Updated: Aug 30
We here at Points are very excited to present the first installment of guest blogger Kristina Aikens’ four-part series. Kristina received her PhD in English from Tufts University in 2008, producing the thesis “A Pharmacy of Her Own: Victorian Women and the Figure of the Opiate.” Since then, she has been published under a variety of academic titles, including Gothic Studies, Critical Survey, and Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. In the coming weeks, she’ll provide us with her insight on the role of drugs in the lives of Victorian women.
Victorian England, an era with a drug culture as distinct as any.
As readers of this blog will be aware, many people erroneously conceive of drug use, particularly what we now consider “recreational drug use,” as a twentieth century phenomenon. People are often surprised to hear that the subject of my English literature dissertation was the depiction of female drug use in Victorian fiction and poetry. After all, the Victorian era is considered a famously morally upright time and is not commonly associated with drug use. Pre-twentieth-century English drug use is normally associated with earlier, Romantic era poets such as De Quincey and Coleridge. Further, Victorian women are usually thought of as a particularly repressed group. Nonetheless, Victorian England was clearly a site of casual drug use. In fact, drugs such as opium, cocaine, and marijuana, were not only legal and loosely regulated, but they often appeared as ingredients in both prescription and patent medication during that time. Drugs’ effectiveness as medication made them fairly common household objects, so it would be wrongheaded to apply today’s attitudes toward the use of these drugs in the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, our reaction to hearing that Victorians regularly used these drugs is usually informed by our current attitudes. The loose legal restrictions on these drugs did not mean there were no moral concerns about them, but Victorians’ attitudes regarding drugs were more complicated than what we might expect, given the era’s reputation.
Although my dissertation primarily focused on the ways authors employed metaphorical depictions of drug use in relation to female literary characters, I couldn’t help but wonder about the everyday uses of drugs by real women, especially the most famous woman of the century, Queen Victoria herself. Tracking down whether or not Queen Victoria used drugs is a difficult task, but the pursuit of this information provided an interesting case study into how people think about the gender dynamics of drug use.
I first became interested in the subject of Queen Victoria as a drug user while watching a History Channel documentary titled “Hooked: Illegal Drugs and How They Got That Way.” One of the experts interviewed for this program asserted that Queen Victoria used marijuana to relieve menstrual cramps. This was surprising to me, but certainly not outside of the realm of possibility. Women were commonly supplied with drugs in response to “female complaints,” particularly pain associated with menstruation and childbirth, or “feminine” illnesses, such as neuralgia and hysteria. My interest piqued, I looked for a citation that might corroborate this piece of information, thinking that a mention of marijuana in the Queen’s diaries or correspondence could be highly relevant to my dissertation. All I found, however, was a number of un-cited assertions in various history books arguing that Victoria did indeed use marijuana. After some digging, I finally discovered that Queen Victoria’s personal physician, J. Russell Reynolds, widely prescribed cannabis for various reasons, including the treatment of menstrual cramps. Presumably this information is what led many to claim that Dr. Reynolds prescribed cannabis to the Queen. While this is not exactly a wild logical leap, it appears to be more an assumption than a fact. In his book Cannabis Britannica, James H. Mills writes that there is “no direct evidence” for the claim, going so far as to deem the claim that Queen Victoria was prescribed cannabis a “myth” (142).
Not long after I found Mills’ assertion that there was no evidence to support the idea of Queen Victorian using marijuana, a question went out on the Victoria listserv from another member who had seen the History Channel documentary, asking for information about how Queen Victoria would have ingested the drug. The questioner also jokingly referred to a 1974 NORML advertisement that depicts a cartoon version of Queen Victoria sitting on her throne smoking a joint.
The advertisement in question.
As amusing as the image is, Queen Victoria would not have smoked a joint even if she had used marijuana. For one thing, such behavior would be quite incongruous for a monarch who hated the fumes from tobacco and banned smoking of any kind in her court. But the question is about more than a matter of the Queen’s personal taste; if she had used cannabis as a prescription medicine supplied by Dr. Reynolds, it most likely would have been prepared by brewing a tea that included cannabis seeds or by stirring the seeds into a glass of water. Although drinking or eating a drug for medicinal purposes suggests future intoxication, such methods of ingestion would have been considered more genteel at the time. Smoking a drug was always perceived as solely recreational and intoxicating, not medicinal. Of course, a cartoon of the famously proper queen sitting on her throne sipping a cup of tea would not have quite the same impact as the image NORML went with.
Although there is no definitive evidence that Queen Victoria personally partook of either the medicinal or pleasurable benefits of marijuana, the extensive prescription of the drug by the royal physician suggests a general belief of the time in its propriety and effectiveness. In a similar sense, a loose connection between Queen Victoria and Vin Mariani coca wine seems to have been enough to affect sales of the tonic at the time. One of the primary marketing techniques for Vin Mariani, a Bordeaux wine infused with coca leaves, was celebrity testimonials. Many of these testimonials, from such luminaries as Sarah Bernhardt, Thomas Edison, Jules Verne, and even Pope Leo XIII, still exist. Again, although a number of books on the history of cocaine and other drugs claim Queen Victoria gave a testimonial in favor of Vin Mariani, the testimonial itself remains elusive. In fact, I have never seen the testimonial directly quoted, cited, or otherwise reproduced. Queen Victoria did, however, receive a book of the testimonials as a gift from Angelo Mariani, and wrote a thank you note complimenting him on the volume. Perhaps her polite note was considered enough to constitute a tacit endorsement of the product itself and forever link the queen with cocaine.
There is, however, concrete evidence that Queen Victoria experienced at least one psychoactive drug. After the monarch was administered chloroform during the birth of her fifth child in 1853, she wrote in a journal entry regarding her childbirth anesthesia, “Dr. Snow [the inventor of the chloroform inhaler] gave that blessed chloroform and the effect was soothing, quieting, and delightful beyond measure.” The Queen’s satisfaction was confirmed by the fact that she was administered chloroform during her next confinement as well. Chloroform was an extremely new drug at the time, and the very idea that the pain of childbirth could be mitigated was in itself innovative. In this case, Queen Victoria’s public endorsement of the drug, and her survival of a potentially dangerous procedure, helped legitimize the use of pain relievers during the birthing process. Considering chloroform produces euphoria and hallucinations, Queen Victoria’s description of the treatment at the time as being “delightful beyond measure” suggests that even the most proper medical intentions cannot erase the possibility, or even the probability, that patients will find pleasure in consuming the medically-prescribed drugs of their day.
The Queen herself.
The persistent myth of Queen Victoria using cocaine and marijuana speaks volumes to today’s desire for salacious details about this most proper of monarchs, perhaps in an attempt to expose her hypocrisy or deflate her perceived pomposity. It also suggests the prevalence of conjecture and assumption when it comes to the history of a matter as private as drug use, whether we are referring to the prescribed or recreational sort. At the same time, I also wonder about my own desire—as well as that of others—to ascribe drug use to Queen Victoria, as if this would somehow legitimize a practice that was, while perhaps at times suspect, already legitimate. The truth is that many, if not most, Victorian women used psychoactive drugs at some point in their life, and their widespread prescription was not viewed as unusual. In my next blog post, I will read some of the autobiographical writings of women of the era, to show how these women used psychoactive drugs, particularly opium, to rebel against sexist perceptions as well as to experiment with the drugs’ effects.