Victorian Women on Drugs, Part 1: Queen Victoria

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).

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