A Model for the Nation: The Early Victorian Era and the Marital Life of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1840-1861.
Today, the term ‘Victorian’ has come to mean all things conventional and restrained, heavy with solemnity, even hypocritical and self-consciously materialistic at times. The ‘lead’ for such social attitudes supposedly emanated from the example of Queen Victoria (r: 1837-1901) and her family.
When the young Victoria married her distant cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a small German principality (See Appendix), she married for love (1). To the 20-year old Queen, Albert was an incredibly handsome, dashing and charming beau, rather “incomparable”, for whom she felt a deep physical and emotional attraction, which she expressed quite frankly in some of her family letters (2). Her standards of marital idealism and of male beauty were very high indeed but Albert “fulfilled” all her “hopes” and charmed her to distraction with, “his beautiful blue eyes, an exquisite nose & such a pretty mouth with delicate mustachios & slight, but very slight whiskers” (3).
In October 1839, after a delightful courtship, it was she who was happy to propose and when he accepted they immediately fell into each other’s arms. He was certainly a more introverted person and acutely aware of his limited (and at times embarrassing) role as the expected Prince-Consort of the Monarch of Great Britain, already on its way to becoming the ‘superpower’ of the 19th century. But there is no doubt that he was seriously and totally dedicated to her. There is no apparent opportunism or ambition in his personality, beyond an earnest desire to do ‘good’ and to help his young wife as much as possible in her constitutionally limited but powerful position as British Monarch, Mistress of substantial colonial dominions and eventually, ‘Empress of India’ (1858). Historians have criticized some aspects of Albert’s (or ‘Bertie’s’, as he was called by his wife) rather German reserve and over-serious approach to many tenets of social, political and cultural life in Britain but they, too, have little fault to find with his essentially loving, noble commitment to his wife, family and cause, that is, the fostering of a positive, dignified image of British Royalty at home and abroad, in keeping with the island-nation’s remarkably important position in the world at that time (4).
They were married in February 1840. The grounds for the marriage were sound and firm. They had many things in common, not the least of which was a love of family life that was partly due to the fact that they had both endured disruption in their own childhood. Albert never saw his mother after the age of six when Princess Louise of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha ran off with a paramour, though he corresponded with her rather formally on occasion, such as in his letter to her immediately after his marriage (May 1840) where he wrote of his Royal spouse as “…gentle, courteous and gracious. She speaks good German and knows my music well” (5). In Victoria’s case, her father had died when she was a baby and she was largely raised by servants and governesses due to her mother’s lingering psychosomatic illness. Later on, as Heir-Apparent to her uncle William 1V, she lived a very segregated life with guardians and protectors, being coached for her future role. Her uncles in question—first George IV and then William IV—had lived very shocking, disreputable lives and had considerably tarnished the popular image of the Monarchy. A new era, a change, was indicated. Mindful of all these factors, the young royal couple shared an almost sacred obligation to set new standards representing their joint-desire for normalcy. ‘We will be good”, that oft-repeated statement, was no empty platitude, but a firm resolve between two young lovers starting out on a marital life where the expectations of the public and the encroachment of the public sphere into their domestic territory was taken for granted—along with all the attendant challenges and pitfalls.
In physical and emotional terms, the Royal Couple or ‘Royal Pair’ (gently made fun of by the Press as the ‘Nonpareil, the New Royal Pear’) (6) complemented each other, too. Albert was tall, well-built, an athlete and sportsman with a highly-developed intellect, fond of serious literature, art and music. The Queen was girlish and fun-loving, largely deprived of open social contact with her age group and very short and somewhat plumpish, although very graceful, with refined, pretty features. She was initially much more open and extroverted, though also rather naïve and sentimental. There is something of the later, degenerated Romantic tradition, in terms of English literary contexts, about her during this period. Indeed, the Great Romantic Poets and their works still wielded considerable influence when she came to the throne at the young age of nineteen. Keats, Shelley and Byron had passed away a few years prior; Coleridge, only three years ago; and Wordsworth still lived, to become Poet-Laureate in 1843. Albert obviously provided an anchor and stabilizing influence to Victoria. Whereas she brought a ray of sunshine and lightness into his lonely life.
The early years of their idyllic marriage set into motion their unique partnership. Despite stifling emphasis on etiquette and formality on public occasions, daily family life was characterized by a refreshing informality. An artist engaged to paint frescoes at Buckingham Palace observed how, after their diplomatic and political duties, the young couple,
Would stroll out into the grounds, evidently
delighted to get away from the bustle of the
world to enjoy each others’ society in the so-
-litude of the garden…Here too the royal child-
-ren are brought out by the nurses, and the whole
arrangement seems like real domestic pleasure. (7)
There is no doubt that the royal household was a very happy one, as confirmed by numerous other sources as well. Though Victoria never disguised her perturbation at “so many pregnancies”—she had nine children in 17 years—which had made her “worn out” but she was a devoted mother who spent a lot of time in determining her children’s welfare and loved them with an intensity unmatched by any royal parent in British history. Victoria was lucky that she was vigorously healthy. Her first baby was born prematurely but without any trouble, a fine daughter. “Madam”, said the doctor in charge, “It is a princess”. The Queen’s reply was matter-of-fact, “The next one will be a prince” (8). Albert hardly left her at all during this time and was the greatest comfort and support. In view of the fact that even until recently fathers were kept away from the labor room, Prince Albert’s involvement is all the more surprising and touching (9).
Albert was, moreover, a paragon of Victorian fatherhood. Though strict and rather pompous at times, he was never unapproachable. The royal children, unlike the vast majority of aristocratic and middle class Victorian youth, were both ‘seen’ and very much ‘heard’ and saw their parents more than most. One lady-in-waiting observed that, “the beloved parents have nothing so much at heart as the right training of these precious children” (10).
Although Albert could not, as a foreigner and consort, take part in the monarchy’s constitutional role, he certainly did what he could to manage and run Victoria’s household as well as possible, a sort of ‘inversion’ of traditional domestic roles but a broader one, certainly, too. In fact, through his management of the royal estates and properties he saved thousands of pounds by abolishing many outdated or downright wasteful practices. One historian tells us that prior to his taking charge,
The Queen had never seen a fire in the dining room at
Windsor Castle, for example, because according to old
court rules the Lord Steward had to lay the fire, and the
Lord Chamberlain had to light it. As a result, she had al-
-ways eaten in the cold. This was the sort of thing Albert
put a stop to. (11).
Albert’s management of the household economy
included also the running of the farm and estates
at Windsor and elsewhere. He was quick to imple-
-ment the most modern techniques and was much
admired as a resourceful and efficient farmer…as
a sidelight, all the bulls on the royal farms were mi-
-schieveously named after members of the [royal]
family…this touch indicates that Albert was not,
contrary to contemporary opinion, entirely lacking
in a sense of humour…(12)
In his role as ideal husband and father Albert also devoted a lot of time and energy o the various royal homes—first Osborne, on the Isle of Wight, and later, Balmoral in Scotland. Victoria and Albert found Windsor Castle too oppressive and grand but Osborne was relatively “cosy”. This seaside house was purchased in 1845 and rebuilt according to the royal couple’s (largely Albert’s) specifications. Here was a real, purpose-built setting for a family home. An entire Swiss cottage was erected in the grounds for the children to play in and their father regularly joined them in hide-and-seek games in the surrounding woodland, even demonstrating the art of turning “somersaults” in the haystacks—undoubtedly to the delight of the royal children (13). Throughout Osborne House, the entwined initials “V-A” still speak of that happy Victorian marriage; everywhere, except the smoking room, whose function as an exclusive male sanctum is indicated by a single “A”. The interiors at Osborne can still be seen by tourists and visitors, rather heavy, ornate and loaded with all kinds of Victorian bric-a-brac; every surface covered by paintings and family portraits, or littered by china ornaments, replicas and figures in silver and bronze. Osborne was typically ‘Victorian’ (as we know or understand the term), an enormous home of the kind that every ‘respectable’ family aspired to create—in fact, recreate, following the royal example. Whichever way we look at it, the Queen in particular, was a typical ‘collector’ of that age, not necessarily in the best aesthetic taste but ‘knowing what she liked’, as the cliché goes. A present-day critic makes these very insightful comments:
This love of material things had started early in her
life with a collection of dolls, perhaps begun as a
consoling substitute for brothers and sisters. In every
establishment Victoria owned there were boxes and
cupboards filled to capacity with china plate, silver
objects and clothing, as well as accessories for every
conceivable occasion. Later in life she took to having
every room setting photographed, and every object ca-
-talogued, and in her widowhood she would enjoy thum-
-bing through these volumes, as if to ensure that the past
with all its mementos would never slip away. (14)
Almost everything the Royal family did, their ‘respectable’ subjects imitated—so much so that the Queen and Prince Consort eventually became the epitome of respectability for the entire nation, regardless of class distinctions. In an age which reflected both the growing dynamism and confidence of a prosperous Britain, with extensive colonial territories and military power to back up its economic imperialism, a bourgeois work ethic and mentality (commensurate with the English middle class’s significant role in realizing most of these achievements) was taking hold. A new moneyed class was making its presence felt in determining social and political directions in Britain itself and their ideals and opinions were gaining currency to the detriment of the old aristocracy. Indeed, new peers, with ‘new money’, were being inducted into their ranks quite rapidly. And they were bringing their sets of values, ideas and tastes to the forefront. For this rich, newly-ennobled class, the Queen and Prince Albert were not a quasi-ridiculous, sentimental couple with eccentric tastes and dispositions. They were more and more the symbols of British respectability, solid worth, earnest commitment, morality and quiet strength. Many people might like or dislike Prince Albert, still, for one reason or the other, but he was more and more accepted and even respected now; whereas the Queen and her young, growing family were at the height of their popularity. In all, their domestic life contrasted starkly with the excesses of previous generations of royalty and the hypocritical lifestyles of many lords and ladies. The view, by the early-1850s, was firmly established in general favor of the Monarchy. Some of the paradoxes, xenophobia and ungratefulness of the British public might better be expressed thus:
….Victoria was extremely popular s a monarch and a personality.
but though Albert was respected he was never regarded with
the same affection. His prowess in horse-riding and shooting
could not make up for the fact that he was a very serious, high-
-minded person. The English aristocracy was extremely suspici-
-ous of his intellectual interests and…suspected him as a ‘forei-
-gner’. It was even suggested, at the time of the Crimean War,
that Albert was involved in handing over state secrets to Russia,
and two London newspapers even reported, mischievously, that
the poor man had been accused of high treason, all of which was
untrue. Victoria herself was offended by the fact that Albert never
seemed to be loved or appreciated so freely, especially by her court.
It was not for want of trying on Albert’s part, certainly, and the entire
Country had much to be grateful for to him. Victoria was often quite
naïve and almost absurdly ignorant of her people, and she had very
little knowledge of the great changes being brought about by the
industrial revolution. She fretted about the increasing number of wor-
-king class people swelling the new cities of her realm. But Albert was
more realistic and much more aware of the adjustments that great social
and economic changes required in the monarchy’s role and style. The
Prince’s interest in the ‘industrious classes’ turned Victoria’s thoughts
more charitably in their direction and she initiated many positive poli-
-cies under his guidance. Albert also saw to it that the Queen played an
important part, above the whirl of electoral politics, in promoting indus-
-try and influencing foreign attitudes towards Britain. The success of the
Great Exhibition of 1851 was largely due to Albert’s vision and his hard
work in organising it. But—paradoxically enough—his openness to
modern development in technology and the arts, and his sympathy for
the common man, still militated against spontaneous popularity, alt-
-hough a gradual acceptance had grudgingly been extended to him and
the average [Englishman] was slowly inclining towards him. (15)
By 1858, when Britain obtained that finest ‘jewel’ in its imperial ‘crown’, that is, India, and Victoria was formally declared its ‘Empress’, even poor Albert was accorded a warm accolade by the British public. Immeasurable wealth and potential had fallen into British hands, greatly boosting national confidence, so they could afford to be generous and more than usually tolerant. Albert, after all, had played a certain role in fostering British interests abroad and meant well, even though he was somewhat of an intellectual with high aesthetic inclinations, or pretensions, by British standards.
According to Ferguson (16), these intellectual/aesthetic inclinations might well explain the British reserve and distrust towards Albert which took so long to thaw out into any fair degree of acceptability. The British did not have nay problem with his hunting and other physical activities; nor with his industriousness and serious purpose—all these traits were in fact intrinsic to that especially ‘English’ nature that Napoleon had scoffed at, in the ‘nation of shopkeepers’ quip. Actually, it was that Prince Albert enjoyed music and literature so seriously, even to the extent of fraternising very freely with musicians, poets and writers, that made them suspicious of him. The English have always suspected artists, writers and other ‘Bohemian’ types as ‘not quite the thing’ and have accorded them a place in genteel society rather grudgingly, and that too, if and when such creative people have already achieved some respectable degree of fame.
This ‘suspect’ love of music was definitely a plus where Victoria was concerned. In addition to their love for their children, country life and dancing, the royal couple very much enjoyed music. The Queen, it is said, had a beautiful singing voice, although her tastes were comparatively “low-brow” (17). But Albert had been tutored in a rather more rigorous, classical/formal tradition, and liked to play Bach at the organ. Losing himself in his world of music was one of the ways in which he consoled himself in the early years of his marriage for the loss of his country, family and friends. It was not surprising, therefore, that Felix Mendelssohn—a German, handsome, a perfect gentleman, and the creator of graceful but comfortable music—suited the royal tastes (18). Mendelssohn himself was quite at home in England, for he spoke the language well and was warmed by the public’s enthusiasm for his work. His first important composition was based on Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture); his famous Scottish Symphony was dedicated to Queen Victoria; and the Hebrides Overture had always remained popular in Britain (19). Mendelssohn first met the Queen and Prince Albert in 1845, five years after their marriage. He played for them and then, Albert played a tune for him while Victoria sang one of his songs. The composer was obviously entranced by his royal audience’s devotion and he visited the court again two years later. The royal couple also attended the second London performance of his oratorio, Elijah, in 1846, later inviting him to perform privately for them at Buckingham Palace (20). Mendelssohn’s popularity with the royals—as with their loyal subjects—was amply demonstrated by the fact that, in 1858, when the Queen’s eldest daughter was married, the composer’s famous ‘Wedding March” was played.
In many, many matters of taste, Victoria and Albert were at one with their middle-class subjects, often ‘dictating’ or ‘leading’ such tastes (21): but in one area in particular, their marriage had a profound public influence. Though Victoria was Queen, Albert was most definitely the had of their own, immediate family. While Victoria may have started out married life full of enthusiasm and a certain tolerance, she gradually became more severe and disapproving of whatever she perceived as impropriety. No divorced woman was allowed to enter the royal court, nor a remarried widow. She also gave up a great deal of her personal freedom, deferring to Albert on many issues, public and private, during their married life.
While it may be too simplistic to consider Albert and Victoria as the perfect bourgeois royal couple, yet they came rather close to that ideal as far as the typical ‘Victorian’ society was concerned, with its strait-laced morality in contrast tot he open licentiousness of the Regency epoch.
In 1861, Albert died, very suddenly, of typhoid. He was only 42 and Victoria was absolutely overwhelmed by grief. Now she was on her own, as the widowed head of a still young family, and the occupant of a role that gave very few allowances for her personal distress. She suffered from the temporary psychological changes that we are beginning to understand now, today (22). She felt cold and lost weight; she could hardly walk and suffered from dreadful headaches. All the signs of a nervous breakdown. For five years, she became the secluded and, therefore, unpopular ‘Widow of Windsor’, devoting her time to the commemoration of her husband in every conceivable way. Even so, we must realise that the length and severity of her mourning, and its morbidity, were not entirely outlandish in an age when even small children were made to dress in black after the death of a relative. The problem was that Victoria had an ‘outside’ duty to perform—people expected the royal show to go on. And, despite many differences from earlier, happier time, it did; Victoria went on to rule, imperiously, for another 40 years, the longest serving monarch in British history.
- A.M Rommilie (Ed). The Correspondence of the Young Queen Victoria, 1837-1847. Vol.II. London: The Bodley Head, 1907. p.ix.
- , Letter No.38 of 1839. p. 12.
- Various papers, pamphlets etc., relating to the Royal Marriage and the early marital period. Courtesy, the Royal Archives and with the Permission of the Comptroller of the Archives to Her Gracious Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II (October 2006): http://www.royal.gov.uk/archives
- A and V.Palmer. Victorian History. London: Hassocks, 1976. p.171.
- , p.168.
- Maria, Countess Lowes, quoted in D.Cannadine. Lives of the English Royalty. II. London: Harrap, 1887.p.803.
- , p.803.
- , p.804.
- A and V Palmer, p.224.
- , pp.224-225.
- Lynne H.Pelletier. Victorian Playgrounds: A History of the Nineteenth Century Country Houses. London: Routledge, 1990. p.338.
- Kemp, p.167.
- Ferguson. England, 1689 to the Present. London: Avon, 1968. p. 520-521, with ellipses.
- , p. 521.
- Cannadine, p.804.
- , 804.
- , 807.
- A and V Palmer, p. 266.
- , p. 269.