Just Close Your Eyes and Think of England

Queen Victoria? Lucy Baldwin? Pierre Daninos? Lady Hillingham? Lady Hillingdon? Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a well-known though unreliable anecdote about the guidance offered to brides in the repressive Victorian era. Supposedly, Queen Victoria was asked by one of her newly married daughters about possible carnal activities in the marriage bed. Here are five versions of the response:

Just close your eyes and think of England.
Shut your eyes tight and think of England.
Lie still and think of the Empire.
Lie back and think of the Empire.
Lie still and think of a new way to trim a hat.

I doubt that this story is accurate. Sometimes one of the statements above is presented by a historian as archetypal advice in the 1800s without a specific attribution. Nowadays, these expressions are employed satirically. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Queen Victoria ever made a statement of this type. QI and several other researchers have attempted to trace expressions in this family and found that they started to appear in print in the 1900s and not the 1800s. A book published in 1972 asserted that the first statement was written in a personal journal in 1912, but no researcher has located this journal, and apparently the tale was apocryphal.

The earliest relevant evidence known to QI was published by an influential American newspaper columnist in 1943. 1 Intriguingly, the topic was osculation and not conjugation, and the advice-giver was Lucy Baldwin who was the wife of the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Stanley Baldwin’s son tells this story of the day his sister went out with a young man who wanted to marry her. She asked her mother for advice, in case the young man should want to kiss her . . . “Do what I did,” said her mother, reminiscing of the beginning of her romance with the man who was to become Prime Minister, “Just close your eyes and think of England.”

The ellipsis above was present in the original text. This citation was included in two key reference works from Yale University Press: “The Yale Book of Quotations” 3 and “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”. 4

It is conceivable that this was a bowdlerized version of a more ribald tale, but QI has not yet located supporting evidence for that hypothesis. An alternative conjecture would hold that the carnal element of this story was modified and amplified over time.

In 1954 “Les Carnets du Major Thompson” was published in French by Pierre Daninos. The following year an English translation titled “The Notebooks of Major Thompson: An Englishman Discovers France & the French” was released in the U.S. The character portrayals in the volume emphasized humor. The French author Daninos asserted that the English character Ursula had been prepared “for marriage in an entirely Victorian spirit”. The expression in the following passage was identical to the one used in the previous citation. Yet, the activity shifted from kissing to intimate coupling: 5

The day before she left home, Lady Plunkwell had delivered her final advice: “I know, my dear, it’s disgusting. But do as I did with Edward: just close your eyes and think of England!” Like her mother and her mother’s mother before her, Ursula closed her eyes. She thought of the future of England.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In September 1955 “Time” magazine discussed the book by Daninos, and the statement caught the eye of the reviewer who reprinted it for his large audience: 6

The major’s first wife, Ursula, was a British horsewoman with a face like a mare, feet like briefcases and that aversion to sex which most Britons have had since they became neighbors of the French. “Do as I did,” Ursula’s mother advises, “just close your eyes and think of England!”

In December 1955 the story of Lucy Baldwin’s kissing advice continued to circulate. A newspaper column presented the anecdote as recounted by the prominent playwright Noel Coward: 7

Advice to Lovelorn: Noel Coward tells this story about Mrs. Stanley Baldwin, soon after her husband had moved from 10 Downing St. Her daughter came to her for advice about a beau and asked what to do in case the young man should try to kiss her “Do what I did,” replied Mrs. Baldwin. “Just close your eyes—and think of England.”

In 1963 “Time” magazine published an article about marriage manuals which included an interesting instance from the family of expressions: 8

A major preoccupation is what Author Mary McCarthy has called “the tyranny of the orgasm.” In contrast to the attitude of the 19th century lady who said, “I lie still and think of a new way to trim a hat,” the unblushing bride of today, in the words of one case history, expects every night to be “like a Cape Canaveral countdown.”

In 1968 a collection of humor pieces from the British political periodical “New Statesman” was published. The following words were attributed to Lucy Baldwin as a newlywed: 9

I shut my eyes tight and thought of the Empire.

In 1971 a book about suffragettes discussed a popular and historically frank marriage manual from 1918 by Marie Stopes. An instance of the saying was used to illustrate the sexual mores of the suffragette era: 10

The success of the book does suggest that a good many married couples were still in the state indicated by the legendary mother’s advice to the young bride: ‘Lie still and think of England.’

In March 1971 the London-based political journal “The Spectator” printed a commentary about South Africa that included an instance from the family of expressions under examination: 11

Any objectors to closer liaison with the repressive regime are reminded of the way we entertain the Bolshoi Ballet, just as Victorian ladies were told in difficult amorous situations to remain still and think of England.

In 1972 “The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny” by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy was published, and it included a chapter epigraph that purported to be a quotation from a journal written in 1912. The ascription was to “Lady Hillingham”, but other later books have pointed to a historical figure named Lady Hillingdon. In addition, the book itself stated that the source was “a little suspect”. Researchers have not located the journal and remain skeptical: 12 13

“I am happy now that Charles calls on my bedchamber less frequently than of old. As it is, I now endure but two calls a week and when I hear his steps outside my door I lie down on my bed, close my eyes, open my legs and think of England.” Lady Hillingham, Journal, 1912

. . . There was the passage I quoted from Lady Hillingham at the head of this chapter—”. . . close my eyes, open my legs and think of England”. The source for this quotation is a little suspect. The sentiment expressed is without question typical and accurate.

In 1974 a history journal article titled “What Ought To Be and What Was: Women’s Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century” included the following passage: 14

Women’s alleged lack of passion was epitomized, too, in the story of the English mother who was asked by her daughter before her marriage how she ought to behave on her wedding night. “Lie still and think of the Empire,” the mother advised.

In 1977 “The Longest War: Sex Differences in Perspective” included an instance of the saying which was labeled a joke: 15

According to an old English joke, when a Victorian girl asked her mother what to do on her wedding night, the mother replied, “Lie still and close your eyes, dear, and think of England.” In contrast, men “needed it,” and even—the dirty curs—enjoyed it.

In 1980 an article in “The American Scholar” included an instance of the remark: 16

The feeble old joke about the English mother instructing her daughter in the facts of life on the eve of her wedding day strikes most twentieth-century readers as the condensed transcription of a widespread and pathetic state of affairs: “When your husband seeks to force his attentions on you, just close your eyes and think of England.”

Since “Victorianism” is a collective name for genteel conduct far beyond Victoria’s realm, there must have been thousands of middle-class brides who closed their eyes and thought of Germany, France, or Switzerland.

In conclusion, QI would tentatively attribute the phrase given in the 1943 citation to Lucy Baldwin, but the context involved a kiss and not coitus. QI has not found substantive evidence that the phrases in this family were presented as guidance to neophyte lovers in the Victorian era. The instance in the 1954/1955 citation matched the modern sense, but the expression was employed in a book containing humorous exaggerations.

Image Notes: A map of the world in 1886 depicting areas under British control by J. C. R. Colomb. Image from the Boston Public Library via Wikimedia Commons. Kiss silhouette from OpenClips on Pixabay. Images have been resized and cropped.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Update History: On January 25, 2015 more material from the 1972 citation was added. Specifically, the claim that the source of the quotation was “a little suspect” was added. In addition, a 1977 citation was added.


  1. 1943 May 18, Washington Post, Broadway Gazette by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 10, Column 5, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  2. 1943 May 21, San Francisco Chronicle, Lyon’s Den: Churchill Learned a Vital Lesson from U.S. Magician by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 24, Column 1, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Alice Hillingdon, Quote Page 359, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  4. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 70, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1955, The Notebooks of Major Thompson: An Englishman Discovers France & the French by Pierre Daninos, Translated by Robin Farn, Chapter 8: Martine and Ursula, Quote Page 105, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Originally published in France as Les Carnets du Major Thompson by Librairie Hachette in 1954) (Verified on paper)
  6. 1955 September 26, Time, Books: Entente Un-Cordiale, (Book Review of “The Notebooks of Major Thompson” by Pierre Daninos), Time Inc., New York. (Time magazine online archive at time.com) link
  7. 1955 December 25, Morning Advocate (Advocate), The Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 4B, Column 2, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1963 June 28, Time, Customs: Love & Marriage: By the Book, Time Inc., New York. (Time magazine online archive at time.com)
  9. 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section Lady (Alice) Hillingdon, Quote Page 239, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper) (This citation is indirect; Rees cited the 1968 book “Salome, Dear, Not In the Fridge!” edited by Arthur Marshall; QI has not examined the 1968 book)
  10. 1971, Suffragettes International: The World-Wide Campaign for Women’s Rights by Trevor Lloyd, Section: Epilogue, Start Page 114, Quote Page 116, Published by American Heritage Press, New York. (Questia)
  11. 1971 March 6, The Spectator, Political Commentary by Hugh Macpherson, Quote Page 309 (Page 5), Column 1, London, England. (Online Archive of The Spectator at archive.spectator.co.uk) link
  12. 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section Lady (Alice) Hillingdon, Quote Page 239, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper) (Rees cited the 1972 book “The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny” by Jonathan Gathome-Hardy; see the other citation)
  13. 1972, The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny by Jonathan Gathorne Hardy, Chapter 3: Class and Position of the Nanny—First Sexual Detour (Chapter Epigraph), Quote Page 71, Quote Page 95, Published by Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Verified on paper)
  14. 1974 December, The American Historical Review, Volume 79, Number 5, What Ought To Be and What Was: Women’s Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century by Carl N. Degler, Start Page 1467, Quote Page 1467, Published by Oxford University Press. (JSTOR) link
  15. 1977, The Longest War: Sex Differences in Perspective by Carol Tavris and Carole Offir. Author: Tavris, Carol, Quote Page 61, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York. (Verified on paper)
  16. 1980 Summer, The American Scholar, Volume 49, Number 3, HISTORIOGRAPHY: Victorian Sexuality Old Texts and New Insights by Peter Gay, Start Page 372, Quote Page 372, Published by The Phi Beta Kappa Society. (JSTOR) link