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Royal Comedy

Mrs. Brown

a film directed by John Madden. distributed by Miramax Films

The first things that struck Princess Victoria favorably about her German cousin Albert on his visit to England in 1836 were his “beautiful nose” and his “very sweet mouth with fine teeth.” Victoria noticed such things. She was very fond of male beauty. Just before Albert’s visit, with his brother Ernst (“fine dark eyes and eyebrows, but the nose and mouth are not good”), to celebrate Victoria’s seventeenth birthday, she had dismissed two Dutch princes presented to her as potential suitors. “The [Netherlander] boys,” she wrote to her uncle, King Leopold of Belgium, “are very plain.” She thought their faces showed an unpleasing mixture of Dutch and “Kalmuck,” or Mongol, and “moreover they look heavy, dull and frightened and are not at all prepossessing. So much for the Oranges, dear Uncle.”

The stream of young men paraded before the princess, to have their physical charms appraised, brings to mind not so much a royal match as a well-appointed brothel, where pretty dances, fine clothes, and elegant small talk only serve to add some class to what is, after all, a sexual transaction. Albert was destined to be a high-class stud, a robust bedroom performer, guaranteed to produce plenty of blue-blooded offspring. That was his main duty; indeed, it was virtually his only duty. Parliament voted against his becoming King Consort or even getting a British peerage. And yet, by the end of his short life, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha had exerted a huge and lasting influence on British life. Most of the qualities we still regard as typically “Victorian,” the high-minded patronage of science, the museums, the charities, the sentimentality, the domestic monarchy, the Christmas tree, the industrious do-goodery, and even the prudery, were stamped with Albert’s mark.

Stanley Weintraub has written a dense, detailed, sympathetic account of Albert, who is not an easy subject for a biographer, since he was a worthy but not a glamorous figure. His achievements were extraordinary, yet he lacked color, or dash, or charisma, or whatever it is that quickens our imagination. Worthiness, even on a heroic scale, is not sexy. Albert is most interesting for what he represented, inspired, and sparked off in others. Albert, in a way, is history’s straight man—Victoria, of course, was a comedienne of the first order. One thing he inspired all his life was British or, more especially, English xenophobia. This is well recorded by Weintraub, who manages to write about the less pleasant aspects of the English without losing his sense of comedy. The other thing Albert inspired was Victoria’s ardor. It is astonishing to see how much a period associated with highmindedness and prudery was actually shaped by the Queen’s passion for the male sex. The prudery was surely more Albertine than Victorian.

Before marrying Victoria, Albert didn’t have much of a track record as a lover; in fact he had none. This was unusual for a young aristocrat. But girls seem to have put Albert off from an early age. Lytton Strachey, admittedly not always the most scrupulous of biographers, recounts that Albert, aged five, “screamed with disgust” when he was asked to dance with a little girl.1 Later events make this story sound plausible. When Albert visited Italy as a young man, he spent all his time at a ball in Florence talking to an elderly scholar, instead of mixing with the ladies. Observing this behavior, the Grand Duke of Tuscany remarked: “Here is a prince we can be proud of, la belle danseuse l’attend, le savant l’occupe.”2 Albert’s father, a man of the old school who spent much of his time, as Weintraub puts it, “wenching,” took his son to take the waters at Karlsbad, where there would be ample opportunity for wenching. Albert didn’t wench, but preferred to stay in his room studying English. Lord Melbourne, prime minister at the time of Victoria and Albert’s marriage, and another rake of the old stamp, told the young Queen that her future consort’s “indifference about ladies” was perhaps “a little dangerous.”

And yet we have a great deal of evidence, provided by Weintraub, among others, including Queen Victoria herself, that Albert was an ardent lover. Or if he wasn’t, he certainly put up a good show. About her wedding night, the Queen wrote in her journal: “When day dawned (for we did not sleep much), and I beheld that beautiful angelic face by my side, it was more than I can express! He does look so beautiful in his shirt only, with his beautiful throat seen.” Lest this sound like a one-sided expression of worship, she also wrote that “his excessive love” gave her “feelings of heavenly love and happiness,” and that Albert “clasped me in his arms, and we kissed each other again and again.” It is hard to imagine the present British monarch expressing herself in similar terms.

Weintraub mentions such details as the device at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, which enabled the lovers to lock their sound-proofed bedroom from the inside, without moving from their bed. Then there was their shared taste in art. Both Victoria and Albert enjoyed sculptures and paintings of nude men and women in erotic poses. Victoria gave Albert a gilded silver Lady Godiva for his birthday. She liked to commission male nudes from such artists as William Mulready, Daniel Maclise, and other specialists in the softly pornographic genre. Maclise’s A Scene from Undine, full of wriggling naked water nymphs, was a favorite, as was Anton von Gegenbaur’s Hercules and Omphale, which hung in Albert’s bathroom. This painting of Omphale, Queen of Lydia, wearing nothing but a headscarf, cradled on the massive thigh of an equally naked Hercules, whom she had bought as her slave, is seen by Weintraub as particularly significant. Hercules was Omphale’s sex slave, but, “foreshadowing Albert’s public role, the Omphale- Hercules relationship also represented a stage in the shift from matriarchy to patriarchy, for as the Queen’s consort Hercules often ceremonially deputized for her.”

One has to be careful about analyzing taste in other periods. People in the 1840s may not have looked at pictures of nude queens dandled by muscle-bound slaves in the same way we do. It is difficult for us to see a Maclise or Gegenbaur without thinking of Vargas girls and Playboy magazine. To project such associations on the past would be a mistake. Yet the royal gaze cannot have been wholly innocent. Ruskin described Mulready’s nudes, which gave the Queen such pleasure, as “degraded and bestial.” The least one can say is that Victoria, and Albert too, took a sensual delight in married life, which is at odds with the received image of “Victorian” prudery.

One of the myths of the Victorian age was that men could enjoy sex, but women only endured it (and thought about England) for the sake of procreation. Men liked wenching, mostly paid for, while women found their fulfillment in family life. This does not apply to Victoria, however, who craved Albert’s amorous attentions, but loathed the consequences. Far from being a loving matriarch, Victoria couldn’t stand babies (“frightful when undressed”), and saw as little as possible of her children—once every three months was deemed quite sufficient. When her daughter Vicky was pregnant with her first child, the future Wilhelm II of Germany, Victoria wrote to her that this was “horrid news.” Given what we now know about the Kaiser as a warmonger, she had a point, but that was not quite what she meant.

However, about Victoria’s abiding passion for Albert and its carnal nature, there can be no doubt. When her doctor advised her that abstinence might be in order, after having given birth to nine children, Victoria is said to have exclaimed: “Oh, doctor, can I have no more fun in bed?” She had loved men before she met Albert, and would do so after his death, even if her passions remained chaste. Before she met Albert, crowds in London called her “Mrs. Melbourne,” because of her devotion to Lord Melbourne, which one contemporary observer described as “sexual though she does not know it.” After Albert’s death, similar crowds called her “Mrs. Brown,” because of her unusually close relations with her Scottish servant, John Brown. Then there was the dazzler himself, Benjamin Disraeli. And for diversion there were some splendid specimens of Indian manhood serving at her court. Queen Victoria may have been imperious, but she liked to be treated as a woman. Disraeli understood that; Gladstone, for one, did not.

What about Prince Albert? There is no sign of any sexual interest, apart from his wife. One of the reasons English aristocrats never warmed to him, to put it mildly, was precisely because of that. “His virtue,” Weintraub quotes someone as saying, “was, indeed, appalling; not a single vice redeemed it.” Lord Melbourne, whose tastes and morals were more Regency than Victorian, complained to Queen Victoria that nobody showed any gaiety any more. The new sobriety, the stress on hard work, the earnest religiosity that marked the second half of the nineteenth century cannot be blamed entirely on Albert, to be sure. Protestant ethics, especially of the rather low-class Methodist variety, were spreading. Solid bourgeois virtues, rather than aristocratic frivolity, increasingly set the tone. The Victorian monarchy was to become its prime symbol. But, again, it would be more accurate to call it Albertine, rather than Victorian, for it was he, rather than she, who not only personified the virtues associated with his age, but had, as it were, been born with them. Before she met her consort, Victoria had been a party girl who loved nothing more than to dance into the early hours. This was at the time when Albert turned down dancing partners, and preferred to improve his mind.

Albert’s English critics blamed his stiffness, his seriousness, his “cleverness,” and all the other things they didn’t like, on his German background. When we consider that his father was a rake, his mother a disgraced adulteress, and his brother a pleasure-loving ladies’ man, this seems a little unfair. And what German qualities he brought to Britain were mostly beneficial. He modernized the armed forces, at a time when most British generals were mentally stuck in the Napoleonic wars. He helped to make the British take science and technology seriously, when such things were regarded as vulgar, newfangled nonsense by the squires and landed nobles. Without Albert, there would have been no Great Exhibition in 1851, showing off Human Progress through industry and art. “God bless my dearest Albert,” exclaimed the Queen, much moved on the opening day, “& my dear Country which has shown itself so great today….”

The German prince also came up with some distinctly un-Germanic innovations. It was Albert who suggested to the Duke of Wellington that dueling in the military should come to an end. And far from introducing Prussian militarism to the land of shopkeepers, Albert’s influence on British foreign policy was liberal, moderate, and reasonable. When the bluff, popular, “typical Englishman” Lord Palmerston rattled sabers, Albert would often stay his hand. When European monarchies, clinging to absolute power, were rocked by revolutions in 1848, Albert subdued similar sentiments in Britain by turning the British monarchy into a kind of charity enterprise, a dispenser of good and noble works. Albert’s dream, by no means a despicable one, was to forge an alliance between liberal England and a liberalized, Anglophile Germany. It was not to be, alas. And no matter how many ships he launched, houses for the poor he designed, or foreign crises he diverted, Albert remained a foreigner in England, ridiculed in such John Bullish publications as Punch, despised by the huntin’ and shootin’ classes, and made the butt of popular scorn.

  1. 1

    Lytton Strachey, Queen Victoria (1921; reprinted Penguin, 1971), p. 84 in Penguin.

  2. 2

    Strachey, Queen Victoria, p. 87.

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