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Victoria had always hated pregnancy and childbirth, which she nicknamed the Schattenseite or ‘shadow side’ of marriage. She called her own pregnancies ‘wretched’ and when her eldest daughter Vicky fell pregnant for the first time and wrote to her mother in anticipation of sage advice, Victoria replied: ‘What you say of the pride of giving life to an immortal soul is very fine, dear, but I own I cannot enter into that; I think much more of our being like a cow or a dog at such moments; when our poor nature becomes so very animal and unecstatic.’
‘In the Christian tradition,’ the historian of anaesthesia Stephanie Snow points out, ‘suffering during labour provided a permanent reminder of Eve’s original sin in the Garden of Eden and opponents of anaesthesia were swift to draw on the Biblical admonition that “in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children”’.12 (#litres_trial_promo) By agreeing to use chloroform during Leopold’s birth, Victoria had done something modern, dangerous and radical, horrifying one notable contemporary obstetrician, who admonished her for ‘a too-bold step’.13 (#litres_trial_promo) She’d taken a huge medical risk, in the process scotching the centuries-old notion that pain during labour was natural and virtuous.
If Anaesthesia a la Reine was at first an option only for wealthy, fashionable ladies, it didn’t stay that way for long, becoming part of a portfolio of new medical techniques – for example, sterilisation with phenol; wearing gloves to perform internal examinations – which made childbirth not just less onerous for women but not as frequently fatal.
The Victoria who wrote so candidly to Vicky sounds nothing like the Victoria we think we know. Ditto the Victoria who, in 1860, is considering suitors for Princess Alice when she suddenly confesses: ‘All marriage is such a lottery – the happiness is always an exchange – though it may be a very happy one – still the poor woman is bodily and morally the husband’s slave. That always sticks in my throat.’
Does this mean Queen Victoria was a feminist? It’s possible, as Simon Schama has pointed out, that Victoria was familiar with early feminist writing, particularly Barbara Leigh Smith’s exposе of the harsh realities of marriage, Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women (1854). In 1862, in an act which could be interpreted as sisterly, she appointed the women’s-rights activist Emily Faithfull as her Printer and Publisher in Ordinary – ‘not a position she would have given to someone who had incurred her disapproval’.14 (#litres_trial_promo)
But Victoria had her limits. The idea that women might want to work; might want rights; might want, through suffrage, actual involvement in the running of the country – this enraged her. ‘It is’, she wrote, ‘a subject which makes the Queen so furious she cannot contain herself.’ The whole idea was a ‘mad, wicked folly … with all its attendant horrors on which her poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety.’
Two steps forward, three steps back.
The unnoticed contradictions here suggest a Queen and a society stumbling, blindfolded, through new territory. By the end of her reign, as we shall see, the way ahead would be rather clearer.
One of the joys of writing this book was the numerous lively conversations with friends, family, colleagues and contacts I had along the way. So many people made inspired suggestions of women who deserved to be included. I thank them all at the back, but here at the front I want to pay tribute to two women, both dead now, who were incredibly important and inspirational to me when I was growing up. This book is their legacy.
In 1968, shortly after graduating from Oxford – the first person in her family to go to university – my mum joined the staff of the west London girls’ school Godolphin and Latymer as a chemistry teacher. Helping to run the department was a woman called Frances Eastwood. Frances was much older than my mum and only two years away from retiring, but she was helpful and welcoming and before long the pair had become firm friends. She lived with another Godolphin teacher, Dorothy Newman (no relation), who had been Head of Classics before retiring in 1961.
While I was growing up my parents’ relationship with their parents was always slightly tense and strained. As a result, Frances and Dodo (as we called Dorothy) became de facto grandparents to my sister Sarah and me; we regularly stayed at their house in Hythe where they would feed us hunks of bread they baked, topped with a thick layer of home-made cherry jam. But their gentle kindness and generosity never blinded us to the fact that they were fiercely clever, independent-minded women who had known hardship as well as opportunity.
Frances had read chemistry at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford (and lived just long enough to see me win a place at the same college). Dorothy, meanwhile, had read Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge in the 1920s and remembered with fury how until 1948 – 1948! – women were not allowed to be full members of the university. Like many clever women of the period they never married or had children, blaming a lack of suitable men left alive after the First World War. It feels intrusive to speculate whether this was the whole story. Intrusive, but necessary, as the social historian Virginia Nicholson makes clear in Singled Out, her brilliant book about Frances and Dodo’s generation of what used to be called ‘spinsters’. They were known collectively as the Surplus Women after the 1921 Census revealed that there were 1.7 million more women than men in the population.
Remembering women like Frances and Dodo she encountered in her childhood, Nicholson recalls the questions that went unanswered because they were too rude to ask:
Why didn’t they ever marry? Did they mind? Did they harbour secret sadness? What did they do about the lack of love in their lives, and the lack of sex? Did they care that they had never had children? Did their spectacles and tweed jackets protect them from terrible vulnerabilities?15 (#litres_trial_promo)
As it happens, I don’t think Frances and Dodo were sad or loveless or vulnerable. The point for me is that they existed in an atmosphere of quirky female self-sufficiency and, while obviously bluestockings, were practical as well as cerebral. When Godolphin and Latymer was evacuated from Hammersmith to Newbury during the war – it shared a building with Newbury Grammar School – Dorothy as Senior Mistress helped to ensure its smooth operation and, with Frances’ help, ran one of the hostels for evacuated pupils.
I often wonder what Frances and Dodo would make of the way the modern world treats women. I think they would be horrified by the volume of abuse women are expected to soak up on Twitter – actually, they would be horrified by Twitter, full stop – but thrilled by such developments as the celebrity of historian Dame Mary Beard, Jane Austen’s appearance on a bank note and Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism campaign.
I hope they would be proud of my journalism, especially my work on Channel 4 News – and of this book, which I humbly offer up to them in tribute.
* (#ulink_024f18d3-7972-590c-bd21-5b8bfae0866f) I am also discounting a glancing reference to Clement Attlee’s self-effacing wife Violet.
Old Battles, New Women (#uc6971e89-ccfc-5b40-971d-29583dd30568)
By the 1880s, when our tale roughly begins, a time-traveller from Britain at the start of the nineteenth century would have found much of the country unrecognisable. Its urban centres, linked by a sophisticated rail network, boasted street lighting, paved roads and – if you were lucky – state-of-the-art sewers. In the industrial north and Midlands, especially, these towns and cities were thrumming symbols of imperial pomp and civic pride. Just beyond them, in soon-to-be suburbia, the sort of houses many of us still inhabit were being thrown up at breakneck speed.
But one thing remained resolutely unchanged. Politics was still a game played almost entirely by men – and old men at that. Benjamin Disraeli was sixty-nine when he became Prime Minister in 1874. William Gladstone, who succeeded him in 1880, was seventy at that point – and eighty-two by the time he was elected for the fourth time in 1892. Queen Victoria was dismayed at the prospect of her precious empire being at the mercy of the ‘shaking hand of an old, wild and incomprehensible man’. But then she had always disliked Gladstone, once complaining of the esteemed orator: ‘He always addresses me as if I were a public meeting.’
Queen Victoria had to get along with ten British prime ministers during her reign, which gives you a sense of just how much change she witnessed.
The nineteenth century was a time of massive expansion, especially for London. The capital’s population rose from 960,000 in 1801, when the first national census was taken, to nearly 6.6 million by 1901 – roughly the same as the combined populations of Paris, Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg.1 (#litres_trial_promo) Cities swelled because of migration from rural areas: the aftershocks of 1873’s agricultural depression, triggered by a collapse in grain prices, didn’t ease until the 1890s.
Immigration was also a factor in this urban drift. Jews fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe and Irish Catholics escaped from poverty and famine. In 1765, the Morning Gazette estimated there were 30,000 black servants in the country.2 (#litres_trial_promo) After slavery’s abolition the numbers fell dramatically, though there would still have been a significant black presence in ports like Cardiff, Liverpool and Grimsby, as well as London, where, according to Peter Ackroyd, most former slaves and their offspring were absorbed into society’s underclass as beggars and crossings-sweepers and became ‘almost invisible’.3 (#litres_trial_promo)
This might be overstating it. You don’t have to look far to find examples of visible black Victorian Britons,4 (#litres_trial_promo) but history books tend to have less to say about the women than the men. Or perhaps there were just fewer of them. Nurse-cum-hotelier Mary Seacole is now as well known among primary school children as her supposed rival Florence Nightingale (in fact, the two were on friendly terms), and was in many respects as effective a nurse on the killing fields of the Crimea. The African-American actor and playwright Ira Aldridge moved to London and had two daughters, Luranah and Amanda, who both became opera singers.5 (#litres_trial_promo) Laura Bowman, the African-American star of the musical In Dahomey – so popular it was performed at Buckingham Palace on 27 June 1903 – settled in Wimbledon with her common-law husband and performing partner Pete Hampton. Jane Roberts, a former slave who also moved to London from America and lived in a quiet street off Battersea Park, died in 1914, aged ninety-five. She’s buried in Streatham cemetery: plot 252, class H, block F.6 (#litres_trial_promo) Caroline Barbour-James and her five children moved from Guyana to west London in 1905. Upright Christians, they were always so smart and clean that local working-class youths thought they were millionaires.7 (#litres_trial_promo)
There was a fuss when the most recent BBC adaptation of E. M. Forster’s Howards End gave the Schlegel siblings a black maid. It was anachronistic, some said. Political correctness gone mad. But as Jeffrey Green’s fascinating Black Edwardians: Black People in Britain 1901–1914 shows, there were plenty of women of African descent in domestic service in Britain at this time, for example Ann Styles, a freed slave from Jamaica who moved to London in around 1840 with the white family she worked for. She continued in their service all her working life. Green’s own grandmother, Martha Louisa Vass, worked as a maid for a suffragette. Vass worked every day, often late into the night when the woman gave dinner parties. Every other Sunday she was allowed the afternoon off.
And then there’s Sara Forbes Bonetta, who deserves to be far better known. In 1850, at the age of around eight, Bonetta was delivered by a Captain Frederick E. Forbes to Queen Victoria as a ‘gift’ from King Ghezo of Dahomey, in what is now Benin in West Africa. Forbes named her after his ship, the HMS Bonetta, which had been patrolling the area with orders to intercept and destroy any slaving vessels.
Forbes worried about the ‘burden’ of bringing a child back on the ship but concluded he had no choice as Sara was now the property of the crown. He saw for the girl a future as a missionary and wrote her a glowing character reference:
For her age, supposed to be eight years, she is a perfect genius; she now speaks English well, and has a great talent for music. She has won the affections with but few exceptions, of all who have known her; by her docile and amiable conduct, which nothing can exceed. She is far in advance of any white child of her age, in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection … Her mind has received a moral and religious impression and she was baptised according to the rites of the Protestant Church.8 (#litres_trial_promo)
When Sara finally met Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle the queen was delighted with her, agreeing with Forbes that she was ‘sharp and intelligent’. ‘Sally’, as Victoria called her, became the queen’s goddaughter and for the next year was raised by the Forbes family like any other upper-middle-class English child. She visited the royal household several times and struck up a friendship with Princess Alice, Victoria and Albert’s second daughter, who was a similar age.
In 1851, however, Sara developed a persistent cough. Victoria’s doctors concluded that Britain’s wet climate was bad for Sara’s health and she was sent back to Africa to be educated at missionary school. But she was unhappy there and a few years later, when Sara was twelve, Victoria gave her permission to return to Britain.
She attended the wedding of Victoria, the Princess Royal, and in August 1862 was herself married at St Nicholas’ Church in Brighton to a Yoruba businessman, Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies. The couple returned to West Africa, where Sara gave birth to a daughter, named – you guessed it – Victoria. The queen became her godmother too, and when Sara brought the baby to meet her namesake, Victoria observed: ‘Saw Sally, now Mrs Davies, & her dear little child, far blacker than herself … a lively intelligent child with big melancholy eyes.’ Sara went on to have two more children. But she developed tuberculosis and died in 1880, the year our imaginary time-traveller arrives in Britain.
Sara Forbes Bonetta is fascinating because, simply by existing and behaving as she did, she debunked contemporary theories about race which held that anyone who wasn’t Anglo-Saxon was an example of a lower evolutionary form. John Beddoe, author of The Races of Britain (1862) and President of the Anthropological Institute 1889–1891, believed ‘Africanoids’ were related to Cromagnon man. But remember Captain Forbes’ extraordinary assessment: ‘She is far in advance of any white child of her age …’
It’s a shame neither Bonetta nor Seacole, who died in 1881, lived to see the new age that was dawning. Everywhere there was evidence of a rupture with the past, with everything known and familiar. The telegraph network made it possible to communicate quickly and reliably over huge distances. The first petrol-driven internal combustion engine was constructed in 1884 by Edward Butler. By the 1880s most new houses would have come with gas pipes and lamps as standard. Not surprisingly, the pace of development left many struggling to keep up.
Foremost among those left behind were the poor. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 meant that if you wanted help, you had to go to the workhouse to get it, with all the hardship that entailed. Disease, starvation and overcrowding were still widespread, though by the 1880s the middle classes had acquired a greater capacity to be shocked and/or titillated by them: books and pamphlets such as Andrew Mearns’ The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1883) and George R. Sims’ How The Poor Live (1883) found a ready readership.
To a significant degree, the job of sorting this mess out fell into the laps of women, as if women alone had the necessary resources to make a difference. In most cases these sorter-out women were upper middle class. The respectable helped the ‘lowly’ – until the battle for suffrage turned serious, at which point factory workers and MPs’ wives suddenly found themselves members of the same team.
The virtuous militancy that had powered protest groups like the Chartists – who wanted greater political representation for the working classes – was still in the air in the 1870s and 1880s. But increasingly it was being harnessed by women like the social reformers Clementina Black; Rachel and Margaret McMillan; Beatrice Webb; and Lydia Becker, who founded the first national suffrage campaign group, the National Society for Women’s Suffrage (NSWS), in 1867. It was hearing Lydia speak at a NSWS meeting in 1872 which radicalised a young Emmeline Pankhurst.
What these women had in common was, mostly, determination; though sometimes hardship too.
Clementina Black certainly knew how tough life was for many women. Her mother had died from a rupture while attempting to lift her invalid father, leaving twenty-one-year-old Clementina to look after him and her seven younger siblings. That she managed to write her first novel, A Sussex Idyll, while doing this speaks volumes; though it’s for her work with the Women’s Industrial Council (WIC), which she founded in 1894, and the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) rather than her fiction that Black is remembered.
Rachel and Margaret McMillan had to overcome tragedy too. Born in New York in 1859 and 1860 respectively, they returned to their parents’ native Inverness with their mother after scarlet fever had killed their father and infant sister and left Margaret deaf. (Her hearing returned when she was fourteen.) Their conversion to Christian socialism in the late 1880s ignited an obsession with educational reform. They paid particular attention to working-class children, and their campaigning led to a change in the law to provide free school meals for children and the proper training of nursery teachers. They would go on to open school-cum-clinics like the Deptford Clinic, which acted as a medical centre for local children, and ‘night camps’ where children from deprived areas could camp outside as well as wash and obtain clean clothes.
Before activism dominated her life, home-schooled Lydia Becker had been an amateur scientist – specialist subjects: botany and astronomy – who published a book, Botany for Novices (1864), and corresponded regularly with Charles Darwin. Becker would send Darwin specimens of plants indigenous to Manchester and contributed to his work on plant dimorphism. In return, Darwin acted as her unofficial tutor and mentor and, when Becker asked if he had a spare paper she might read out at the inaugural meeting of her quietly radical Manchester Ladies’ Literary Society – ‘Of course we are not so unreasonable as to desire that you should write anything specially for us’ – he generously sent over three.9 (#litres_trial_promo)
Beatrice Webb is better-known. With her husband Sidney, she would go on to be a founding member of what is now Britain’s oldest political think tank, the Fabian Society and, in 1895, the London School of Economics. Her approach to social reform was to drip-feed socialist ideas into the minds of Britain’s ruling elite. As young, unmarried Beatrice Potter, however, she worked with the sociologist Charles Booth on his monumental study of the Victorian slums Life and Labour of the People in London, published between 1889 and 1903.
Webb didn’t call herself a socialist until February 1890, when she declared her conversion in her diary, but she wrote several years earlier of the ‘growing uneasiness, amounting to conviction’ she felt that ‘the industrial organisation, which had yielded rent, interest and profits on a stupendous scale, had failed to provide a decent livelihood and tolerable conditions for a majority of the inhabitants of Great Britain’.10 (#litres_trial_promo)
More and more women like these five were feeling that they had a role to play in improving society. They knew they could answer the question of what constituted a ‘decent livelihood’ or ‘tolerable conditions’ as capably as the men. But the late-Victorian expectation was that women would suppress their intellects, the better to boost men’s sense of their own superior brainpower.
All four parts of Coventry Patmore’s best-known poem, the sickly paean to marriage ‘The Angel in the House’, were first published together in 1863. By the 1880s this piece of sludge epitomised the Victorian ideal where women were concerned. ‘Man must be pleased,’ wrote Patmore, ‘but him to please is woman’s pleasure.’
For Patmore, women – being both altruistic and obedient by nature – were best employed in the home, making their husbands happy and looking after any children. Even if their husbands stopped loving them, they must continue to love these men out of loyalty: ‘Through passionate duty love springs higher, as grass grows taller round a stone.’
What became known as the doctrine of separate spheres – that women belonged at home while only men could cope with the demands of the workplace – found its most famous expression in an essay by the writer and art critic John Ruskin called ‘Sesame and Lilies’, published in 1865. The job of a woman, Ruskin argues, is to patrol the domestic front: her intellect, such as it is, is ‘not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision’:
By her office, and place, she is protected from all danger and temptation. The man, in his rough work in open world, must encounter all peril and trial; – to him, therefore, must be the failure, the offence, the inevitable error: often he must be wounded, or subdued; often misled; and always hardened. But he guards the woman from all this …11 (#litres_trial_promo)
Pity Ruskin’s poor wife! Indeed, his own marriage to Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray was annulled after six years on the grounds of non-consummation. Supposedly the sight of her pubic hair and menstrual blood on their wedding night disgusted him.
If the ‘separate spheres’ doctrine sounds a bit barmy to us today, plenty of women at the time couldn’t get their heads round it either. The suffragist and campaigner for female education Emily Davies declared that ‘men have no monopoly of working, nor women of weeping’.12 (#litres_trial_promo) She railed against a ‘double moral code, with its masculine and feminine virtues, and its separate law of duty and honour for either sex’.13 (#litres_trial_promo)
Nowhere was this moral code more obviously unfair than in the bedroom. If a man committed adultery, it was a regrettable but understandable lapse. (It was in men’s nature to have sex whenever they felt like it, so what could you do to stop them?) For a woman, however, it was catastrophic, unforgivable, life changing. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 ruled that a woman could be divorced on the grounds of their adultery alone, whereas a man needed to be found guilty of other additional offences. He’d have to have committed incest, or not only been unfaithful but also deserted his wife.
The Act had led to an explosion in the divorce rate because middle-class couples could afford to split. Before the Act and its creation of a dedicated Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes, a marriage could be dissolved only by an Act of Parliament, at massive expense. In 1858, its first year in operation, there were three hundred divorce petitions compared to three the previous year.
One of these three hundred was brought by the industrialist Henry Robinson and became notorious. Despite having several mistresses and two illegitimate children, Robinson sought to divorce his wife Isabella on grounds of her infidelity, even though the only proof was a diary in which Isabella had been unwise enough to confide her erotic fantasies; a diary which shocked the nation when it was read out in court and extracts from it printed in newspapers.
Letters sent to Isabella by the object of her lust, a married homeopath called Edward Lane, proved nothing; nor did the diary prove anything save the lively sexual imagination of its author. But it was used against Isabella in court to protect Edward’s reputation. Broken and humiliated, she was obliged to defend herself by claiming that the diary was a dream-vision, a hallucination, and that a uterine disorder she suffered from had induced ‘erotomania’.14 (#litres_trial_promo)
By 1880 the idea of a woman being imprisoned by an unhappy marriage was grimly commonplace. Though of course, it was hardly a new one. The heroine of Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1797 novel The Wrongs of Woman: or, Maria: A Fragment is locked up by her husband, first in their home and later in a mental institution. In the asylum Maria writes a memoir for her infant daughter who has been taken away from her: ‘But a wife being as much a man’s property as his horse, or his ass, she has nothing she can call her own!’ she protests. ‘He may use any means to get at what the law considers as his, the moment his wife is in possession of it, even to the forcing of a lock.’15 (#litres_trial_promo)
Under nineteenth-century marriage law a woman’s legal identity was absorbed into her husband’s – a principle known as ‘coverture’. Without her husband’s consent a wife was unable to make a will, sue or be sued. All her property became her husband’s, including anything she had owned before and brought to the marriage. And her husband had custody of their children.
A change came in 1870 with the Married Women’s Property Act, which permitted women to be the legal owners of any money they earned and to inherit property. And in 1884 the Matrimonial Causes Act denied a husband the right to lock up his wife if she refused to have sex with him – although it wasn’t ratified until 1891 after an incident which became known as the ‘Jackson Abduction’.
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