Saturday, 5 January 2013

Victoria's (and Albert's) Secret

I like QI.  It's a TV show that I can relate to, given that I seem to collect random bits of knowledge like an old lady collects random bits of string.  Apparently, I now use it to give me ideas when I'm stuck with writer's block like I was two weeks ago.

When we picture Queen Victoria, we picture the very straight-laced "Widow of Windsor"; a woman lost in perpetual mourning and the mother of the British Empire:

Queen Victoria, 1887, around 68 years old.  Although she never said "we are not amused", you can see why people thought that she did!

Of course, she wasn't born old.  It's easy to forget given that the pictures we see of her are largely like the ones above.  In her earlier years, she was absolutely besotted with her husband, Albert, although she had to ask him to marry her because of her royal position.  He became The Prince Consort in 1840 and the marriage lasted 21 years, until his death from typhoid fever in 1861.  It was his death that plunged her into the dark widow that we recognise today.  But before that, she was much different:

Vic & Al, 1846.  Painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.  Pictured here with five of her children.  As a side note, she was one of the first women to use anesthetic during childbirth, against the advice and will of the clergy, who believed that women should suffer the pain of Eve in order to bring a healthy child into the world.  She helped to break that belief.

Thing is, despite having nine children in total, Victoria hated being pregnant.  She thought babies were ugly and she really didn't like the idea of breast feeding at all.  She did, however, really like sex with her properly wedded husband.  In fact, after her last child was born she was told by her doctor, James Reid, that any more pregnancies would be dangerous to her health.  Her reply?  “Oh, Sir James!  Am I not to have any more fun in bed?”  She was far from the picture of Victorian repression that we picture today, by all accounts.  And fair play to her.

She was apparently very flirtatious as a wife, and as such, on Albert's 24th birthday, she surprised her husband with a portrait known for years after as "The Secret Picture".  Albert kept it in his private chambers and it was said to be his favourite picture of her.  At the time, it was seen as being a bit risqué, so he had every reason to keep it out of sight and very much to himself:

Queen Victoria's Secret:  The portrait deemed "too overtly sexual" to be shown to the public until 1977.  Of course, posing for such a picture would also have been seen as been scandalous by some.  That's 1843 for you!  Still, it's a beautiful picture and you can see why Albert liked it -- and why the royal family wished to keep it secret in order to keep Victoria's "proper" image intact.

The picture went on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2009 as part of an exhibition called Victoria & Albert:  Art & Love, which focused on the years between Victoria's accession to the throne and Albert's death.  I have no idea what Victoria or Albert would think about it going on display, but it humanises her, her husband and her relationship; it allows us to relate to a couple in love, rather than the sadness that followed.  I'd like to think that they wouldn't mind it being shared 170 years later.

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