Queen Victoria, Another Maligned Mother

SYDNEY, Australia — IS anyone else bored with the seemingly endless tomes on modern motherhood?

I devoured dozens in the months after I first gave birth, but seven years later, I’d like to hurl every book on good moms, bad moms, stretched-and-defensive moms, anxious-and-exhausted moms and the misery of parenting today onto a raging bonfire.

Each story seems to be framed by failure.

Isn’t it enough to love children fiercely? And, perhaps, to keep them alive and upright? And must we really continue to assume — or at best, suspect — that working and being a mother are fundamentally incompatible?

To illustrate this suspicion, we interrogate powerful and successful women about their families, and are swift to judge, evident in headlines like “Margaret Thatcher: ‘A Great Prime Minister But an Awful Mother”’ and “Golda Meir: Mother of a Nation, But Not Much of a Mother.”

The Germans call them “Rabenmütter”: a pejorative term for mothers who act like ravens, abandoning their young in nests while they flitter off to work.

Perhaps, when contemplating the impossible burden of perfection we place on mothers today, we should remember the Victorian era, a less conventional time in many ways, when there was robust demand for wet nurses, and little boys wore pink dresses.

Acceptable maternal behavior has taken starkly different guises over the past 200 years.

In the 1800s, a woman could be proud if her child reached primary school age. Out of every 1,000 born, around 150 died. Largely because of the prevalence of measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever and cholera, three out of 10 children did not live to age 5. In some towns in England, the death rate was almost twice as high; some blamed the rather dubious practice of drugging babies with opium to calm them while their parents worked. (A piece published in 1850 in “Household Words,” the journal edited by Charles Dickens, blamed the “ignorant hireling nurse” who managed eight or nine babies at a time by keeping them drugged and “quiet, almost, as death.”) By the century’s end, about 80 percent of parents took out insurance against their babies. That practice was eventually frowned upon for encouraging infanticide.

Yet the population of Britain tripled between 1800 and 1900 as the British Empire spread across the map.

And presiding over it all was the stout, black-clad figure of Queen Victoria, mother of nine and empress of millions.

She was the Domestic Queen, the world’s most powerful working woman, who managed to reign over a quarter of the globe’s inhabitants while insisting a woman’s most important role was that of wife and mother.

Yet in the 113 years since her death, a powerful myth has taken root: that Queen Victoria disliked her children — even, some say, all children.

A string of quotes are cited: She preferred spending time with her husband, Albert; she thought newborns ugly, her children irritating and a burden; she felt like a “cow or a dog” when pregnant, and loathed breast-feeding, calling one of her cows Alice after one of her daughters, who decided to nurse her own children.

(None of those sentiments, frankly, should be considered especially rare or obnoxious; it is only today that we demand solely saccharine sentiments from women about their offspring.)

Now a remarkable and clever new book, “Censoring Queen Victoria: How Two Gentlemen Edited a Queen and Created an Icon,” by Yvonne M. Ward, documents how the historical record was warped by the two men who edited Victoria’s official letters and defined her as subordinate queen — in the words of her biographer Lytton Strachey, a “mere accessory” to the men who surrounded her.

Ms. Ward, who wrote a dissertation on the same subject, began comparing the three official volumes of Victoria’s letters to the more than 460 volumes of correspondence in the Royal Archives in the Windsor Tower, while researching the queen as a wife and mother. She grew curious about the men who edited the letters and why they chose to obscure Victoria’s private life and motherhood.

It turned out that their mission was to protect Victoria as well as her eldest son, Edward VII, from the hint of any scandal at all; they cut out suggestions, for instance, that she was infatuated with her first prime minister, Lord Melbourne.

The man given the task was Viscount Esher, an adviser to King Edward VII; he hired the Eton housemaster Arthur Benson to edit it. Both were gay. Both found the editing experience overwhelming and onerous.

Both also, crucially, viewed Victoria as ancillary to the men around her. They wrote in their introduction: “Confident, in a sense, as she was, she had the feminine instinct strongly developed of dependence upon some manly adviser.”

Only 40 percent of the letters in the volumes of her letters are actually hers: Most of the others are written to her by prominent men, and the correspondence with female relatives and friends is scant.

“The small number of women’s letters in the published volumes,” writes Ms. Ward, “cannot be attributed to the editor’s ignorance of their existence.”

In truth, Benson was bored by correspondence between women; it was “very tiresome.” Yet the letters Victoria exchanged with the young queen of Portugal, Donna Maria, which were almost entirely excluded, reveal a great preoccupation with their young, the joys of children and the pains of giving birth.

Ms. Ward writes: “Despite these women’s privileged living conditions, rank and wealth in the nineteenth century provided no guarantee against disease and infection. The letters between these two royal mothers show their many anxieties concerning their own health and that of their children: breast-feeding and wet nurses, smallpox inoculations, weaning and teething, then education, anxiety about their husband’s health.”

At times, Queen Victoria was a critical mother, but as her personal diaries reveal, she also loved her children, thought about them constantly and was deeply interested in the minutiae of their lives. To dismiss her as a bad mother is to simply ignore the evidence. As we so often do with women in the public eye, we focus on absence and not affection.

So, what about those neglectful Rabenmütter? It turns out that the ravens derided in that German expression are in fact attentive mothers. Their young stay with them for several weeks, and both parents feed them. Sounds like a model we should not deride, but aspire to.