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The Victorians were no prudes, but women had to play by men’s rules

Much has been done to redress the popular vision of Queen Victoria as a dull censorious woman swathed in black: ITV’s Victoria drama series, new documentaries and books suggest a less buttoned-up life. But the image prevails, as does is the idea of Victorian society as prudish, covering table legs in case they offended, and refusing to countenance any reference to sex.

However, a new exhibition of Victoria and her husband Albert’s gifts to each other – including art with plenty of nudity – offers a rejoinder. The display, marking the 200th anniversary of Victoria’s birth, is at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, which was the couple’s sanctuary, away from public gaze – and they adorned it with quite a few nudes. Florinda, by the German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter, was hung in front of their writing desk – Victoria described it as a “group of beautiful women” about to bathe.

Music hall singer Marie Lloyd





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Music hall singer Marie Lloyd ‘was beloved by the masses for her ability to add wildly suggestive inference to even the most innocent of songs’. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The couple had an intensely passionate relationship. Victoria wrote that her wedding night was “beyond bliss” and looked on Albert with adoration.

If virtue was really so policed, how do we explain not only the royal couple’s collection of risqué paintings but also the Victorian music hall tradition of ribald comics and racy songs sung by national sweethearts such as Marie Lloyd?

The story goes that with the accession of Victoria, the previous, permissive Regency period came to an end, the days of courtesans flamboyantly mixing in society were no more. But sex workers had not disappeared – some were still on the streets, others were hidden away in shuttered-up houses in respectable areas.

The surge of morality in the middle classes created the ideology of The Angel in the House, popularised in a poem by the critic Coventry Patmore. The man might go out to work and have a presence in the outside world but the wife and her daughters should be pure and protected at home. Underlying this was the idea that morality applied to women alone – men could, and often did, enjoy themselves at brothels.

That these brothels were more hidden in Victorian times increased abuse. The journalist WT Stead exposed many cases in his 1885 articles for the Pall Mall Gazette, later printed as The Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon. “There were actual rapes, in the legal sense of the word, being constantly perpetrated in London on unwilling virgins,” he wrote. But no one noticed – “it doesn’t even raise the neighbours”.

Of course women of the upper classes had been expected to be chaste in the 18th century, but many found a degree of sexual freedom in the Victorian era. Some lived with other women, and some working-class women shunned marriage to live with the most useful partner before moving on. The public loved the bawdiness of the music hall and penny dreadful stories. Marie Lloyd was celebrated by the masses for her ability to add wildly suggestive meanings to even the most innocent of songs. When vigilance committees came to investigate, she simply sang them straight.

Victoria was a passionate young wife but as her reign progressed, she increasingly styled herself as a virtuous, even dowdy, middle-class housewife. It played to the emerging morality of the time and was an astute way of increasing her popularity.

Florinda, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter





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Florinda, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter: ‘Victoria described it as a ‘group of beautiful women’. Photograph: Royal Collection Trust

But this new morality was hard on women, and the hypocrisy of Victorian society was never more clear than in the passing of the first Contagious Diseases Act in 1864. With sexually transmitted diseases rampant in military garrisons, the government introduced laws that allowed for the arrest of suspected prostitutes and their inspection for venereal disease. If found infected, they could be incarcerated in so-called lock hospitals for months. But middle-class women rose against this. Josephine Butler and her Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts highlighted the double standard and lectured all over the country on the suffering of women and eventually the laws were overturned.

Queen Victoria, meanwhile, may have loved her art but it was produced for the male gaze. Florinda and her lovely half-naked maidens are being spied on by Rodrigo, who breaks in and assault Florinda. The painting is a prelude to a rape made to look “beautiful”.

The Victorians were much more sexually active than we give them credit for, but despite some examples of individual freedoms for women, their world was too often organised solely for the pleasure of men. As one prostitute said to Butler: “We never get out of the hands of men until we die.”

Kate Williams is professor of history at Reading university and author of Becoming Queen and The Pleasures of Men

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