When Queen Victoria gave birth to her first child, in 1840, it was standing-room only. “Her Majesty was safely delivered of a princess at ten minutes before 2’o clock pm,” one paper reported, adding that Prince Albert was in the room (how modern), along with the Duchess of Kent, Sir James Clark, Dr Locock, Dr Ferguson and Mr Blagden.
That’s not all. “In an adjoining room, the door being open, were the following Councillors – his Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Bishop of London, the Lord High Chancellor; Viscount Melbourne, First Lord of the Treasury; the Earl of Erroll, Lord Steward of the Household; Viscount Palmerston, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs; Lord John Russell, Secretary of State for the Colonies, and the Earl of Albemarle, Master of the Horse.” (I can only presume that the Earl of Albermarle took a wrong turn on the way to the stables.)
She became a mother of nine, yet Victoria hated being pregnant. She wrote to her eldest daughter, Vicky, that “I positively think those ladies who are always enceinte quite disgusting; it is more like a rabbit or guineapig than anything else.” She rubbished her daughter’s desire to start a family immediately after getting married, telling her: “What you say of the pride of giving life to an immortal soul is very fine, dear, but I own I cannot enter into that; I think much more of our being like a cow or a dog at such moments.”
Reading Victoria’s letters has been a pleasant respite from the Forelockapalooza that has paralysed the media. It feels as though the nation is hopelessly torn between scaling new heights of deference to our betters and the unalterable fact we’re talking about a small human exiting a vagina at speed. The birth has been shrouded in curtains of taboo; using hushed, respectful tones to talk about something that can be dangerous, gory and undignified. It’s peculiarly prim when we are supposedly an über-liberated, permissive society: why are we more Victorian about childbirth than Queen Victoria?
The writer who has best articulated our conflicted attitude to monarchy is Hilary Mantel. In her now-infamous lecture, she writes that our obsession with royalty is “a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content, mouthed rather than spoken . . . And in the same way one is compelled to look at them: to ask what they are made of, and is their substance the same as ours.”
And that’s what has struck me most in the past few days: how impolite the concept of royalty is, how resolutely un-private and un-modern. The whole idea of it invites us to imagine that there is something magical about Prince William’s sperm; meanwhile, internet commenters praise his wife for her decision not to have a Caesarean section.
Later, I’m sure, there will be a thousand earnest columns on whether she will breastfeed our future ruler. At this point, I would barely register a flicker of surprise if Clarence House posted a website update on whetheror not Kate had had an episiotomy. All that is incredibly intrusive; I feel bad just for having written it. What business of mine is it what goes in or comes out of the genitals of consenting adults? Except, of course, having a hereditary ruler has made it my business, and yours. In a metaphor I’m already regretting, you can’t eat the Duchy of Cornwall sausages and be squeamish about how they’re made . . .
But now, our attitude to monarchy is like our attitude to religion: we want to keep the bits we like – the fun and the pageantry and perhaps a sense of community – and get cross if anyone mentions the outdated, offensive assumptions that underpin them. So opponents of gay marriage talk about defending the “traditional family” rather than quoting Leviticus. And when it comes to monarchy, we say yes to bunting and balconies, but please – don’t mention the bodily fluids. I mean, can you imagine Nicholas Witchell saying “hymen” on the BBC News at Six? (Incidentally, my life has improved immeasurably since I found out that Witchell once wrote a book about the Loch Ness monster; now there’s a man with a high tolerance for bullshit.)
In recent days, the media has been shocked –shocked, I tell you – at the tradition of having so many people in the room when the newly minted HRH appeared. How intrusive, shuddered the press, next to a piece wondering where the new Prince of Cambridge was conceived, or congratulating his mother on her “neat bump”, alongside a dozen photographs documenting its slow waxing in minute detail. As Lauren Collins wrote in the New Yorker, “we have been performing a collective sonogram on Kate since April, 2011”.
Clearly, the media wouldn’t follow the saga in such detail if there was no appetite for it. We have become a society that watches: we are obsessive about needing to see things for ourselves. Call it a lack of trust in institutions, call it a narcissism born of social media, but the truth is 99 per cent of Britain would have accepted an invitation to be in that delivery room. And you thought having the Master of the Horse present was weird.
Ed Smith is on paternity leave