If you thought Queen Victoria was stiff, cold and permanently “not amused”, think again. The real Victoria was far from the stereotype of a dumpy old bag in a bonnet.
An obsessive diary keeper writing hundreds of words each day, a glimpse at her private journals reveals that she never pretended to be anything other than a red-blooded woman.
She wasn’t somebody who had to behave like a man to be a monarch. Every generation finds the Victoria they’re looking for. First to edit the diaries was her daughter Beatrice, who was horrified by any mention of sex.
Then her letters and diaries were edited by two elderly gay men (the Archbishop of Canterbury’s son and Viscount Esher), who were not terribly interested in Victoria writing about periods and horrid girly stuff – they wanted to show her as a queen.
When I wrote the screenplay for Victoria, I was reading them as a woman interested in another woman in power but who doesn’t try to deny her nature. It was AN Wilson who said she was the first woman to write frankly about sex since Sappho.
It’s clear from her diaries when she’s talking about sex. She writes that she had “the most wonderful night with Albert”.
They had a happy and fulfilling sex life – she refers to it as “fun”. When, after her ninth child, her doctor said, “You know, ma’am, you shouldn’t have any more children,” she apparently said, “What, Doctor, no more fun in bed?”
At that point she’d been married 20 years. She hated having children but loved sex – and called childbearing “the shadow side of marriage”.
There’s a saying “The children of lovers are orphans”, and I think she felt deprived of time with Albert because she was always having children.
She wanted to be a wife more than she wanted to be a mother. She didn’t breastfeed. She thought it revolting, but breastfeeding has a natural contraceptive effect, so that meant she became pregnant again much sooner.
She was no prude and admired the male form, writing about Albert in his white cashmere britches with nothing underneath.
She’s got a keen eye for male beauty and was definitely interested in men. Famously, it was said she didn’t believe that lesbians existed, but I think that’s simply because she was so interested in men that it didn’t occur to her that there could be an alternative!
I think one of the reasons that she was so heartbroken when Albert died was that she was only 42, and so what was she meant to do?
Never have sex again? She doesn’t say that, but you can see that must have been on her mind.
Our notions of Victorians and what they got up to – we think of them lying back and thinking of England – are nothing like what we read in Victoria’s diaries and letters, now held in the Royal Archives. She really enjoyed herself, and Albert too.
He was very unusual in that he never took a mistress. In a break from what had gone on before, theirs was a passionate, monogamous relationship.
Love and second sight
When victoria came to the throne in June 1837, an outburst of “Reginamania” swept Britain, says Helen Rapport, author of The Victoria Letters.
It wasn’t just princes who thought themselves eligible for her hand: a mass of letters, declaring passionate love and proposals of marriage, began pouring into Buckingham Palace from a succession of stalkers and admirers, all insisting they’d make the perfect Consort.
Some of those admirers – dubbed “The Queen’s Lovers” in the press – even succeeded in infiltrating the palace grounds. But when Albert arrived in October, all others were forgotten.
After a three-and-a-half-year gap, Victoria experienced a magical moment that’s since been immortalised.
She was stunned to see that the gawky German frog had morphed into an archetypal Prince Charming: “I went to the top of the staircase and received my two dear cousins Ernest and Albert – whom I found grown and changed, and embellished. It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert.”
Thereafter, she gushed in her journal about Albert’s charm and how “excessively handsome” he was.
He had “such beautiful blue eyes, an exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate moustachios and slight but very slight whiskers; a beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist”.
To top it all, he was a wonderful dancer. On 11 October when they danced together, she gave him a flower from her bouquet.
Having no buttonhole in which to fix it, Albert took out a small penknife and, cutting a slit in his uniform, placed the flower over his heart. It was enough to make any romantically minded 20-year-old girl swoon; Victoria wasted no time in making up her mind to marry and in securing the prime minister Lord Melbourne’s approval.
He was delighted: “I think it is a very good thing, and you’ll be much more comfortable; for a woman cannot stand alone for long, in whatever position she is,” he told her.
Her first crush
For the first three years of her reign, Victoria recorded every moment spent with Lord Melbourne in the most effusive language, delighting in the fact that they often spent six hours a day together.
“I esteem myself most fortunate to have such a man at the head of the Government; a man in whom I can safely place confidence. There are not many like him in this world of deceit!”
Her journal is filled with allusions to his likes and dislikes, down to his hatred of boiled mutton and rice pudding.
By January 1838, she was referring to him simply as “Lord M”. She worried about his health, that the strains of a long day in Parliament left him pale, that he had enough sleep and the Coronation ceremony might be too much for him.
The Queen showered him with compliments and gifts, and offered the ageing Melbourne the affection he’d been missing for so long.
He in turn had a limitless supply of stories with which to entertain his young pupil during many stultifying evenings that he spent with her at Buckingham Palace.