In our latest installment of featured nonfiction—also curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today by Rachel Vorona Cote.
Cote looks at how the “unspoken rules” that govern the expression of women’s emotional and physical desires date back to the 19th century, in a book Publishers Weekly called “vigorous” and “wide-ranging.”
Feminine youth, as it is conventionally understood—blushing adolescence through one’s early twenties—is a potent and tenacious fetish. I am happier now than I’ve ever been, and yet, when I am confronted with various incarnations of early adulthood, whether in a film, or in the image of a musician, or in a television show’s rosily stilted manifestation of it, my reaction is a fickle one, a mélange of relief and covetousness. I’m grateful to have dispensed with years of agitated uncertainty and the eager willingness to rearrange myself according to others’ predilections. Ultimately, I have benefited from the toil and tangle of living with myself. And yet, I’m susceptible to depictions of young adulthood that place exhilaration and beauty alongside the angst. I try, in spite of myself, to recollect juvenile missteps: perhaps euphoria, or even the unremarkable lull of contentment might have been possible had I behaved with more abandon and not dodged the risks. Maybe—probably—I was too ensconced in my own head.
According to a common lament, we can only discern the best parts of ourselves long after we’ve shed that skin. The most marvelous exploits glisten brightest once they’ve plunged into the cache of our personal histories. But moments cannot be so intoxicating and delicious if we are aware of them, if we appoint ourselves as characters in narratives of our own devising: either we retread these shimmering spaces by the grace of memory or they flee to a vast, unknowable archive littered with relics of time. Despite the reliable intensity of my feelings, I was pinned by an urgent impulse to editorialize every moment, not because I was especially profound, although I fancied myself so, but because I was terrified. If I had been more self-sure, I might have received murky obscurity as possibility. Instead, I tasked myself with rooting out meaning in every catalogued experience, as if dogged interpretation could harness my prodigious fear and pave a path to a life that suited me. These were the consequences of being young and Too Much: upon self-diagnosis, I looked at the world and saw peril at every turn, in romance and in creative aspirations and in my every small and colossal hope. If I was going to survive in this inhospitable place, I required discipline.
Now, at thirty-four—not aged, surely, but not especially young—I consider my Too Much youth with a flickering melancholy. In fearing myself, what did I miss? At my most vulnerable, I whip up recuperative fantasies: I imagine myself eighteen, unbound by the belief that I owe the world a more muted and stoic version of myself. I consider my future not with the timorous sense that I am unfit, but instead with exhilaration at my good fortune. I appreciate and honor both my body and my face rather than scowling at them with self-loathing. I come out as queer decades earlier. I have more sex. I spin this tale of an idealized and evolved girlhood because, in the thick of it, I’m fretting—about being too old and, still, Too Much.
Enduringly, I am tantalized by the talismanic power of a good story, the notion that everything is solvable and salvageable if I plot it out, even in retrospect. A good story led me to marry the wrong man, to deny my sexuality, to wound others and myself. To seek out a good story as both an organizing principle and an emotional bridle is, at best, a red herring, and at worst, a powder keg. Nowadays, I resist the impulse of contemplating more pleasing origin stories, with the recognition that they hardly soothe, but rather reinforce the great falsehood lobbed at us by a culture dazzled by youth: that with every passing year, a slice of something quintessential and cherished is, necessarily, lost.
On June 21, 1887, Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee; she had reigned for fifty years on Great Britain’s throne. She was glad, mostly. At sixty-eight years old, twenty-five years after the death of her beloved Prince Albert, she remained staunchly in mourning—on this occasion, as always, she donned a simple black dress—determined to glorify the husband she had lost and who, by then, many of her subjects had never known. The previous day, she had commemorated the occasion by documenting it in her diary. Her words are bald and forlorn: “The day has come and I am alone.” She had, by then, also outlived two children and five grandchildren, as well as John Brown, her dear and devoted companion.
And yet she found satisfaction in the day. Over fifty years, she had cultivated a sensational legacy as monarch of the world’s most august empire. But despite Britain’s grandiosity, Victoria dressed with a plainness that evoked middle-class English domesticity. She was avid in her efforts to oversee the kingdom, but positioned herself foremost as wife, mother, and then a bonnet-clad widow. This maternal iconography was pervasive. At the time of her Jubilee, the queen was hailed as the “Grandmother of Europe”: numbered among her passel of descendants are the odious Wilhelm II, the German emperor who would declare war on England, and Princess Alix of Hesse, who would marry Czar Nicholas of Russia and, later, be killed in the Russian Revolution (she is perhaps best remembered as mother to Princess Anastasia). Among Britons, the queen was worshipped as a motherly goddess. “You go it, old girl! You done it well! You done it well!” applauded a crowd of working-class men as they met Victoria’s carriage. She acknowledged them with a customary nod, but laughed too, and her eyes welled.
If a woman must grow old, she might as well be the queen of an imperialist juggernaut. To be sure, status did not safeguard Victoria from woe and travails, but as she aged, she attained the luster of immortality (indeed, some thought she would be queen forever). From the British public’s vantage point, the queen could never be Too Much; she was, after all, larger than life.
But Victoria, I suspect, did not share this opinion. While Albert lived, she was assiduous in her efforts not to puncture his ego, even when this meant diminishing herself. She knew her husband could not abide a power imbalance—in fact, he did not believe in women ruling kingdoms on their own—and so even attempted, unsuccessfully, to bestow him with the title King Consort (he was styled as Prince Consort). Although women seeking the right to vote would later point to Victoria as an argument for universal suffrage—had she not ruled wisely?—the queen did not support it. When, during the Boer War, women sailed to South Africa to care for the beleaguered troops as well as prisoners suffering in British concentration camps, the elderly Victoria voiced her disapproval, remarking that these “hysterical” women would only be a bother. While she was known for being racially progressive, at least compared to many of her contemporaries, the queen never indicated concern for the indigenous women of India, China, Canada, Argentina, and the inhabitants of many other lands, millions of whom suffered brutalities in her name.
When, on January 22, 1901, Queen Victoria’s long life at last expired, the era that is her namesake came to a formal, if not ideological, close. Over eight decades, women in Great Britain had seen considerable social advancements. Victorian men might still demand an “angel in the house,” the docile and chastely helpmeet, but women had begun to buck this expectation. Some chose not to marry, living alone, or together with other single women. A husband could no longer assume his wife’s wealth; finally, she existed as an individual in the eyes of the law. The 1891 case Regina vs. Jackson, wherein a Mr. Jackson kidnapped his wife, enlisted guards to hold her prisoner at home, and took her to court for “restitution of conjugal rights,” ruled, blessedly, in favor of the wife. Neither the ghoulish Mr. Jackson, nor any man, could claim legal proprietorship of his wife’s body; this was unquestionably a landmark court decision. These are marks of trenchant but circumscribed progress—the British colonies were not afforded the aforementioned liberties—and, because progress fundamentally suggests a process of evolution, it was also, without question, not enough. (For instance, it was 1991 before either England or Wales recognized “marital rape,” and just two years before Regina vs. Jackson a judge ruled that a man afflicted with gonorrhea could rape his wife.) But then it would be altogether oxymoronic, the concept of enough progress.
On her deathbed, it’s unlikely that Victoria was dwelling on the legal and socioeconomic achievements of her female subjects. The monarch was no protofeminist, and she had always, even in widowhood, conceived of herself as Albert’s wife with strident adhesion. However, as she prepared for their reunion beyond the grave, she did, it seems, muse upon herself. Inscribed in her funeral instructions was the following note to her children: “I die in peace with all fully aware of my many faults.” She was at peace. She was not enough—or she was too much: who is to say?
Excerpted from Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today. Copyright © 2020 by Rachel Vorona Cote. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.