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

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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.

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 Guardian