I seem to have fallen into a period of Victorian/Edwardian history reading at the moment. This was quite by accident and not planned, rather that interesting books covering this period have arrived in one fell swoop. Not complaining, au contraire, this is my favourite area of history so am thoroughly enjoying it.
Bertie by Jane Ridley just before Christmas, then the wonderful programme on the BBC on Queen Victoria's Children which I loved and now, Serving Victoria by Jane Hubbard, the sub title of which is Life in the Royal Household which I finished the other day. It is simply wonderfully readable and totally engrossing and so interesting to read the view of the Queen taken by her household.
As you all know by now, I love Queen Victoria, warts and all and what is most disarming about her is her self-knowledge and her admission that she can be headstrong and dictatorial and can get things wrong. Takes a brave man or woman however to tell her so, but those who did found that she usually backed down and even apologised for her behaviour. While I think Albert kept her conscious of her faults and her temperament and rages, he also rather squashed the side of her that loved life and as the years passed and her grief lessened its intensity, she began to enjoy herself more. On her own terms of course, she planned what she wanted to do and the household had to jog along behind whether it was suffering tedious boring evenings where no contentious subjects were allowed for discussions at the dining table, to long carriage drives in the cold and the wet, the Queen impervious to the elements, or being constantly on call so that exhaustion set in. The Queen's maids were constantly being sent home in a state of nervous collapse because they were up and down all night keeping an eye on Her Maj and answering her calls. They also slept on the sofa...
Sarah Lyttleton who supervised the nursery and all of the children was in royal service all her life and the excerpts from her diaries and letters are fascinating; Charlotte Canning a lady of the Bedchamber who reluctantly went to India with her husband and longed to return and who, tragically, died just as she was about to embark on her much longer for journey home; Mary Ponsonby a Maid of Honour married to Henry Ponsonby, one of Albert's equerries who loyally served his Queen until his death; Sir James Reid her doctor and many more are featured in this delightful book and they all have their own view of their mistress.
The Queen relied on her household for companionship and comfort and time and time again she stresses her loneliness. We must remember that after Albert's death she said 'There is nobody to call me Victoria now' and she leant heavily on those around her for support. After the portrayal of the Queen on the BBC the other week as a mother who rather disliked her children I feel I must quote from a letter written to Charlotte Canning after the death of her mother 'I have so much to thank God for. Such a husband - such affectionate children that I will not murmur at what I have lost'.
Charlotte described the Queen's letter as 'simple and true' and says that the Queen 'has had credit for qualities not hers and that nobody knew what real softness and feelings she has in some ways'. Lovely to read this.
The charm of this book is seeing another side to Victoria and I find this from Henry Ponsonby on trying to persuade the Queen of a certain point of view, as rather amusing. In response to his wife accusing him of having no opinions and not standing up to the Queen he takes a rather pragmatic view: "She says 2 and 2 make 5. I humbly point out that no doubt she has some good reason for thinking so but I cannot help but think they make 4. She replies that there may be some truth in what I say but she knows they make 5. Thereupon I drop the discussion..."
After a particularly wearing and difficult time her doctor James Reid had to take time off as he was suffering from exhaustion. A letter from Her Majesty greatly distressed at his becoming ill 'from the worry I caused you the last few months and especially the last week which might all have been prevented but for my senselessness and want of thought'.
Her sense of humour. Fritz Ponsonby, son of Henry, gave her a memorandum in which her approval was asked for the Royal Irish Fusiliers to wear a green hackle in their busbies. Instead of busbies she read 'breeches' and wondered 'on what portion of these garments a hackle could be worn'. She laughed so much 'I was afraid she would have a fit'. So much for 'We are Not Amused'.
I so loved this book and, as I always do when I read about the death of the Queen, I become very moved and get a lump in my throat. Sir James sat up with her through the night when she was dying and administered oxygen to her to ease her breathing 'She often smiles when she hears my voice and says she will do anything I like. The whole things is pathetic and gives me a lump in my throat'.
It was Sir James who she entrusted with the task of placing a picture of John Brown in the coffin with her, which he did, covering it up so that the family would not see it, and she asked him for this favour knowing he was loyal and loved her enough to carry out this task.
Odd though it may sound to some, I find Queen Victoria very lovable, she was not perfect, she was full of faults, could be arrogant and obstinate and difficult to deal with, but she was also devoted to her servants, took care of them, overlooked their many faults (it appears that most of the staff at Balmoral spent most of their time totally off their heads) and could totally disarm with her charm and her admission that she knew she was wrong.
I find it rather sweet that she spoke to one of her granddaughters and said that she was looking forward to seeing Grandpa again when she died 'but she was also rather nervous as she knew she had done things he might not like'. One hopes that Albert did not write her one of his reproving letters when she arrived at the Pearly Gates....
A lovely lovely book.