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Elizabeth and Gender, Elizabeth Through the Ages, Historiography

Masculinity, Sex, and the Virgin Queen: Victorian Perceptions of Elizabeth I, Part 1

Portions of this blog post come from a 2009 essay written by Natalie Sweet.

When a new, young queen came to the throne, Victorians’ minds traveled back to another queen: Elizabeth.

On the early twentieth-century stage, W.G. Hole’s Elizabeth I voiced her fear that she “play[ed] too much the queen,” and demanded of her suitor,  “do you still hold me a woman?”[1]  Indeed, her question was one that many Victorians grappled with in the late nineteenth century.  While their fondness for bestowing Elizabeth with majesty and imperial power undoubtedly arose from British eagerness to trace the history of its empire, the celebration of Elizabeth as the Virgin Queen presented problems for the Victorians who celebrated Queen Victoria’s motherhood.  Victorians questioned how Elizabeth reconciled herself to virginity while the nation’s survival depended on an heir.  In contrast to this, but in a similar vein, Victorians were also preoccupied with Elizabeth’s sexuality and the masculine qualities of her suitors.  Likewise, the emergence of a “masculine” British empire created questions about Elizabeth’s role in creating that empire.  Although a woman presided over their own enterprises, Victorians acknowledged that Elizabeth ruled over a much more dangerous world than their own, and thus she needed masculine qualities to survive.  All of these factors led to a paradox in how Elizabeth was portrayed in British popular culture.  She sometimes “play[ed] too much the queen” in a masculine manner, but at other times she played too much the naughty woman as well.

Over the next week, this blog will explore the gendered language that Victorians used to describe Elizabeth and her suitors. In the popular literature produced on Elizabeth during the late Victorian era, Victorians saw her as having both “masculine” and “feminine” qualities. This paradox represented their own struggle to understand the tension between feminine behavior and necessary imperial leadership.

[1] W.G. Hole, Queen Elizabeth: An Historical Drama in Four Acts (London: George Bell and Sons, 1904), 85.


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