Royal Representations: Queen Victoria and British Culture, 1837-1876

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Queen Victoria was one of the most complex cultural productions of her age. In Royal Representations, Margaret Homans investigates the meanings Victoria held for her times, Victoria's own contributions to Victorian writing and art, and the cultural mechanisms through which her influence was felt.

Arguing that being, seeming, and appearing were crucial to Victoria's "rule," Homans explores the variability of Victoria's agency and of its representations using a wide array of literary, historical, and visual sources. Along the way she shows how Victoria provided a deeply equivocal model for women's powers in and out of marriage, how Victoria's dramatic public withdrawal after Albert's death helped to ease the monarchy's transition to an entirely symbolic role, and how Victoria's literary self-representations influenced debates over political self-representation.

Homans considers versions of Victoria in the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, John Ruskin, Margaret Oliphant, Lewis Carroll, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Julia Margaret Cameron.

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What People Are Saying

Dorothy Mermin
Royal Representations is brilliantly argued and richly documented, with wonderful analyses of politics, literature, paintings, photographs, memorials to Prince Albert, and popular representations of the Queen, and with delightful illustrations. -- Cornell University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226351131
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/1999
  • Series: Women in Culture and Society Series Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 322
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

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Royal Representations

Queen Victoria and British Culture, 1837â"1876

By Margaret Homans

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1998 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-35113-1



[Acknowledging] one important truth [will make a successful marriage]—it is the superiority of your husband as a man. It is quite possible that you may have more talent, with higher attainments ... but this has nothing whatever to do with your position as a woman, which is, and must be, inferior to his as a man. Sarah Ellis, The Wives of England, 1843

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! Since the Queen has no equal, "obey" none she need, So of course at the altar from such vow she's freed; And the women will all follow suit, so they say—"Love, honour," they'll promise, but never—"obey." London street ballad, 1841

"The Queen Has No Equal": The Problem of a Female Monarchy

What made it possible, at a time when women were meant to "obey," for a woman to occupy the throne of England for sixty-three years and to leave the monarchy's domestic and international prestige, if not its political authority, enhanced? Despite notable exceptions, women were never meant to be Britain's monarchs. The throne was patrilineal. Dorothy Thompson indicates how peculiar it is "that in a century in which male dominion and the separation of spheres into sharply defined male and female areas became entrenched in the ideology of all classes, a female in the highest office in the nation seems to have been almost universally accepted." Adrienne Munich points out, moreover, that the idea of "maternal monarchy seems absurd," an outrageous mingling of separate spheres that created a "gap in representability" to be filled only by one paradox after another. And yet it is also arguable, on the model of Nancy Armstrong's contention "that the modern individual was first and foremost a woman" (Desire and Domestic Fiction, 8), that, quite apart from the historical accident of Queen Victoria's reigning from 1837 to 1901, the modern British monarch was first and foremost a woman—to be specific, a wife, and a middle-class one. Paradoxical representations of Victoria, as monarch on the one hand and as wife on the other, became an effective strategy both for handling the public relations problem of female rule and, perhaps more important, for completing Britain's transition to parliamentary democracy and symbolic monarchy.

The characteristics required of the monarch of a nineteenth-century parliamentary democracy were those also required of middle-class wives, and if a married woman had not occupied the throne for most of that century, the monarchy would have needed some other way of associating itself with wife-liness. Just like a middle-class wife, the monarch was obliged (since the seventeenth century, but increasingly so) not to intervene in politics. Like a middle-class wife spending her husband's income, she had to spend the wealth of her nation in a manner that displayed both its economic prowess and her dependency; she had to be the chief consumer in a nation of consumers. And she had to serve as a public, highly visible symbol of national identity and of her nation's values, just as a middle-class wife might be expected to display her husband's status. She had to be available for idealization and, by the same token, to be manifestly willing to relinquish active participation in political affairs, so that others could perform remarkable deeds in her name, as when, for example, in 1876 Disraeli presented the crown of empire to his Faery Queen.

Or to look at the matter from another angle: numerous representational problems posed by the fact of a female monarchy could be resolved by defining the Queen as a wife. "By the 1830s and 1840s," write Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, "the belief in the natural differences and complementary roles of men and women ... had become the common sense of the English middle class." The ideas of "separate spheres" and of "woman's place," they summarize, had come to dominate discussions of sexual difference: the increasing separation of work and home in industrialism, and the rise of middle-class families sufficiently wealthy to mark their status with non-working wives, meant that sex difference became reified, hypostasized, and consequently hierarchized. For Sarah Ellis women were "relative creatures" whose "proper sphere" was strictly domestic (Women of England, 178, 20), and wives were obliged to recognize "the superiority of your husband as a man" and "your position as a woman, which is, and must be, inferior to his as a man." Elaborated and justified throughout the Victorian period, this view reappears in Ruskin's 1864 lecture "Of Queens' Gardens," which argues that "they are in nothing alike" and that "true wifely subjection" is woman's nature and, paradoxically, the aim of her training; and in Darwin's view in 1871 that, thanks to natural selection, "man has ultimately become superior to woman" and that "the present inequality in mental power between the sexes would not be effaced by a ... course of early training."

Moving from generalities about Victorian sexual ideology to the specific case of Queen Victoria may seem misdirected, given her uniqueness among Victorian women. But owing to the confluence of this ideology with the revival of chivalric gender codes, a woman's construction as special or superior was not seen to contradict her subjection as a wife. Britain, finding itself under female rule, capitalized on the will to limit women's power by making that the excuse for limiting (although, and this is important, not eliminating) the monarchy's powers and entitlements at the same time. By presenting herself as a wife, Queen Victoria offered the perfect solution to Britain's fears of female rule and of excessive monarchic power. At the same time, as if in compensation, the monarchy acquired what is granted to Victorian middle-class wives in exchange for their loss of economic and social autonomy: that ambiguous resource early Victorian ideologues call "influence." Eighteenth-century evangelical writers such as Hannah More had celebrated domesticity while they also, according to Davidoff and Hall, "explored the contradictions between claims for women's [moral] superiority and their social subordination" (Family Fortunes, 149). In the popular early Victorian writings of Sarah Ellis, these "contradictions" resolved themselves into the notion of women's "influence," which was both the "secret of women's power" and the excuse for preventing them from "seek[ing] other kinds of legitimation" (Family Fortunes, 183). In Victoria the powers of the monarch were limited to symbolic ones, and the monarchy flourished as a result.

Historians generally agree that the Victorian monarchy succeeded—that is, survived into the twentieth century at a time when most other European monarchies disappeared, despite Victoria's wavering popularity from the death of Prince Albert to the first Jubilee—thanks to its public representation as middle-class, domestic, and patriotic, in contrast to the profligate and foreign royalty of the previous generation (see Thompson, Queen Victoria, 87). This chapter will explore some specific ways in which Victoria's gender and marital status enabled such representations during the early part of her reign, representations that simultaneously created the appearance of limiting both female and monarchic power and expanded the monarchy's symbolic power and ideological influence. Previous monarchs had represented themselves domestically: Linda Colley shows that George III had revived the monarchy by renovating the royal image as a mixture of regality, domesticity, and (as he grew older) mortal vulnerability, and by identifying himself with a nonpartisan and nostalgic British national identity. Both splendid and ordinary, "glorious and gemutlich both," George III set a pattern by which the monarchy was expected to be visible and to participate in a "myth of royal ordinariness" (Britons, 232, 233, 235). Simon Schama traces back to seventeenth-century origins the royal penchant for intimate domestic family portraiture ("Domestication of Majesty"). Victoria's reign marked a revival of these strategies with altogether novel meanings and effects. The monarchy's success arose from its transformation into a popular spectacle during the nineteenth century; it was during that time that the association between royal spectacle and middle-class practices and values came to seem the permanent hallmark of the royal family. This spectacle depended for its effectiveness on Victoria's gender. A woman is perhaps more readily transformed into spectacle at any historical period. What the Victorians were treated to during the 1840s and 1850s was, specifically and paradoxically, the spectacle of royal domestic privacy, a privacy that centered on the ever-plumper figure of their Queen as wife and mother.

Victoria's marriage to Prince Albert both enabled and complicated her impersonation of the woman her nation needed her to be. Victoria resembles England's other paradigm of queenly greatness, Elizabeth I, in finding a solution to the anomaly of female rule in being understood as the nation's wife. Louis Montrose cites, among other Elizabethan "strategies" for handling the "ideological dissonance" of having a woman rule, Elizabeth's claim to be "bounde unto an Husband, which is the Kingdom of England" ("Elizabethan Subject," 309). Similarly, Elizabeth publicly displayed her bosom to represent herself as her nation's "bountiful mother," a representation that Montrose argues drew its force from the institution of her virginity. But whereas Elizabeth needed to remain unmarried in her "body natural" in order to remain autonomous as Queen, and so used the spiritual marriage of her "body politic" to her kingdom to justify her not marrying in her "body natural," for Victoria the situation is reversed and, perhaps, more complex. Elizabeth served as the kind of ruler for whom the paradigm could then only be masculine—prince or king. Two centuries and a half later, the monarchy required a symbolic ruler, for which the paradigm might well be a woman. But while the marital status of Victoria's body natural is not opposed to that of her body politic, neither is it identical to it, athough her marriage to Prince Albert makes possible her appearance as her nation's wife. Similarly, whereas Elizabeth strategically opposed her "weak and feeble" woman's body to her "heart and stomach of a king" ("Elizabethan Subject," 315), confirming her subjects' prejudices about women while asserting the power of her office, Victoria never poses as anything but what she appears to be. Almost from the start, she presents herself as a matronly woman who rules as a woman, not as a prince. Drawing like Montrose on the tradition of "the king's two bodies," Munich locates among the paradoxes of Victoria's maternal rule the fact that "the Queen's maternal body belonged to the private sphere while her sovereign body belonged to the public sphere" ("Victoria, Empire, and Excess," 265), but these spheres often appear to coincide in her person. What being a woman means for this Queen rests on the highly ambiguous relationship—neither the same nor different—between her public and her private identities, between the life of her body politic and that of her body natural.

Just as Victoria both functioned publicly as the nation's wife and was herself, in private, a wife, she both publicly impersonated a domestic woman and really was one. She did indeed appear to be an ordinary, happily married woman. She represents palatial Balmoral Castle and Osborne House, the settings for some of her and Albert's most impressive performances of domesticated monarchy, as homes and herself as an ordinary woman who adored her husband and took an uncommon interest in raising her children. For state occasions she preferred wearing a bonnet to wearing a crown, and she preferred her wedding lace and veil to the robes of state. For her Jubilee procession in 1887 she horrified her advisors by refusing to wear anything more glamorous than her black widow's dress. But the rituals for which she chose such costumes were no less costly for her down-market tastes, and a Queen in a bonnet cuts a very different figure from a commoner so dressed; in Victoria's case, the crown is visible by its absence. Queen Victoria's resemblance to a middleclass wife made her seem ordinary, but its meaning and effectiveness depended on the contrast with her extraordinariness. Her ordinariness was at once genuine and deliberate, that of a unique individual empowered to be exemplary.

Serious-minded middle-class domesticity was becoming the behavioral norm for England, and in behaving publicly like members of the middle class, Victoria and Albert helped their nation to become powerful and prosperous by helping it see itself as a middle-class nation. Sarah Ellis, in the course of defining "the women of England" by the characteristics of women of "the middle class," repeats with approval Napoleon's famous epithet, "a 'nation of shop-keepers,'" and she extols "the number, the influence and the respectability of that portion of the inhabitants who are ... connected with our trade and merchandise" (Women of England, 18–19). The royal couple could not engage in commerce, so their familial behavior instead had to serve as example, as we shall see. Nonetheless, two of Victoria's most important ceremonials of the 1840s and 1850s conferred the royal seal of approval on commerce and manufacturing: the opening of the Royal Exchange in 1844, and the opening of the Great Exhibition in 1851. These ceremonials contributed to the appearance of royal allegiance to middleclass business interests. To the Great Exhibition opening Victoria, though "magnificently dressed," brought her children. Newspaper accounts emphasize the building and its contents, said to be a "crystal store" displaying the world's merchandise, over the ceremony itself (on the day and the day after the London Times devotes many more inches of type to detailing and mapping the contents of the exhibition than to the Queen's appearance). The Times also uses her family position to subordinate the Queen to her surroundings: under "a glittering arch far more lofty and spacious than the vaults of even our noblest cathedrals ... was enthroned a youthful matron, the QUEEN of this land, surrounded by her family" (London Times, 2 May 1851). Her domestic appearance at the ceremony conduces to the foregrounding of the goods on display.

Her appearance at the Royal Exchange opening on 28 October 1844 rendered her a more spectacularly royal cynosure. She and Albert arrived in a long procession, "her magnificent Royal State carriage drawn by eight beautiful cream-coloured horses." She wore white satin (a dress of Spitalfields manufacture, to show her personal support for English manufactures) and a silver and diamond tiara. The fullsome report in the London Times the next day emphasizes both the enthusiasm and the fine appearance of the crowd that had thickly lined the procession route (from Buckingham Palace into the city to the Exchange) since early morning. Not only was "Her Majesty ... greeted with the greatest enthusiasm—the cheering and waving of hats and handkerchiefs being continued down the whole of the densely crowded line"; but also the spectators were "well-dressed," and in the windows of city houses could be seen "an unusual display of the finery in female attire for which our City ladies have long been celebrated." The Queen provides the occasion, but the news is the prosperity of her spectator-subjects. At the opening ceremony itself the Queen's speech states that "the extension of commerce" is an "object near to my heart," and that she will "rejoice if I am thus enabled, by the blessing of Divine Providence, to promote the prosperity and happiness of all classes of my subjects."

After reading the newspaper reports, Victoria wrote to her Uncle Leopold that "they say no Sovereign was more loved than I am (I am bold enough to say), and that, from our happy domestic home—which gives such a good example." At first glance it is difficult to see what the previous day's display of monarchic privilege and splendor could have to do with her and Albert's efforts to seem ordinary or "domestic." But if those efforts are not an end in themselves, but rather aimed at promoting the ascendency of the middle class, then an associative logic emerges: her subjects love her because she promotes and symbolizes commerce and middle-class prosperity; Victoria's life represents the kind of domesticity that can be the fruit of that prosperity; therefore they love her "happy domestic home." Her language echoes the Times's editorial about the great day. Read in full, the editorial is a clear celebration not of Victoria's home life but of Britain's commercial empire, but her letter seamlessly translates public into private terms. The Exchange is

the real source and center of the greatest and most beneficial earthly dominion.... The Queen of merchants does but close intuitively and inevitably with her high calling, when she holds her court in the Merchants' Hall.... If all other climes toil for us, it is because we toil for them.... Such is ... the reign of kindness ... in which our Sovereign yesterday placed her throne, the most favored, most loved, and most beneficent of earthly potentates. (London Times, 29 October 1844)


Excerpted from Royal Representations by Margaret Homans. Copyright © 1998 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Forward, by Catharine R. Stimpson
Introduction: The Queen's Agency
1. Queen Victoria's Sovereign Obedience
"The Queen Has No Equal": The Problem of a Female Monarchy
Privacy on Display: The Queen as Wife and Mother
The Queenly Courtship of Elizabeth Barrett
Photographic Realism's Abject Queens
2. Queen Victoria's Widowhood and the Making of Victorian Queens
The Invisible Queen
Domestic Queens: Miss Marjoribanks
Making Queens: "Of Queens' Gardens" and the Alice Books
3. The Widow as Author and the Arts and Powers of Concealment
Bagehot's The English Constitution
The Queen's Books: The Early Years of His Royal Highness the Prince Consort
The Queen's Books: Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands
The Reform Bill and the Queen's Footnotes
4. Queen Victoria's Memorial Arts
Albert Memorials
Tennyson's Idylls of the King as an Albert Memorial
Cameron's Photographic Idylls: Allegorical Realism and Memorial Art
Epilogue: Empire of Grief

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