BY: Victoria Heath
This past weekend, millions of maple-loving Canadians celebrated Queen Victoria by frolicking in parks, playing hockey in the streets, and eating poutine in their cottages— basically, by being ideal Canadians.
Most Canadians, however, have no idea why this holiday exists. Over time, it’s come to represent the beginning of the long-awaited summer, but it was initially created in 1845 to recognize Queen Victoria’s birthday. Born on May 24, 1819, this infamous monarch would be a vibrant 197-year-old today.
Although her name would eventually reflect a period known for social restrictions on women and loveless marriages, Victoria herself was passionately infatuated with her husband, Prince Albert. In fact, she adamantly enjoyed the physical pleasures he gave her. In reality, though, she wasn’t alone in maintaining a passionate love life. The Victorians were not as “prudish” in the bedroom as commonly thought, and women in particular, had sexual lives far more dynamic than we ever guessed.
Queen Victoria: a monarch in the streets, a freak in the sheets.
Queen Victoria had 9 children within 15 years but hated being pregnant. She even had questionable views of her children, particularly her youngest Leopold, whom she regarded as ugly and plain. She was also known to compare babies to “little frogs” and commented that breastfeeding was a very “animalistic” act. Prince Albert even wrote to her, lamenting: “It is a pity you find no consolation in the company of your children.”
Historians disagree on whether she disliked her children or if she was just being brutally honest about motherhood. Nevertheless, she had 9 children in quick succession at a time when abstinence was encouraged for married couples in order to prevent large families and poor health. So, could it have been that Victoria actually enjoyed a vibrant sex drive and in her own words, accepted pregnancy as a “penalty of marriage”? Historian Tristam Hunt thinks so, “she enjoyed the physical side of their relationship” but felt “pregnancy and babies got in the way of sex.”
In 1857, after giving birth to her 9th child, Victoria’s doctor Sir James Reid informed her that she should not have any more children, to which she famously replied, “Oh Sir James, am I not to have any more fun in bed?”
Her attraction to her husband was no secret either. After meeting him for a second time in 1839, she wrote in her diary: “He is excessively handsome, such beautiful blue eyes and exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth. A beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist. My heart is quite going!”
After their marriage, she wrote about their “heavenly love-making,” bordering on inappropriate when she wrote to the former Prime Minister and her close friend Lord Melbourne, about her wedding night:
“It was a gratifying and bewildering experience…I never, never spent such an evening…He clasped me in his arms and we kissed each other again and again.”
Queen Victoria also shared intimate portraits with Albert. The most famous was tucked away for decades in a private family collection. It’s now known as “the secret picture,” and it shows a 24-year-old Victoria in a rather intimate position with her chest exposed and her hair cascading down her shoulder. The portrait hung in Prince Albert’s bedchamber from 1843 until his death in 1861. It was the equivalent of sending a naughty text to your partner to “spice things up”—kept on display for the next 18 years.
“Lie Back and Think of England:” sex in the Victorian age.
Was Victoria alone in her love for sex during this time period? Not necessarily. This period, in terms of romance, was defined by the “code of chivalry” outlined first in the novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. Men were supposed to be like medieval knights, strong and manly, yet polite. Women were supposed to be humble and virtuous, like a “damsel in distress” who was too innocent to have sexual desires.
Underneath this idealistic and constraining social code however, there were new and conflicting ideas about sex in Victorian society. Contemporary writers wrote pages of relationship tips for couples. One advised, “There must be no private reserves on the wedding night, and each one must allow their soul to be as open as their arms.” In 1845, French physician Eugene Becklard wrote that couples seeking to have “good-looking children” must not have “faintly or drowsily performed” sex. In other words, be passionate, and stay awake.
Becklard’s writings show that although there was a stifling moral code in the Victorian period, passionate and even wild conception was seen as an imperative for married couples. In fact, it was believed that women could not get pregnant unless they had an orgasm at the same time as their lover—biologically untrue, but not a bad goal to strive for. In fact, it was widely understood that simultaneous organisms were required of a man; if he couldn’t perform, a woman had the “right” to refuse sex. This improbable expectation however, led to many unsatisfied couples.
Some other troubling thoughts regarding sex also emerged during this period. Men were thought to be biologically “polygamous” while women were “monogamous.” Women were said to be lucky as they were not “troubled by sexual freedom of any kind.”
Some social moralists believed that men should actually avoid “fornication, masturbation and nocturnal emissions” and even ration sex within their marriages because each time a man ejaculated he lost his body’s “energy,” and thus would eventually become an idiot. Moralists essentially used the dearth of rigorous biological science during the time to enforce a culture of self-control and fear.
H. Kellogg—the father of the beloved cornflake cereal and a staunch celibate—said men could purchase a femme de voyage or an inflatable sex aid, particularly for when they were traveling to prevent the vile act of masturbation. This device not only prevented the need to masturbate but also discouraged them from dabbling around with any lovers while away from home. Allegedly, the ‘artificial fanny’ came as a full-length figure or could be “quartered” into what’s essential and carried around in a hat. If all else failed, Kellogg encouraged men to eat cornflakes and other plain food to cure themselves of their sexual desires, which he believed were detrimental to one’s health.
What about the ladies?
Recently uncovered surveys of middle class women conducted between 1892 and 1920 by Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher, an early feminist and hygiene academic, revealed even more about women’s sexual ideas. Mosher surveyed 45 women, asking their experiences with sex and marriage. Mosher reported that 35 women said “they desired intercourse” and 24 women reported “mutual pleasure was a reason for making love.” One outspoken respondent, who listed her birthday at 1867, wrote:
“In my experience the habitual bodily expression of love has a deep psychological effect in making possible complete mental sympathy & perfecting the spiritual union that must be the lasting ‘marriage’ after the passion of love has passed away with the years.”
The Victorian era saw the invention and innovation of different “sex toys” meant to pleasure both men and women, including the at-home electric vibrator (originally intended as a massage device, but no one was fooled). There were also pamphlets, novels, and self-help books, like A Guide to Marriage, published in 1865, which shows Victorian society’s eagerness to understand sex and help couples embrace it. Married couples, of course. Sexual promiscuity and adultery were still very much social taboos—and social suicide for women in particular. Although, there are documented cases of upper class and working class couples engaging in pre-marital sex. They were human, after all.
Historian Fern Riddell wrote in The Guardian, “for the Victorians, sex, pleasure and love were concepts that were universally tied together.” Perhaps we are mistaken to think that Queen Victoria’s recently revealed sexual appetite was abnormal for the time period, and that most women were sexually passive. Riddel writes there are many famous examples, from Cora Pearl to Mary Bensen, that show “Victorian female sexuality was just as expressive and expansive as it is today.”
I’ve always wondered if Queen Victoria would appreciate a solid issue of Cosmopolitan, the guilty pleasure of the modern woman. Now I know.