who liked dancing, parties and men – just like me,’” said Goodwin.
“She’s not as far away from us as you might imagine,” the writer added, “apart from the fact that she had no access to contraception, the poor woman, which made her life a misery, because she loved sex but not its consequences.”
“I never, never spent such an evening!! My dearest dearest dear Albert sat on a footstool by my side, and his excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness, I never could have hoped to have felt before! He clasped me in his arms, and we kissed each other again and again! His beauty, his sweetness and gentleness – really how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a Husband!...we both went to bed; (of course in one bed), to lie by his side, and in his arms, and on his dear bosom, and be called by names of tenderness, I have never yet heard used to me before - was bliss beyond belief! Oh! this was the happiest day of my life! - May God help me to do my duty as I ought and be worthy of such blessings!”
exclaimed Victoria in a journal entry, dated February 10, 1840, describing her wedding night. Unsurprisingly, such enthusiastic marital bliss resulted in the in the birth of the couple’s first child, Victoria (Vicky) just nine months later, as the queen documented during her “confinement” in December 1840:
[Albert and I] both expressed joy that the event was at hand, & I did not feel at all nervous. After a good many hours suffering, a perfect little child was born at 2 in the afternoon, but alas! a girl & not a boy, as we both had so hoped & wished for. We were, I am afraid, sadly disappointed, but yet our hearts were full of gratitude, for God having brought me safely through my ordeal, & having such a strong, healthy child. Dearest Albert hardly left me at all, & was the greatest support & comfort
Though the queen looked forward to spending time with the baby twice each day, she eagerly returned to her duties as monarch. However, within a year of Vicky’s birth, Albert Edward, known as Bertie – the future King Edward VII – was born, followed by Alice (b. 1843), Alfred (b. 1844), Helena (b. 1846), Louise (b. 1848), Arthur (b. 1850), Leopold (b. 1853) and Beatrice (b. 1857).
Queen Victoria spent roughly eighty months pregnant in the 1840s and 1850s—more than six years in total—and even longer recovering from childbirth. In letters, the queen eventually revealed that she loathed being pregnant, was disgusted by breast-feeding, and wasn’t particularly enamored of newborns: “I'm no admirer of babies. An ugly baby is a very nasty object and the prettiest is dreadful when undressed with their big bodies, little limbs and their terrible frog like action,” quoted Priscilla Scales, as the queen, in the 2001 BBC docu-drama Looking for Victoria (available from Alexander Street).
Of course, childbearing was a frightening, potentially fatal and agonizing experience in the 19th century, especially until Sir James Young Simpson, an obstetrician, introduced chloroform as an anesthetic in 1847. Queen Victoria pioneered the use of ether during labor. But, it wasn’t until the birth of her eighth child that such relief was available to her.
Victoria wrote on April 22, 1853: “I have never recovered better, & dearest Albert's untiring, love, tenderness & care for me, have as usual, been my greatest support in my hours of trial. I was taken ill early on the morning on the 7th & a boy was born to great happiness to me. Dr. Snow administered ‘that blessed Chloroform’ & the effect was soothing, quieting & delightful beyond measure.”
The experience left an impression. In 1854, the Queen had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Simpson, who innovated the use of chloroform in childbirth, and described him in her journal as having “a very pleasing manner, & a fine, intelligent head.”
Despite the challenges of ruling the monarchy, maintaining a passionate marriage, motherhood and perpetual pregnancy, being the queen did have some advantages over other women of the era.
If fear of pain and death in childbirth wasn’t enough to curb the average Victorian woman’s sexual desire, the laws might have put a significant damper on it. Victorian wives were legal property of their husbands, and that included whatever the wives’ bodies produced: children, domestic labor and sexual pleasure. In consenting to marriage, a woman was consenting to sexual intercourse with her husband as he desired.
For many working class wives, the pregnancies resulting from such marital arrangements were more than they could afford physically or financially. It was most often these women, mothers in their 30s and 40s, who sought contraception or options for terminating pregnancy – solutions which in the 19th century were ineffective at best; as debilitating or as fatal as childbirth, at worst.
The main forms of contraception that were readily available to working class women included abstention, a version of the rhythm method, and withdrawal – all of which depended on the man’s cooperation, according to Patricia Knight’s “Women and Abortion in Victorian and Edwardian England”:
Female methods of contraception were even more expensive and complicated, so that apart from use of abortion, working class women were unable to control her own fertility. Accurate information on birth control was difficult to acquire, was rarely provided by doctors, and was available only in chemists’ catalogues, or tucked away in a few pages of books with abstruse and intimidatingly long titles...
Knight’s article (available on ProQuest Central), goes on to examine the many factors, such as class and social reforms, that influenced a high demand for birth control and abortion in the 19th century, as well as the weird, difficult, dangerous and sometimes barbaric methods that were available.
Pre-marital sexual relations were also rife with consequence for Victorian women. Under the Contagious Diseases Acts, the first of which became law in 1864, women accused of being “unclean” were subjected to involuntary examinations of their private parts. These procedures were often humiliatingly performed on the spot by male police officers. Refusal to submit to an examination was punishable by imprisonment; a diagnosis meant involuntary confinement in a hospital until cured.
And if the social burden of being a “fallen woman” wasn’t enough, the financial burden of single motherhood might have also deterred women from having sexual relations outside of marriage. The New Poor Law made the case that women should “bear financial responsibilities for out-of-wedlock pregnancies” without any acknowledgement or support from the fathers.
For additional insight into the life of Queen Victoria, and the process of researching the queen, BBC’s two-part docudrama “Looking for Victoria” is available from Alexander Street’s Academic Video Online. In preparation for one-woman stage show, "An Evening with Queen Victoria,” actress Prunella Scales visits historic locations, interviews experts and portrays Queen Victoria in scenes from the queen’s life as she reads selections from her private diaries.
On reading these journals, Scales said:
I found in Westminster Public Library the three volumes of Queen Victoria's published diaries. And I just freaked when I read them, because they are so entertaining and intelligent and informative and extremely funny. People think of her as this elderly matron, very stern, humorless, old matron. And, of course, the death of her husband did put her almost out of her mind for many years, but basically she was a very lively and intelligent, funny and surprising woman.
Queen Victoria's Journals
Expertly curated in partnership with the Bodleian Libraries and the Royal Archives, the 141 volumes of Queen Victoria’s personal diaries are available to view, search, and explore in their entirety online. As well as detailing household and family matters, the journals reflect affairs of state, describe meetings with statesmen and other eminent figures, and comment on the literature of the day. Queen Victoria’s journals represent a valuable primary source for scholars of nineteenth century British political and social history and for those working on gender and autobiographical writing. Every page of every journal is presented as a high-resolution, full-color digital image, enhanced with detailed transcriptions of each handwritten entry for easy reading and powerful searching.
House of Commons Parliamentary Papers
The only resource spanning three centuries of official government documents from the House of Commons, this database enables researchers to seamlessly access the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st-century papers, and the Hansard parliamentary debates, via a single interface, cross-searching across topics to see how issues were explored and legislation formed.
Watch the recording of the ACRL webinar “How Does the Past Inform Today?”
Knight, P. (1977). Women and abortion in victorian and edwardian england. History Workshop, 4, 57-68.