The world’s worst-dressed woman

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Queen Victoria’s Secrets by Adrienne Munich
    Columbia, 264 pp, £22.00, June 1996, ISBN 0 231 10480 4

When Lytton Strachey looked back at the ‘apotheosis’ of Queen Victoria’s final years in his biography of 1921, he could only wonder at the disparity between the ‘dazzled imagination of her subjects’ and the unimaginative woman who had somehow inspired them. While ‘Victoria soared aloft towards the regions of divinity through a nimbus of purest glory,’ as Strachey put it, no one appeared to realise how inadequate she was to her symbolic task:

That the nation’s idol was a very incomplete representative of the nation was a circumstance that was hardly noticed, and yet it was conspicuously true. For the vast changes which, out of the England of 1837, had produced the England of 1897, seemed scarcely to have touched the Queen. The immense industrial development of the period, the significance of which had been so thoroughly understood by Albert, meant little indeed to Victoria. The amazing scientific movement, which Albert had appreciated no less, left Victoria perfectly cold. Her conception of the universe, and of man’s place in it, and of the stupendous problems of nature and philosophy remained, throughout her life, entirely unchanged.

Noting the Queen’s stubborn resistance to the social movements of her day, Strachey wrote that ‘towards the smallest no less than towards the greatest changes she remained inflexible.’ As an example of the latter, he cited Victoria’s steadfast opposition to the emancipation of women; as an instance of the former, her continued ‘anathema against’ smoking. ‘Kings might protest; bishops and ambassadors, invited to Windsor, might be reduced, in the privacy of their bedrooms, to lie full-length upon the floor and smoke up the chimney – the interdict continued.’ Though in this small matter, at least, the inflexible monarch might seem more up to date than the Modernist, there is no question that in many ways the symbol of the age failed to keep step with the age she symbolised.

Strachey was willing to concede that in certain respects – love of Empire, most notably – Victoria thoroughly identified with Victorian values. And then there was, by the end, the simple fact that she was very old: ‘an almost indispensable qualification for popularity in England’. But what principally accounted for her grasp on the imagination of her subjects, he thought, was the ‘peculiar sincerity’ of her character – a sincerity which made her, endearingly and absurdly, forever consistent with herself. This is, in its way, a very Victorian judgment. Certainly nothing could be further from Strachey’s talk of the ‘impact of a personality’, of ‘something deeper, something fundamental ... that really tells’, than Adrienne Munich’s unwillingness to attempt ‘to uncover a real Victoria’. Rather than a woman whose force of character magnetised an age, hers is a consummate role-player and performer, a Post-Modern queen of contradictions. Munich does not address Strachey’s comments, but she would presumably count his tribute to Victoria’s ‘sincerity’ as further evidence of the Queen’s skill at performance: ‘the reign’s extraordinary success in representing itself as if it were simply what it represented itself as being is one of its secrets.’

Munich evidently wishes to accord Victoria an agency others have denied her – to see in the Queen not just ‘a 19th-century curiosity’ but a ‘shaper of her culture’. Yet while her book begins by insisting, rather solemnly, that Victoria ‘performed cultural work for her age’, much of the discussion that follows happily loses sight of this modish claim. That the Queen herself had something to do with many of the images rounded up for this lively book is indisputable, yet as Munich’s own analysis often shows, the Queen’s subjects were more than capable of overriding the evidence in support of their fantasies. Drawing on material ranging from street ballads to Tennyson, from cartoons and advertisements to official portraits and monuments, Queen Victoria’s Secrets offers not so much an account of the Queen’s self-fashioning as an entertaining compendium of the conflicting guises in which the 19th century chose to see her.

Victoria emerges here in all the infinite variety of a 19th-century Cleopatra – not just as Albert’s radiant bride or the reclusive widow of Windsor, but as the imperious queens of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, an ageless mother in a child’s alphabet book, even a dominatrix of pornographic fantasy. As Munich reads them, the Gilbert and Sullivan operas are haunted by her presence, and so too is Rider Haggard’s She, whose deathless queen has a familiar habit of sleeping in close proximity to the mortal remains of her consort. Even biological barriers prove no impediment to the transformations Munich traces: an enormous lily discovered in the Amazonian rain-forest became identified with the Queen, as did a piece of limestone carved by erosion in Utah. In one of the more suggestive, if fanciful, extensions of the argument, some paintings by Edwin Landseer and official photographs of royal pets are said to provide evidence of Victoria’s ‘life’ as a dog.

The key question that animates Munich’s book is how Victoria and the Victorians coped with the fact that Britain’s monarch was a woman. Sometimes the Queen herself appeared to oppose not merely the emancipation of her sex but her own right to exist: ‘I am every day more convinced,’ she announced in 1852, ‘that we women, if we are to be good women, feminine and amiable and domestic, are not fitted to reign.’ In many ways, her marriage only intensified the problem. While Victoria worried over the ‘strange omission in our Constitution’ of any official title for her husband – an omission all ‘the more extraordinary’, she noted, since ‘a husband has in this country such particular rights and such great power over his wife’ – her subjects expressed related anxieties by composing ballads that put Victoria in trousers or the entire government in petticoats, or that speculated on the disorders that might follow a marriage initiated by the wrong sex.

Since the Queen did herself for a husband ‘propose’,
The ladies will all do the same I suppose;
Their days of subserviency now will be past,
For all will speak first, as they always did last!

Though this ballad went on to predict the end of wifely obedience when the royal bride declined to ‘obey’, Victoria did in fact take the vow when she married Albert in 1840. But no matter what she promised at the altar, a female ruler still presented an imaginative challenge to her subjects. In a poem on the wedding, even Elizabeth Barrett worked to subsume the queen in the woman: ‘Esteem that wedded hand less dear for sceptre than for ring,/And hold her uncrowned womanhood to be the royal thing.’ Landseer’s Windsor Castle in Modern Times, painted the following year, contrived a related solution: though a standing Victoria appropriately retains the highest position in the picture, her demure gaze and ‘pliant attitude’ manage to subordinate her to her seated husband. Sharing her posture with the only child in the painting and her adoration of Albert with the assembled dogs, ‘Queen Victoria’, Munich suggests, ‘joins the household paraphernalia on a par with pets and children.’

Long before her girth grew to within ten inches of her height, Victoria’s body posed its own challenges. In dress, too much elegance, or sexiness, was undesirable, for fear that Britain’s monarch appear suspiciously francophile and frivolous. Munich draws an apt analogy with George Eliot’s ‘queen’ of feminine shallowness, Esther Lyon, who must be sternly taught by Felix Holt to prefer ‘right opinions’ to the trivial standard of ‘good taste’. Luckily, Victoria had not just Albert but her own lack of taste to guide her. The French general whose attention was ‘chiefly attracted’, as he later reported, by the enormous white reticule embroidered with ‘a fat poodle in gold’ that Victoria carried on her first official visit to his country, was not likely to mistake her for the Empress Eugénie.

Though Munich argues, reasonably enough, that Victoria’s dowdiness did not mean she had no interest in fashion, it is less clear that she calculated the advantages of appearing so frumpy. In the year of the Diamond Jubilee a children’s book called The Fairies’ Favourite extolled the virtue of a queen who ‘never wore jewels’, but, as Munich herself points out, this claim is far from true: ‘portraits of the Queen, beringed and bepearled, failed to register; the folk queen prevailed.’ People enjoyed repeating anecdotes about how a shabbily-dressed Victoria was sometimes mistaken for a commoner; in the same way, The Fairies’ Favourite turned the image of ‘the worst-dressed woman in the world’, as it hyperbolically termed its heroine, into a symbol of populist royalty. When the fairies clothe her in rags, the Queen delights in being ‘dressed even as the very meanest of my subjects’, while those rags, of course, only enable ‘the People’ to see her ‘natural majesty’ all the more clearly. Citing Edmund Gosse’s paradox – ‘her originality lay in her very lack of originality’ – Munich suggests that Victoria’s ordinariness constituted one of the ‘secrets’ of her successful reign over an increasingly democratic nation.

Though Queen Victoria’s Secrets sometimes conjures with a Victoria who ‘performs cultural codes’ and ‘writes her culture’, Munich seems on firmer ground when she argues that the Queen’s obsessive mourning of the Prince Consort, for example, served ‘to authorise cultural meanings the Queen could not have consciously foretold’. However impatient the public may eventually have become with the Queen’s seclusion, her insistence on keeping Albert figuratively alive had, among other effects, the unintended one of reassuring her subjects that she was not about to play the amorous widow. As Munich wittily observes of the many images in which Victoria appears accompanied by a stony memorial of the Prince Consort: ‘What she provided by invoking a ghostly Albert – still there albeit marmoreal – was a husband, a ruler of the Queen, someone who kept the woman – and the nation – in line.’ Judging by the uneasy jokes that later circulated about her well-publicised weakness for male attendants like the Scottish gillie, John Brown, the Queen did not always adhere to this message. While Victoria may surely be forgiven for relaxing her grasp on the marble Albert, her refusal to moderate her attentions to Brown suggests that in this respect, anyway, she had not altogether mastered the codes of her culture.

Victoria may have had little comprehension of the ‘immense industrial development of the period’, as Strachey contended, but Queen Victoria’s Secrets offers some vivid examples of how industry and commerce nonetheless made use of the Queen. With a bold-faced headline that announced ‘The Jubilee Year for the “Monarchs” ’, and another that proclaimed the Monarch Cycle ‘the mechanical triumph of the Victorian era’, an advertisement published in an 1897 issue of Life represented the enthroned Queen, in full regalia, bestowing a laurel wreath on a bicycle. Since Victoria had overcome her initial concern about the decorum of bicycling for women and was now quite a fan of the machine, her implied endorsement at least bore some relation to fact. An advertisement for the Singer sewing machine that appeared the same year in the Jubilee number of the Graphic invoked the Queen to more equivocal effect. The advert shows a fashionably dressed young woman, with a small waist and a large parasol, parading before an elderly couple, whose own sombre clothes are evidently meant to resemble those of an earlier era:

She: ‘Look at Miss Smith’s lovely dress, and the beautiful embroidery on it. Sixty years ago, when the Queen came to the throne, such a dress would have cost a small fortune, but Miss Smith says it cost very little, as she made and embroidered it herself on a Singer’s Sewing Machine.’ He: ‘What a marvellous machine that must be!’

Even as it profits from the Queen’s long reign, the advert leaves nicely ambiguous whether the marvellous Singer exists because of or despite the dowdy Victoria. Though Munich never mentions Victoria’s Secret, the American retail and mail-order firm that obviously inspired the title of her book, the marketing of contemporary lingerie continues to capitalise on such antithetical possibilities: Victoria’s Secret unites under one titillating rubric both the erotic pleasures that Victorianism is supposed to have repressed and the vague gentility of the old-fashioned corset.

‘Sometimes the Queen’s very ubiquity ... translates into invisibility,’ Munich remarks at one point: ‘she is everywhere and nowhere.’ Munich is commenting on the image of Victoria as mother of the nation, but the impression of a figure at once omnipresent and elusive is not confined to the chapter on motherhood. Some of the most engaging moments in Queen Victoria’s Secrets, oddly enough, are those in which a presumed reference to the Queen leaves no more trace than the Cheshire Cat’s grin. The Alice books themselves provide one such moment, when Munich juxtaposes a passage from Through the Looking-Glass, in which the Red Queen demonstrates with all her imperious illogic that nights ‘here’ are ‘five times as warm, and five times as cold’ as other places, with an account of Victoria written by her private secretary, Henry Ponsonby:

When she insists that two and two make five I say that I cannot help thinking that they make four. She replies that there may be some truth in what I say but she knows they make five. Thereupon I drop the discussion ... But X goes on with it, brings proof, arguments and former sayings of her own ... No one can stand admitting they are wrong, women especially; and the Queen can’t abide it. Consequently she won’t give in, says X is unkind and there is trouble.

Munich cites the Red Queen as much for her theories of temperature as for her mathematics, since it was apparently common knowledge that Victoria insisted on maintaining a temperature in her household that left others freezing. But although one might as easily speculate that Ponsonby was influenced by Carroll as that Carroll was deliberately referring to Victoria, it is hard not to believe that some shade of Britain’s female ruler hovers over Alice’s many encounters with queenly arbitrariness.

She hovers in much the same way over the Savoy operas, according to Munich, lending ‘renewed energy’ and ‘relevance’ to the familiar stock figure of the ageing dame. Gilbert’s only direct allusion to Victoria comes in the cheerfully irrelevant self-absolution of The Pirates of Penzance – ‘With all our faults, we love our Queen’ – but Munich encourages us to think of Victoria when Lady Jane laments the ‘spreading’ of her ‘figure trim’ in Patience, or when The Mikado’s extravagant mourner, Katisha, makes imperial claims for her ‘circulation’ as ‘the largest in the world’. If such sightings of Victoria risk ‘taking accident for artifact’, as Munich describes the process by which a traveller in Utah managed to see a ‘statue’ of the Queen in the limestone, they also resemble that figure in being difficult not to see once their ghostly lineaments have been traced.

Two years after Albert’s death, as the public grew increasingly restive at her seclusion, Victoria wrote a letter to the Times in her own hand in order to contradict the rumour that she was about to come out of mourning. ‘The Queen heartily appreciates the desire of her subjects to see her, and whatever she can do to gratify them in this loyal and affectionate wish, she will do,’ it read in part. ‘But there are other and higher duties than those of mere representation.’ Munich does not quote this letter: for all the high-spiritedness and wit with which Queen Victoria’s Secrets often approaches its subject, it resembles many recent works of literary and cultural criticism in strenuously resisting the possibility of ‘mere’ representation. Not only Victoria herself labours to perform in these pages. The royal couple’s fancy-dress balls ‘performed cultural work’ and so, to rather more sinister effect, did their adoption of tartan; the royal family ‘performed the Queen’s mourning’, while Victoria’s own tears ‘perform for the culture its construction of properly womanly emotion’. As if their status as texts for performance were insufficient, the Savoy operas also ‘perform ... the body politic’. When even a nursery rhyme dutifully ‘performs its cultural work’, it becomes clear how little power the idiom ever had to dignify Victoria. Of course, all kinds of representation have effects, but so pervasive an attribution of agency is essentially empty. If the Queen’s dismissal of ‘mere representation’ was very Victorian, there is also something Victorian, ironically, in the earnestness with which some are now inclined to reclassify it as labour.