‘The Angel in the House’ – A Snug Victorian Family Life

Charles Western-(Baron-Western-of-Rivenhall) and brother Shirley by John Singleton Copley - Imagining the Future

By the turn of the nineteenth century in England the Industrial Revolution was a growing force. The winds of change meant that the supremacy of the eighteenth century aristocratic gentleman was threatened. He could not just continue on as his forbears had done, leading a life of self-indulgence combined with astute estate management.

A gentleman’s hope for a relaxed and elegant style of life was now threatened by those with a great grasp of making the most of the opportunities that presented themselves, as they aspired to live their life as their Lord always had. New ideas about retailing and early concepts of marketing and promotion were coming to contention with a population that wanted far more than their parents.

If a gentleman did not manage his estates diligently he found that alarmingly, they could be taken over by someone from a less exalted station in life who merely had the ready necessary, money. Breeding didn’t come into it.

This was such a fearful thought for those at the top and it demanded immediate action.

The growth of the working classes in power and independence created a dilemma for the upper classes, should they fight the movement or accept it? In England, the families who continued to succeed were those who accepted change and new ideas.

With a sound foundation in their inherited status, a great deal of style and expertise wise English gentleman set out to lead the classes below them, rather than fight them. This was very different to what happened on the continent and it made the English stand out as a unique society, far more tolerant, far more generous and willing to assist others improve their quality of life.

Edwin Henry Landseer - Queen Victoria in Windsor Home Park, 1865

Leadership of this kind involved association, and as a result, the middle classes slowly disappeared from great households as employees or subordinates, and often re-appeared as guests.

That great English country tradition the hunt now became a point of reference and meeting place for those aspiring to be at the top. Progress was everywhere.  Roads were being upgraded, and the distances between London, the country and towns, became less of a challenge.  Society was on the move.

People were now rotating in far bigger circles than ever before, although all the circles did end up intersecting.

Liam Neeson as Sir Walter Scott's hero Rob Roy

Scottish author Sir Walter Scott was a great admirer of novelist Jane Austen and in his lifetime became the world’s most famous living author. Sir Walter’s novels made young girl’s thrill to the thought of gallant knights, loyal chieftains and faithful lovers.

He spurred young men on to romantic gestures and dashing deeds in both love and war.

It is hard for us to judge the enormous impact Scott’s Waverley novels had on the attitudes, philosophies, fashions and passions of the Victorian era. They were published over an eighteen year period from 1814 onward.

From the Tales of the Crusaders to Ivanhoe, Rob Roy and Quentin Durward they were all rousing stories fueled by a Gothic, Medieval revival in architectural style that had been growing slowly for a century in the cradle of the aristocracy.

Lord Eglington's Tournament

These ideas had a great deal of influence on Sir Walter Scott and in turn he then influenced the ideas of the burgeoning middle classes and his impact on cultural development during the nineteenth century in England was to be far more than considerable.

By way of contrast, the novels of the Bronte Sisters and those of Charles Dickens, with their descriptions of the abject misery of poverty, aroused the social conscience.

Spurred on by Sir Walter Scott’s terrific tales of derring do Lord Eglinton, a young Tory Earl became very enthusiastic about England’s past history. He held a huge tournament with knights and ladies based on medieval role models. All the young men who attended were inspired by Scott’s characters and they vibrated with expectation.

The minds of young men of fashion were seized by his many romantic attractions, including the crowning of the Queen of Beauty. However after a splendid start to the Tournament in glorious sunshine, the whole event dissolved into a disaster because of poor arrangements.

The giant procession took three hours longer to eventuate and as the Queen of Beauty prepared to mount her snow-white steed a clap of thunder, and the onslaught of a violent storm turned the whole glittering scene to mud.

The tournament however did provide England with a grand and remarkable marketing exercise with souvenir music sheets, jig saws, medals, jugs plates, ladies lovely silver and glass scent bottles with knight’s helmets for stoppers with no less than eight books on the subject published.

Emily Blunt as Victoria and Rupert Friend as Albert in The Young Victoria

Over this newly emerging society now ruled a ‘slip of a girl’, Alexandrina Victoria (1819-1901) Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and from 1876 Empress of India. She was the only child of George III’s fourth son Edward, Duke of Kent and his wife Victoria Louisa of Saxe-Coburg, sister of Leopold, King of the Belgians.

At 18 Victoria was called to the throne on the death of her uncle in 1837. She speedily demonstrated her clear grasp of constitutional principles. (Under Salic Law the dominion of Hanover had passed to another Uncle Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland).

During her lonely childhood, companioned almost entirely by older folk Uncle Leopold 1 of the Belgians had counseled her by correspondence.

Her precocious maturity and surprising firmness of will was speedily demonstrated on the day she became Queen. Crowned at Westminster on June 18, 1838 when she returned home the first decision she made was to pick out a bedroom for herself, rather than to continuing to share her mother’s as she had done since she had been a little girl.

The wedding of Victoria and Albert, a family affair

It was  her adored Uncle Leopold of the Belgians who had introduced her to young Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and his brother Ernest, at an early age.

Leopold was hoping for a strategic alliance with England and it was fate surely that Albert eventually overcame many obstacles to become Victoria’s consort, as well as the love of her life.

He was the first of many men she admired all of whom would influence her reign. These included Lord Melbourne, Benjamin Disraeli and later John Brown, her faithful Scottish servant.

Victoria and Albert shared a love of family life, with high moral standards all tempered by very strict discipline.  She was devoted to him from the day of their marriage in 1840.

Albert had an extraordinary character. He was strongly motivated by a desire to turn theoretical concepts into practical advantage.

Painting, he thought should provide an accurate record of a particular person or event in a commemorative sense, and therefore be morally uplifting or spiritually reassuring.

Artists of his day had great difficulty in living up to his ideals all the time.

The significant change in attitudes during the reign of Queen Victoria in England meant that although medieval Dukes had been unwilling to sit at a table with anyone of lower rank than a Baron, Victorian dukes were prepared to meet even journalists at dinner.

English gentlewoman under Victoria gained moral direction. A direct movement toward decorum was mirrored in the fashions of the day. Light and flimsy muslin’s gave way to simplicity. Only lace collars relieved the simple severe cut and color of a new age ladies clothing.

Hair was unadorned and even Victoria, who loved dancing, abandoned such frivolity dictated to by a strongly religious Albert. He was all for quitting balls for bed on the stroke of midnight.

Under a severe riding habit English gentlewoman, riding side saddle, would wear embroidered or red silk petticoats and sometimes trousers, lest she should fall from her mount indecorously.

It paid to ‘be prepared’, which was the motto of an all new scouting movement for boys, started by one Baden Powell.

Prosperity flourished in Victorian England. There was so much money to consume, in both new and old families, that it tended to make the country house world extremely competitive. Housekeeping became an art form and cleanliness was seen as being next to godliness.

Old families built to keep up with new ones. While new families were neither aggressive or inept anxious to do the right thing. They were eager to be accepted and so subscribed to the local charities, sent their children to the right schools and went hunting, shooting and fishing with equal enthusiasm, even if not always with skill.

Books of etiquette revealed an elaborate code of behavior now in place, which was designed by the upper classes as a defensive sieve or initiatory rite. It was meant to specifically keep the wrong sort of people out of the highest places. These little books became invaluable guides, because they revealed all with reasonable accuracy. The result being it was a mutually admiring partnership of middle and upper classes who ran Victorian England.

On the gentry side, the children of the family slept and worked above, or next door to their parents with nurseries run by a Nanny, later turning into the schoolroom for education. Visiting bachelors were put along one corridor and young ladies along another.

The capacious porch bore the inscription “WELCOME’ on the door mat.

Domestic cares of the household were expected to be kept hidden from the Victorian gentleman. He expected to arrive home to a warm welcome from his wife and children in a flutter of excitement to see him.

He was comforted by the thought there was a cozy fire to warm him, a neat plain dinner with soup, a joint and two or three removes to accompany it.

Order and quiet was valued above all.

A poem “the Angel in the House”, written by Coventry Patmore about his wife Emily had a huge impact on Victorian family life and reverberated for over a century. Emily, after bearing her husband six children succumbed to tuberculosis in 1862.

Her husband Coventry while he was pining for her wrote a poem describing her many virtues.

The poem became popular among Victorian Gentlemen all of whom wished their wife to perfectly emulate Emily, including being endowed with her beauty and innocence of manner.

Sex, childbirth and other women’s health problems were never discussed. Many women were totally innocent about birth right up until the actual event happened.

Terrible stories from India emerged where women gave birth in the middle of uprisings and battles not even understanding about how the baby was born.

This was all part of the philosophy behind the Gothic revival style.

He is my knight - artist John William Waterhouse

In the spirit of chivalry Victorian ladies were expected to remain chaste as well as virtuous.

Queen Guinevere of Camelot was their ultimate role model. She seemed to conduct love on a some higher plane than everyone else.

It was enjoyed excitingly spiced with guilt or frustration, involving much talk of the ‘passion of the soul’, while moving toward the final act, only sometimes getting there.

If passion was sanctified by marriage, sensuality was deemed inappropriate.

A woman and her body were her husband’s to dispose of as he pleased. Mrs. Sarah Eliss wrote in The Women of England in 1842.

“To be admitted to his heart to share his counsels and to be the chosen companion of his joys and sorrows’ it is difficult to say whether humility or gratitude should preponderate.

Lady Tennyson wrote Man must be pleased; but him to please is woman’s pleasure. These ideas became ingrained in the new societies mores and concerns, and would take until well after World War II to finally break down out in England’s colonies.

Prince Albert's Study at Balmoral

Sir Walter Scott glamorized the Scottish clans and Jacobites (and virtually single-handedly) established the tourist industry of the Scottish Highlands. This flooded not only the whole of Scotland with tartan but also interiors throughout Britain, including the carpet of the King and Queen’s study.

The royal couple cultivated local customs and pursuits with great enthusiasm, encouraging the local trades and learning to dance reels.

One of the problems any decorator had at Balmoral Castle in Scotland was the climate, which was not very hospitable. It was rarely lived in during the coldest and dampest times of the year because its stone absorbed the moisture.

Albert appalled waste or pampering of any sort and so many rooms in royal houses remained unheated and the family retreated into all but a few rooms.

At Balmoral, as at Osborne, Albert and Victoria were always blissfully happy.

Osborne was a seaside residence on the Isle of Wight designed by Prince Albert and Thomas Cubitt and the building of it lasting from 1845 to 1851. It was Italianate in style, its design now exceedingly popular for newly built Victorian country houses because so many nouveau riche English were now wintering in Italy.

Osborne was one of Albert’s favorite residences. He personally directed the building program as well as the laying out of the gardens.

He spent his day signaling the workers with flags in Morse code from its tall tower.

The idea of having a family house of their own had been in both Victoria and Albert’s minds since 1843. Being on an island Osborne was far away from prying eyes and there was plenty of fresh sea air for a growing family.

Purchased from her own money, the house was also free from rules put in place by the Office of Woods and Works.

It was her very own paradise and Victoria wrote in her journal that the grounds were ‘delightfully private; we can walk about anywhere unmolested; the house is so complete and snug‘.

Albert set about furnishing it by buying simple rosewood furniture and ‘pretty chintz sofas’ for the drawing room.

They filled the rooms with china, ornaments and pictures. One of the portrait painters that seemingly gave the most satisfaction was the German F.X. Winterhalter.

The dining room was dominated by a portrait of the royal family by him. The other furniture was arranged around the room to aid the servants in their work, the table disposed to take full advantage of a view out of the windows.

The small dressing room off their bedroom reflected Albert’s taste in Renaissance and contemporary art. There was a writing table and a desk placed so he and Victoria could attend to all their correspondence together.

The greatest blessing she recorded was ‘that it was all our very own which makes it doubly nice’.

In all their houses Queen Victoria and Albert’s personal preferences were evident. Her tastes had been less intellectually formed than his, her choices more than likely paralleling most of her subjects.

Albert was a keen and academic collector, as well as a patron of contemporary artists. F.X. Winterhalter’s painting of Queen Victoria with her hair down was well received by Albert on his birthday in 1843

I cannot say how delighted my beloved Albert was with the Winterhalter picture. The surprise was so great and he though it so like and so beautifully painted. I felt so happy and so proud to have found something that gave him so much pleasure” said the Queen.

Watch the Trailer of the Young Victoria starring Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend


Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2010 – 2013

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