The Young Victoria is finally debuting in the US this Friday, after its UK premiere earlier this year. Other than marrying her cousin and having a stuffy, misogynistic era named after her, I've never thought much of the queen. But the trailer for The Young Victoria depicts her as a vibrant young woman, aware of her of burden but determined to find happiness.
The Victorian era was not a good time for women. They were expected to be selfless, pure, and pretty much perfect. The Victorian Angel of the House was a common theme in literature, which Virginia Woolf best described in "Professions For Women:"
She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draft, she sat in it — in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all — I need not say it — she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty — her blushes, her great grace. In those days — the last of Queen Victoria — every house had its Angel.
Was the Victorian Angel of the House made in the likeness of the queen? To find out,
Like her eponymous era, her image and legacy were a veneer. England was already a constitutional monarchy when Victoria ascended the throne, and it shifted even more into a symbolic role throughout her reign. But the crown had been so tarnished by sexual, financial, and personal scandal by previous monarchs that it was vital for her to project an air of morality in line with middle class virtues. In love with her husband and the mother of nine children, that air was not hard to maintain.
Yet the queen enjoyed sex enough that her husband had a lockable door installed within reach of his pillow for extra privacy, and she did not regard self-denial as pious. Image and reality were not entirely separate, though. Victoria did not receive divorced women in court until late in her life, and she had a law which criminalized non-marital sex between consenting adults, amended to refer to men only because "women didn't do such things." It's kind of like reverse sexism!
But ultimately, her legacy was written by men. In a "textbook for girls," Henry Davenport Adams suggested her as a role model that "English girls may well do their best to imitate." He continued, "[The Queen's] moral courage, her fortitude, her industry, her elevation of aim, and her tenacity of purpose — these are qualities which they may successfully cultivate, even if they cannot hope to equal the Queen."