Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire (Julia Baird 2016) takes the position that it was mostly Prince Albert, Victoria’s husband, who made us associate the word “Victorian” with attempts to control sexual behavior.
Baird provides the reader with context:
In the late eighteenth century, when Melbourne grew up, marital faithfulness was not a prized virtue. Marriages were seen as companionable contracts within which one should produce a male heir. Melbourne’s own mother was, as he said himself, “a remarkable woman, a devoted mother, an excellent wife,—but not chaste, not chaste.” She had many lovers, with whom she had several children. It was widely known that Melbourne’s father was not his mother’s husband, from whom he took his name, but one of his mother’s lovers, Lord Egremont. What was surprising was that Melbourne stayed faithful to his own cuckolding wife. According to his biographer David Cecil, a married man was then thought peculiar if he did not have a “sprightly, full-bosomed” mistress. As for married women, “the practice was too common to stir comment.”
[regarding a man that today we might describe as “gay”] No one seriously gossiped about it while he was alive, at a time when homosexuality was not considered an identity but something people occasionally dabbled in, often as teenagers and young men and women. According to Michel Foucault, the beginning of the categorization of homosexuality as an identity did not come until 1870.
Albert laid down the law within the palace:
Punishment was given for “dishonest and sexually loose behavior.” A strict new code of conduct was carefully framed and hung in the bedrooms of maids of honor. Victoria’s name has long been associated with the puritanism Albert championed in her court, but he, not she, was the true advocate of these standards. Melbourne quickly realized that while Victoria “did not much care about such niceties of moral choice,” Albert was “extremely strait-laced.” The prince insisted on “spotless character,” while the queen did not care “a straw about it.” No one was exempt from Albert’s standards. Even his own brother had been a cause of fury due to his sexual licentiousness that had resulted in severe “visitations” of venereal disease. Yet Victoria would do little to stem her husband’s fervor; the Albert era, at least inside the palace, had begun.
One of their sons was fond of an actress:
Prince Albert first heard the rumors of his son’s thespian liaison with Nellie Clifden from Baron Stockmar, then in Germany, who had stumbled upon the story in European papers. The gossip had been swirling about the London clubs for weeks. … Sexual looseness was Albert’s psychological Achilles’ heel: his own family had been destroyed by infidelity, and his only brother had contracted syphilis. Albert was incapable of viewing trysts as casual, inevitable, or meaningless; for him, they could only contain the seeds of ruin. In the nineteenth century, this kind of affair could mean not just scandal, but disease, pregnancy, court cases, and financial ruin.
On November 16, four days after he heard the rumors about the affair from Stockmar, Albert sat down to write to his son. It was a strikingly harsh letter, especially as it was not unusual for aristocratic men to dabble with women before marriage. It began: “I write to you with a heavy heart upon a subject which has caused me the greatest pain I have yet felt in this life,” the discovery that his son, a prince, had “sunk into vice and debauchery.” Bertie had always seemed ignorant and weak, he wrote, but “depraved” was a new low. His father warned him of nightmarish scenarios: this “woman of the town” could have a child—and take him to court if he denied it. She could offer “disgusting details of your profligacy” and Bertie himself could be cross-examined, mobbed, and humiliated. Bertie, shamed and guilty, begged his forgiveness. Albert told him nothing could restore his innocence. Victoria shared her husband’s disgust: “Oh! that boy—much as I pity him I never can or shall look at him without a shudder.”
Sex and cash were, um, intimately linked:
“Fast” women were blamed for many things in Victorian England: a loosening of moral codes, the masculinization of ladies, and an epidemic of venereal disease that had crippled the British defense forces in the Crimea, in India, and in England. By 1864, almost a third of all British troops were admitted to the hospital for syphilis or gonorrhea. Because it was not the soldiers who were blamed but the women they slept with, the solution decided upon was simple: the army and navy needed clean prostitutes. In 1864, the first of the Contagious Diseases Acts introduced official brothels for the military.
the Victorian double standard under which women were punished for sexual behavior while men escaped scrutiny and condemnation. Still, many men regarded prostitutes as essential to the social fabric. Tolstoy, for example, could not imagine London without its “Magdalenes.” “What would become of families?” he wrote in 1870. “How many wives or daughters would remain chaste? What would become of the laws of morality which people so love to observe? It seems to me that this class of woman is essential to the family under the present complex forms of life.” Divorces were still rare, and men were supposed to delay marriage until they were financially solvent. Unemployment created a swath of single men. Prostitution was the subject of much speculation but little rigorous research in England at the time. Estimates of the number of female sex workers in London at midcentury ranged between 80,000 and 120,000, out of a total population of 2.3 million men and women.
The 1871 Royal Commission on the Contagious Diseases Acts, for example, declared there was no comparison to be made between prostitutes and their clients: “With the one sex the offence is committed as a matter of gain, with the other it is an irregular indulgence of a natural impulse.” Yet, as one sex worker said after being imprisoned, “It did seem hard, ma’am, that the Magistrate on the bench who gave the casting vote for my imprisonment had paid me several shillings a day or two before, in the street, to go with him.”
Have you heard about a politician and women willing to have sex if the price is right?
It is not clear when Gladstone’s fetish for “fallen women” began, though it is clear that the period of greatest activity was around 1850, when he had been in Parliament for eighteen years. … He spent hours talking to sex workers he met in the streets, trying to persuade them to choose another life. He read them Tennyson and Thomas Malory, arranged for them to have their portraits painted, and grew deeply attached to them. The tall, somber politician was particularly drawn to beautiful prostitutes, something that did not escape comment. In 1852, he described one of his great interests as “half a most lovely statue, beautiful beyond measure.” … Concerned colleagues tried to warn Gladstone about possible ramifications of his behavior, but he refused to stop. Sex workers called him “Old Glad-eye.” He tried to rescue somewhere between eighty and ninety prostitutes over the five years following 1849, but he had little success. He admitted, “There is but one of whom I know that the miserable life has been abandoned and that I can fairly join that fact with influence of mine.”
After Albert’s death things lightened up a bit:
[Victoria] allowed women thought to be innocent parties in divorce cases to join the Jubilee; she even contemplated extending this privilege to such women from other countries, although Lord Salisbury counseled her against it “on account of the risk of admitting American women of light character”). It was a time for leniency—across the empire, prisoners were set free, except those who were cruel to animals, a sin Victoria considered unforgivable.
More: read Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire.