history

Alexandra of Denmark, What Might Have Been

If you missed my last entry on Alexandra of Denmark, take this chance to brush up on the background info from that post. I’ll wait.

The Victorian era wasn’t a great time to be disabled. Frequently people with disabilities were hidden from sight, sent to sanitariums or locked in attic rooms (more on that here). People from wealthy families, however, tended to fare far better.

When she was born in 1844, it may not have been immediately obvious that Alexandra was disabled. In fact it probably took several years for her family to realize there was something wrong with their oldest daughter, but Alexandra was born with what is now believed to be a hereditary hearing defect.

Alexandra (right) with her daughter Victoria, around 1907-08.

While the exact nature of the condition is unknown, we do know that it got worse as she got older. In her late teens and twenties she attempted to learn to lip read, but this went horribly and she apparently gave up. Alix was very secretive about her condition and didn’t like to have obvious accommodations, refusing to ever use an ear trumpet, the Victorian equivalent of a hearing aid.

Due to this, little is known about how she compensated or dealt with her disabilities, and a good deal of what I share with you today is based largely on conjecture and what I can infer from my research.

Through her life, Alix had a total of six children. While only one of her children was born premature, there is rumor that all of her children were born, at least to some degree, early. However, it’s only her oldest, Eddie, that suffered complications. There’s also a rumor that Alix mislead Victoria on her due dates, in the hopes the queen would not be present for the births.

Eddie was born a full 2 months early in 1864, weighing in at only three pounds. If you know anything about premature birth today, then you have some idea of how risky this was. Now just imagine it in the days before things like oxygen masks, incubators, and modern internal medicine.

Eddie was deprived of oxygen at birth, and though he did eventually grow to adulthood as a generally healthy individual, he suffered brain damage as a result. The brain damage led to difficulty concentrating and learning disabilities that left parliament concerned about the line of succession. If they were worried, however, they needn’t have bothered. Eddie died at the age of 28 in 1892, long before even his father inherited the throne. Alix, like her mother-in-law, Victoria, was heartbroken, and kept Eddie’s room exactly as it was at his death until she, too, passed in 1925, claiming that her happiness and her heart were buried with her son.

While he was the only one one to be born disabled, Alix’s pregnancy with Eddie was not the only one to give her trouble. While her other children were completely fine, following the birth of her daughter Louise she contracted a high fever. This could have been rheumatic fever or it might have been polio according to some. This left her with the permanent limp that fans would copy, thinking it fashionable to copy even the princess’s mobility issues. It makes one wonder what would have happened if she had drawn more attention to her hearing problem. Would bejeweled ear trumpets go into vogue even among those who were not hard of hearing? Would sign language become taught in schools? Would facial hair go out of fashion to make lip reading easier? Would lip reading become a parlor game, or a way for courting couples to communicate on the sly?

It’s a lesson anyone with a platform–no matter how big or small–can take to heart. When we draw attention to “flaws” and “defects,” how can we use that to help those around us?

The legacy Alexandra left behind is one focused on fashion. She mostly kept out of politics–though she was notably anti-German, due to Denmark’s political rivalry with the Germans, which only increased with WWI–and focused instead on philanthropy and social good. But what could she have accomplished if she’d put her energy into making things not only easier and more accessible for herself, but those around her, like Eddie, too?

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Like what you see? Check out The History of Eyeglasses.