As her wedding loomed in the early weeks of 1840, Victoria became increasingly agitated. She grew pale and thin, she could not eat or sleep, she was feverish, her entire body ached and she had a terrible cold. Even writing letters exhausted her. Her personal physician examined her and told her she had the measles. As Victoria lay in her bed watching rain streak the dirt on her windows at Kensington Palace, trying not to panic, doubts crawled through her mind. Hadn’t she enjoyed the last two years of her life as an independent woman more than any others? That pure freedom was about to slip from her grasp. She closed her eyes and thought of the preparations humming across the city: cakes being baked, shoes polished, coats fitted, gardens trimmed, carriages cleaned, and large casks of Scottish whisky and carts piled high with food for the wedding feast being rolled along the streets.
Questions drummed persistently in the mind of the 20-year-old: what would life be like after making her vows? She dreaded the thought of having children. The ways of a man and his wife, alone together, seemed mysterious. Was she good enough for Albert? Would his eye turn to other, more comely women in a few years’ time, as Lord Melbourne (William Lamb, the 2nd Viscount Melbourne, who was the prime minister [1835-1841], and the young queen’s mentor) had so unkindly suggested? Why did so many people think Albert would interfere politically when it was clear she was the ruler, the one in charge? Would he try to control her or criticise her? Would the sacrifice be too much for him? She felt, at times, so unworthy: he was so handsome and she so plain. Her pride was ingrained and her strength had become habitual, but love had humbled her. Victoria had learnt, in just a few years, how to be a queen, but how did one learn to be a wife?
Lord Melbourne’s sole task was to boost Victoria’s spirits in the days before the wedding. It was normal, he assured her, to feel anxious. When she reminded him of her former determination to remain single, he said getting married was natural; it was her job as monarch that was “very unnatural.”
There was also a quiet need to shine and feel pretty. She pointed out to her prime minister, a little shyly, that she had lost weight and must look awfully stressed. He insisted that she looked “very well”. He added that he had seen an article in a Scottish newspaper in which the reporter described Victoria as having “a large searching eye, an open anxious nostril, and a firm mouth”. Lord Melbourne repeated this compliment several times. It was, he said approvingly, “a very true representation, can’t be a finer physiognomy”. While few women today would be flattered to hear they had open, anxious nostrils, the queen smiled and responded, “I am sure none of your friends are as fond of you as I am.” He replied, “I believe not.” His gentle encouragement could have come from a father.
Victoria’s measles turned out to be nerves, which were calmed the moment she saw Albert. When he arrived at Buckingham Palace, she was impatiently standing at the front door: “Seeing his dear, dear face again put me at rest about everything.” Albert, though so ill from his crossing of the English Channel that he likened himself to a wax candle, was unruffled and resolute. The only jarring note was a rather formal letter Albert had received from Victoria as he left his Coburg home [in modern-day central Germany]. She would not agree to a two-week honeymoon, she wrote, despite his desire for at least two weeks alone together. She said, somewhat condescendingly, that she was just too busy:
“Dear Albert, you have not at all understood the matter. You forget, my dearest Love, that I am the Sovereign, and that business can stop and wait for nothing. Parliament is sitting, and something occurs almost every day, for which I may be required, and it is quite impossible for me to be absent from London; therefore two or three days is already a long time to be absent. I am never easy a moment if I am not on the spot …”
Her love for her husband was deep, but so was her love for her work, and her sense of duty. This is what is often forgotten in accounts of Victoria’s consuming relationship: when she fell in love with Albert, she had no intention of stepping back from her tasks of correspondence, reading Cabinet documents, and consulting with the prime minister. Victoria thought she would be able to do more work with Albert by her side, not less. She knew, though, that she would need to be careful not to evirate her husband, the majority of whose income derived from the simple fact that he was married to the most famous woman in the world.
When the archbishop asked the queen if she would like to remove the word “obey” from the marriage service, she insisted it remain. It was not, for her, a call to subservience, but a reminder that she could not, or perhaps would not, dominate the man she married, as she did the rest of her household, her Cabinet, and her millions of subjects. At the time of her wedding, she was as contradictory and complicated as she would be throughout her life: publicly vowing to obey her husband at precisely the same time she privately overruled his wishes.
Victoria wanted a simple wedding: a plain dress, a small group of guests and a restrained ceremony. This was, of course, a difficult desire to accommodate for a queen. Melbourne managed to persuade her to have a more elaborate celebration, which he thought suitable for a monarch. He counselled her to try to overcome her public shyness and discomfort with being looked at. He had convinced her to invite not only the Duke of Wellington, but also Lord Liverpool, despite her determination to have a wedding entirely devoid of Tories. Melbourne also persuaded her that the ceremony should take place in the Chapel Royal of St James’s Palace, even though she thought it was hideous. Victoria sighed, “Everything [is] always made so uncomfortable for Kings and Queens.”
Certain things Victoria insisted on. While Albert wanted her to have only daughters of mothers he considered virtuous in her bridal party, Melbourne advised her, with the glorious hypocrisy of the privileged, that this kind of morality was a problem only for the lower classes. She decided to ignore Albert’s wishes and chose her 12 bridesmaids according to rank. She even, daringly, included the daughter of the notorious Lady Jersey, who had been the mistress of George IV.
She also wanted Albert to sleep under her roof on the night before their wedding, and shrugged off the objections of her mother and prime minister as “foolish nonsense”. She knew she would sleep better if he was nearby, and she joked with Lord Melbourne: “I declared laughing I would show that I could sometimes have my own Will, though I was so seldom allowed to have it – which made Lord M. laugh.” The prime minister and the queen chortled together as Albert awaited instructions, biding his time.
The skies were black and brooding on the morning of February 10, 1840. Victoria slept deeply and late, waking at 8.45am. It was the last time she would be in her bed on her own, she thought happily. She peered out the window at the darkness and sat to write a letter to her groom:
Already the 2nd day since our marriage; his love and gentleness is beyond everything … to press my lips to his, is heavenly bliss.
“Dearest, how are you today, and have you slept well? I have rested very well, and feel very comfortable today. What weather! I believe, however, the rain will cease. Send one word when you, my most dearly beloved bridegroom, will be ready. Thy ever-faithful, VICTORIA R.”
Victoria stood still as she was carefully buttoned into her white satin dress, with a flounce of lace and a five-metre train edged with orange blossoms. Her hands shook slightly as she pinned Turkish diamonds to her ears and looped them around her neck before fastening a sapphire brooch from Albert on her breast. She held her foot out as her maids tied the ribbons of her delicate white satin slippers around her ankles. Her dress sat low on her shoulders, displaying her smooth ivory chest, and her hair, parted severely in the middle, was looped into low buns on either side of her head.
Victoria’s clothes had been carefully chosen to display her patriotism. The fabric of her dress was from the Spitalfields, the historic centre of the silk industry in London, and 200 lace-makers from Devon, in her country’s south-west, had laboured on it for months. The pattern was destroyed afterward so that no one could copy it. Her gloves were stitched in London and made of English kid leather. Victoria had commissioned a huge swath of handmade Honiton lace for her dress in an attempt to revive the flagging lace industry (machine-made copies had been harming the trade).
She stood in front of her mirror and stared at her reflection disbelievingly. On her head she wore a simple wreath of orange blossoms and myrtle. In portraits she looks young and pale, hovering between anxious and dreamy.
The queen had asked that no one else wear white to the wedding. Some have wrongly interpreted her choice of colour as a signal of sexual purity – as historian Agnes Strickland later gushed, she had chosen to dress “not as a queen in her glittering trappings, but in spotless white, like a pure virgin, to meet her bridegroom”. Victoria had chosen to wear white mostly because it was the perfect colour to highlight the delicate lace – it was not then a conventional colour for brides. Before bleaching techniques were mastered, white was a rare and expensive colour, more a symbol of wealth than purity. Victoria was not the first to wear it, but she made it popular by example. Lace-makers across England were thrilled by the sudden surge in the popularity of their handiwork.
As Victoria made her way to her golden carriage, the crowd clamoured. She kept her eyes down, and “a hurried glance around, and a slight inclination of the head, was all the acknowledgment returned”.
The torrents of rain and violent winds deterred “vast numbers” of wellwishers, but the public anticipation could not be dampened. There are few things as certain to knit British hearts as a royal wedding, and London had been thrumming with excitement for weeks. The controversial weekly newspaper of the time, The Satirist, complained: “We are all going stark staring mad. Nothing is heard or thought of but doves and Cupids, triumphal arches and white favours, and last, but not least, variegated lamps and general illuminations.”
The cantankerous historian Thomas Carlyle was, as usual when it came to royal events, wearily wondering why such a great fuss was being made: “Poor little thing.” (Even from a distance, he said, he could correctly tell that the woman hated by the Tories had “an abundance of obstinate temper”.)
Still, after a year of hissing, name-calling and savaging by the press, it seemed as if London was once more in love with their queen. A small number were obsessed. Victoria had a clutch of farcical, fixated stalkers, some of whom grew quite distressed by the upcoming nuptials. Several were committed.
The wedding excitement was so ubiquitous that Charles Dickens joked with his friends that he, too, was a victim of it. In a letter to the eccentric poet Walter Savage Landor, he wrote: “Society is unhinged here by Her Majesty’s marriage, and I am sorry to add that I have fallen hopelessly in love with the Queen.”
Three days after the wedding, Dickens wrote a letter to a friend pretending to have been one of Victoria’s pursuers: “On Tuesday we sallied down to Windsor, prowled about the Castle, saw the corridor and their private rooms – nay the very bedchamber … lighted up with such a ruddy, homely brilliant glow – bespeaking so much bliss and happiness – that I, your humble servant, lay down in the mud at the top of the long walk, and refused all comfort.”
Souvenir marriage medals were proudly displayed by the damp crowd waiting to see the bride. The police stood in stiff rows along the muddy route from the palace to the chapel, pushing back rowdy onlookers. Burglars began creeping through the alleys and backyards of London, taking advantage of the fact that the bobbies would be distracted for a day. Meanwhile, along the route from the palace to the chapel, tree branches were collapsing under the weight of the people clinging to them.
When Victoria arrived at St James’s crimson and gold Chapel Royal, she went to her waiting train-bearers, all in white dresses of her design. She gave each of them a small turquoise brooch in the shape of an eagle, as a symbol of courage and strength.
Albert waited at the altar, looking dashing in a bright red, tightly fitted uniform decorated with the collar and star of the Order of the Garter, the highest order of chivalry in Britain, with his blue eyes fixed on his solemn little bride as she approached.
Florence Nightingale, who, like most, thought Albert a “remarkably agreeable-looking youth”, reported that a Mrs Lefevre, who stood close to Victoria during the ceremony, said she was “perfectly composed and spoke distinctly and well but that every orange flower in her head was quivering and she was very pale and her eyes red as if she had not slept. But she signed her name like a lion and was so anxious that PA should appear to advantage that she touched his elbow whenever he was going to do wrong, showed him where to sign his name and put him right when he set the ring on the wrong finger. After the marriage she cleared up and looked quite happy.”
The next day, the only report Victoria wanted to correct was that she had cried: “I did not shed one tear the whole time.” She had been trained in the art of composure and did not intend to be seen as an unsteady queen.
After the ceremony, the newlyweds snatched half an hour together in Victoria’s room before facing the crowds at the wedding banquet. Victoria placed a ring on Albert’s finger as he said there should never be any secrets between them. (She wrote in her journal 23 years later, “There never was.”) Victoria then changed into another white dress, edged with swansdown, and a bonnet with an enormous brim – a hat she could hide inside.
The feast was a frenzy of nodding, curtsying, beaming and hand-shaking. The couple finally left at four in the afternoon, trotting off in simple fashion as the sun started to poke fingers through the clouds, with three coaches accompanying them and people cheering and running alongside. As the sun singed the clouds red before sinking into black, the bride marvelled that it was just “I and Albert alone, which was SO delightful”. This would be a refrain throughout her marriage: what she wanted most of all, always, was to be with Albert alone.
After a three-hour journey, the exhausted couple arrived at Windsor Castle. Victoria had a headache; she changed and lay on the couch, mentally scrolling through images of her chaotic day. Albert played the piano as she rested. It was so much quieter than London; what a relief. She thought back on the past few hours: the look on dear Melbourne’s face as he tried to stem his tears. The happy moment when Albert placed a ring on her finger and it was done. The rippling, jostling ocean of faces lining the route to the chapel; and at the palace, the thick heat of goodwill, the deafening applause, the sight of elegant Albert in his uniform.
What she liked about it most of all, though, was that as they stood before the archbishop, they were called simply Victoria and Albert. For the rest of her life, she thought with a swelling joy, she would just be Victoria to her Albert. She wasn’t a queen or ruler, but simply a wife and lover. She rolled onto her side and looked at her husband as his fingers glided along the piano keys, playing one of his own compositions. Albert looked up and came over to her, kissing her. By 10.20pm, they went to their room, as Victoria spelled out, “of course in one bed”. She lay by his side, in his arms, and on his chest, smiling in the darkness as he whispered to her.
Victoria woke the next morning after a night of little sleep. She lay still, staring at Albert’s face in the early light, marvelling at him and his pale throat, which she had seen only glimpses of before. He was “beautiful, angelic”. She was sated and thrilled with an intimacy her mind had strained to imagine. Luckily for her, the mortifying tradition of the court coming to peer at the royal couple when they first climbed into the same bed had gone out of fashion with George III. She was also lucky in that Albert seems to have been a competent, tender lover. Victoria’s wedding night was the closest thing she had known to bliss. Her elation was palpable in her journal entry:
“I NEVER, NEVER spent such an evening! MY 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! Oh! This was the happiest day of my life!”
It was a kind of lustful enchantment. Over breakfast, Victoria gazed at him, again noticing how he had no neckcloth on under his black velvet jacket and was “more beautiful than it is possible for me to say”. The next day, she was cooing in otherworldly tones: “Already the 2nd day since our marriage; his love and gentleness is beyond everything, and to kiss that dear soft cheek, to press my lips to his, is heavenly bliss. I feel a purer more unearthly feel than I ever did. Oh! was ever woman so blessed as I am!”
It was the small, intimate gestures she loved the most: when Albert put on her stockings for her, when she watched him shave. He slid into bed next to her, kissing her over and over; they fell asleep with arms entwined. After Lord Melbourne remarked that she looked “very well”, she replied that Albert’s “kindness and affection” were “beyond everything”.
Historians have long acknowledged that Victoria had a high libido – some have implied she was some kind of sexual predator who devoured a tolerant, but exhausted husband. She was undoubtedly extremely passionate, the fact of which clashes with the strong associations Victoria often carries of dour old age and puritanical condemnation. Given how fraught sex was at the time for women – with limited access to contraception and abortion, and no pain relief for childbirth – Victoria’s unbridled and unabashed physical enjoyment of her husband is remarkable.
In the 19th century, it was assumed that women with strong libidos were pathological: female desire was considered dangerous and potentially explosive, and it was thought that women’s animal nature would overwhelm their weak will and they would lose control. Women were dubbed “nymphomaniacs” for dreaming, thinking about or having what was considered to be an excessive amount of sex. Some were given clitoridectomies or had leeches placed on their perineum. Others were told to abstain from meat and brandy, use hair pillows, douche with borax, have cold enemas, or adhere to strict vegetable diets.
For many married women, sex was a chore, not something to be enjoyed. Given the ignorance surrounding women’s bodies, Victoria’s delight in sexual pleasure was genuinely countercultural. Albert did not record his views on sex, but it is clear that he satisfied his wife. And he certainly admired her, writing to his brother Ernest approvingly about her oft-praised bosom. Just a few months after his wedding he told him, somewhat defensively, that Victoria had “changed much to her advantage” and had looked lovely at the previous night’s dinner: “She had a very low-necked dress, with a bunch of roses at her breast which was swelling up from her dress.”
The marriage between Victoria and Albert is one of the greatest romances of modern history. It was genuine, devoted and fruitful. Together, they ushered in an era when the monarchy would shift from direct power to indirect influence, and from being the fruit of the aristocracy to becoming the symbol of the middle class. They restored and raised the stature of the monarchy, preserving it from the revolutions that toppled the aristocracies and royal families in Europe during the same years that Victoria and Albert were widely feted in Britain. Albert would grow to surpass his wife, for a short time, in influence, but not in longevity, stamina or sheer will. Albert would soar; Victoria would endure.
In giving Albert free rein to work alongside her as she carried nine children, Victoria was soon to discover that the clever, intellectually restless Albert was a great asset. She spent roughly 80 months pregnant in the 1840s and 1850s – more than six years in total – and even longer recovering from childbirth. During this time, she was able to hand off work to a brilliant, trusted deputy.
But her husband had no intention of being a subordinate partner, and this sparked the fiercest fights of their marriage. As he and Victoria embarked on married life, each tried to assert their will in what had traditionally been the most unequal of relationships: husband and wife, and monarch and spouse. In this case, the spouse held the trump card: he would never have to bear children.
Edited extract from Victoria: The Woman Who Made the Modern World, by Julia Baird (HarperCollins), available November 1.
Uncovering Her Majesty’s pleasure: interview with author Julia Baird
Author and journalist Julia Baird was cradling her new baby in her Upper West Side Manhattan apartment in the autumn of 2009 when her phone trilled. “I don’t think Queen Victoria has been properly examined for a long time,” read the text message. Its author was Jon Meacham, then the editor of Newsweek magazine.
For some time, Baird, then Newsweek deputy editor, had been tossing around book ideas with her boss. She had always been drawn to stories of women; her PhD at the University of Sydney had focused on powerful women and, at Newsweek, she had written about women like Republican Sarah Palin and MSNBC TV host Rachel Maddow. For a while, she had considered Eleanor Roosevelt as a potential book subject.
In the months that followed Meacham’s text, Baird read all she could on Queen Victoria. “What I saw … was a constant repetition of the same thing; there hadn’t been a fresh interrogation for some time,” says Baird, sipping chai tea in the cafeteria of the ABC in Sydney’s Ultimo, where she works as the host of The Drum. “I wanted to see her as a flesh-and-blood woman.”
For her engrossing biography, Victoria: The Woman Who Made the Modern World, Baird drew on previously unpublished material and grappled with Victorian-era mythology. She believes the biggest misconception about Victoria was that she didn’t love power and ceded her authority to Prince Albert. “It was actually a great fight of wills between them.”
Photographs show the queen as severe and strait-laced but Baird’s Victoria is down-to-earth, witty. “She loved the [Scottish] Highlands, she loved the Highlanders, she loved wandering around [their] cottages. She didn’t like affectation. She was like, ‘I’m not going to wear a corset, I’m the Queen,’ ” says Baird, 46, who also writes a fortnightly column for The Sydney Morning Herald.
In the biography, Baird highlights Queen Victoria’s sensual nature. “She fell so intensely in love with [Albert]; she lusted after him.” Through her exhaustive research over six years in both British and European archives, Baird also uncovered new primary sources that seem to confirm speculation that, after Albert’s death, the Queen had a passionate relationship with her Scottish servant John Brown.
NSW Premier Mike Baird remembers his younger sister as a disciplined student: “Our parents had to poke me and prod me to study; whereas they had to poke and prod to stop Julia from studying.”
It was much the same with her research for the book. When Baird’s substantial advance dried up, she returned to work and juggled journalism, motherhood (she has two children, Poppy, 10, and Sam, 7) and her immersion in the book. “When you’re doing a book, it looks like you’re harried and you’ve taken too much on, but inside, you’re living in another world and it’s very gratifying.”
Interview by Stephanie Wood