The Most Happy Couple

Victoria and Albert: Art and Love

an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, London, March 19–October 31, 2010
Catalog of the exhibition edited and with an introduction by Jonathan Marsden
London: Royal Collection, 480 pp., £35.00

The Young Victoria

a film directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
filler_01-081910.jpg
The Royal Collection
Franz Xaver Winterhalter: The First of May, 1851, 1851. Queen Victoria is holding her third son, Prince Arthur, who is being presented with a jewel casket by his godfather, the Duke of Wellington. Behind her is Prince Albert; on the left is the Crystal Palace.

Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India, reigned over her worldwide dominions from 1837 to 1901. Christened Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent, she gave her second name to an age. In its adjectival form, it became a portmanteau term for a half-century’s worth of fussily ornate, historically eclectic architecture and design, as well as a byword for quaint, antiquated, repressed, or repressive attitudes toward modern manners, mores, and morals.

On the other hand, Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, is best remembered, if at all, as the subject of a corny old joke based on a once-popular brand of tobacco: “Do you have Prince Albert in a can? Well, you’d better let him out!” To a younger generation, he is perhaps more famous for allegedly employing a genital ring called the Prince Albert—secured by a piercing through the glans penis, and said to enhance sexual pleasure.

Whether or not that royal provenance is true, it is no news that the Victorians, eminent or otherwise, were hardly the celibate prudes of popular myth. That was amply established four decades ago with the publication of Steven Marcus’s The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England As if to ratify their findings, the same has been proven more recently by close reading of Victoria’s private journals.

Although her youngest child, Princess Beatrice (who lived until 1944), assiduously burned many of the old queen’s letters and ruthlessly bowdlerized her diaries in the name of propriety, enough slipped through Beatrice’s busy fingers to confirm that Victoria and Albert were mad about sex. The virginal young queen exhibited unmistakable signs of sexual anxiety, as recorded in her diaries and correspondence. But it is also obvious that once Victoria married her Prince Charming, she got the hang of things very quickly and became what the English call a “goer.”

One gets a good idea of the couple’s interactive physicality from the dust jacket of the superb exhibition catalog for “Victoria and Albert: Art and Love,” the latest in a continuing series of magnificent thematic exhibitions drawn from Britain’s enormous Royal Collection and displayed, one per year, in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. It was edited by Jonathan Marsden and enriched by the contributions of an exceptional band of scholars. (This exemplary endeavor also indicates that although the subjects’ current successors and great-great-grandchildren, Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, are often accused of philistinism, they are following excellent advice from their …

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