CREDIT: ITV PICTURE DESK (via Telegraph.co.uk)
On the face of it, as a woman who shudders at the thought of breastfeeding, beats her children when they disobey her, and who micro-manages every aspect of their lives into middle age, Queen Victoria would not be a poster girl for Mumsnet. Her attitude to motherhood would have her blackballed from the NCT. If she didn’t live in a palace, social workers would be circling.
But while Victoria definitely doesn’t conform to contemporary ideas of a good mother, while writing the second series of my ITV drama, I realised modern women have something to learn from the first English woman to be mother, wife and Queen (Mary I and II couldn’t have children, all Anne’s children were dead when she came to the throne, and of course, Elizabeth was famously the Virgin Queen).
Victoria was the first woman to have it all: a big job, hunky husband, and nine children. But unlike pretty much every working mother alive today, myself included, she was not shrouded in guiltover what being the most powerful woman in the world was doing to her children.
At a time when parenting has become a verb and motherhood has become almost an Olympic sport there is something hugely refreshing about a woman who found all infants ugly (“an ugly baby is a very nasty object – and the prettiest is frightful when undressed”) and who told her daughters when they got married, “Don’t spend your whole day in the nursery – it is the ruin of many a refined and intellectual young lady.”
CREDIT: BRIDGEMAN IMAGES (via Telegraph.co.uk)
For the young Victoria, her burgeoning nursery was a necessary evil: the inevitable result of an ecstatic sex life with Albert and complete ignorance of the principles of contraception (the Victorians believed that women, like dogs, were most fertile when on heat or menstruating which we now know is the exact opposite of the truth).
The young Queen was not happy when she discovered that she was pregnant immediately after her marriage, and she was furious when she found she was pregnant again a month after the birth of her first child. As she wrote to her Uncle Leopold crossly, “I think, dearest Uncle, you cannot really wish me to be the Mamma d’une nombreuse famille, for I think you will see with me the great inconvenience a large family would be to us all, and particularly to the country, independent of the hardship and inconvenience to myself; men never think, at least seldom think, what a hard task it is for us women to go through this very often.”
She found the physical side of childbearing really unpleasant, calling it the schattensiete, the ‘shadow side’ of her marriage. But even a queen could not escape the consequences of her desire for Albert. She had four children in the first five years of her marriage, and five more after more respectable gaps, ending with the birth of Princess Beatrice in 1857.
There is no doubt that Victoria’s life would have been immeasurably improved if she had known how to avoid pregnancy. Not only was it uncomfortable to be pregnant while wearing a corset, it was considered unseemly for visibly pregnant women to take part in social activities. This was irksome for Victoria, who loved parties, but was probably a relief to Albert, who didn’t.
After a birth, Victoria was ‘confined’ for a month, wheeled everywhere in a bath chair. For a healthy young woman, who was also Queen, this must have been torture. Before she could take up her duties again, Victoria had to go through a ceremony called ‘churching’, where she was purified in church.
And then she faced the anxiety of what her maternity cover, in this case Albert, had been up to in her absence. She must have entertained the suspicion that it suited her ambitious husband very well for her to be constantly pregnant, leaving him to be the king he so clearly wished he was.
It’s hard to imagine now but every time Victoria went into one of her nine labours, the country would hold its breath to see if their head of state would survive the ordeal. Childbirth in the 19th century was a perilous business. The only reason that Victoria was on the throne at all was because Princess Charlotte, the daughter of George IV, had died along with her baby after a terrible labour, aided and abetted by incompetent physicians.
Victoria was physically very tough, however, and had nine healthy children without complications. The last two births were made considerably easier by what Victoria called ‘the blessed chloroform’, although the Archbishop of Canterbury’s permission had to be asked for before she could use it as labour pains were considered God’s punishment for Eve’s temptation of Adam. Once it had royal approval the use of chloroform became widespread. Today, a natural birth is seen as desirable but for Victorian women who had no choice but to suffer, chloroform was a godsend.
Victoria refused to breastfeed, much to the horror of her mother who had fed her, and she in turn was shocked when her daughters decided to nurse their children, “no better than a cat or a dog.” Her daughters, Victoria and Alice went ahead anyway, but their mother couldn’t understand their desire to be always in the nursery. “What you say of the pride of giving life to an immortal soul is very fine, dear, but I own I cannot enter into that; I think much more of our being like a cow or a dog at such moments; when our poor nature becomes so very animal and unecstatic.”
Although her enchanting watercolours of her children show that she was watching them closely, Victoria resisted the idea that motherhood was a vocation. The selfless ‘angel in the house’ idealised by Coventry Patmore’s poem she most definitely was not. That doesn’t mean she was a neglectful mother. She took a great interest in her children.
Anyone who has been to Osborne House and seen the Swiss Cottage where the children were encouraged to learn to cook, or the royal allotment with its nine monogrammed wheelbarrows, will know that Victoria and Albert wanted their children to have a taste of real life. Alix of Hesse, Victoria’s granddaughter, who later became the Tsarina of Russia, recalled that her Grandmama had made sure that they learnt to make their own beds.
CREDIT: GARETH GATTRELL/ITV (via Telegraph.co.uk)
But while she was passionately interested in her children’s progress, she was not afraid to be critical. The slowness of of her eldest son Bertie (“sadly backward”) when compared to his super bright older sister Victoria, was extremely vexing to her. Unlike a modern mother who inevitably blames herself for her child’s failure to learn (did I take the right vitamins while pregnant? should I have played him more Mozart in utero?) Victoria thought that Bertie’s failure to apply himself to his studies was on account of his congenital laziness.
The phrenologist that she and Albert consulted, agreed. Bertie was placed under a very strict governor and forced to study 12 hours a day. Today, this seems incredibly harsh, but Victoria knew only too well what it was like to come to the throne totally unprepared for the responsibilities that lay ahead. Although the moral element of his education was singularly unsuccessful – Bertie flirted and gambled through his adult life – when he came to the throne at the age of 61, he proved remarkably effective.
I am not suggesting that Victoria is a maternal role model, but I think her determination not to be submerged into motherhood was one of her most important achievements. As Queen, wife and mother, she set the stage for the emancipation of her female subjects; the 19th century idea that a woman was rendered incapable by childbirth and motherhood was daily contradicted by the vigorous, fecund, and unstoppable Queen.
Today perhaps we, too, can learn from her example; as a mother Victoria never apologized, never explained, and never blamed herself for her children’s failings. She loved them but she wasn’t afraid to point out their faults, and she always put her marriage and above all her job first. If we were all to adopt a little of Victoria’s approach to motherhood, we might stop feeling guilty about our failings as parents and accept that there are more important things in life than raising the perfect child.
(Original article: link)
Telegraph UK |
Published: 23 August 2017 • 6:37PM