Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, The Regents of the University of California (1995)
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 is 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 Auslander Munich points out in particular that the idea of “maternal monarchy seems absurd,” an outrageous mingling of separate spheres that created a “gap in representability” to be filled by one paradox after another. And yet it is also arguable, by analogy with Nancy Armstrong’s contention “that the modern individual was first and foremost a woman,” 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 middle-class wife.
To look at the matter from another angle, female monarchy posed numerous representational problems, as Munich argues, but those problems and others could be resolved if the queen was a wife. Britain, finding itself under female rule, capitalized on the desire to limit female power by making that the alibi for limiting (but not eliminating) the monarchy’s powers and entitlements. By presenting herself as a wife, Queen Victoria offered the perfect solution to Britain’s fears of both female rule and excessive monarchic power.