The queen bee: Victoria’s life as ‘told’ by the women who served her

Serving Victoria

The queen bee: Victoria’s life as ‘told’ by the women who served her

“She did not belong to any conceivable category of monarchs or women”. The words of Arthur Ponsonby, son of Sir Henry Ponsonby, who was private secretary to Victoria, are a fair summation of the queen who ruled Britain from 1837 to 1901.

In reading of Henry’s working life, one wonders if his employer was sane. So, how can a book covering 40 years of obdurate melancholy be so entertaining? One instance is Ponsonby’s account of Victoria’s sudden visit to the bedside of her son, the ailing Prince of Wales, at Sandringham, in 1871. Sir Henry is left wandering about the garden, when he is “suddenly carried away by a stampede of Royalties, headed by the Duke of Cambridge and brought up by Prince Leopold, going as fast as they could. We thought it was a mad bull. But they cried out ‘The Queen, the Queen’ and we all dashed into the house again and waited behind the door till the road was clear.”

Kate Hubbard’s finely-tuned narrative contains neither mockery nor malice in its account of the years after the death of Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. The chapters are biographical portraits of six courtiers, their careers fleshed out by letters and diaries written by women often close to the end of their tether, separated from husband, children, family and friends, longing for their terms of service to be over.

Given the politics that controlled the selection of the Queen’s ladies, according to parliamentary swings and roundabouts, it’s no wonder that Victoria’s marriage to Albert of Saxe-Coburg became “the consuming relationship” of her life. The couple intended to create a model of domestic virtue via their married life. For Victoria, surrounded in her childhood by the flagrantly immoral Hanovarian court of her ancestors, domestic harmony was paramount. So much so that the first years of her reign were darkened by the case of Lady Flora Hastings, a lady-in-waiting falsely accused of unmarried pregnancy in a scandal fuelled by Victoria’s own youthful ignorance and dislike. (Poor Lady Flora died shortly afterwards of cancer, her large stomach caused by a tumour on her liver). Determined to preserve the ‘dignity and morality of my court’, the young Victoria relied on the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Conyngham, unaware that he had installed his mistress as housekeeper at Buckingham Palace.

The new reign established a different household atmosphere. While vacuity always threatened, the duties, at first, were not onerous, although, for Lady Sarah Lyttleton, superintendent of the royal nursery, life could never have been easy. The court hierarchically served the royal household: ladies of the bedchamber, maids of honour, women of the bedchamber, lords of honour, grooms-in-waiting, equerries, mistress of the robes, master of the household, keeper of the privy purse, domestic chaplain (religion was an issue) and, beneath all these, the doctors, aides and governesses drawn from the middle class rather than from the aristocratic clans. Below them came the personal servants, whose access to the royal person was exploited and resented. The job of anyone ‘in waiting’ was to sit, to walk and to wait.

Hubbard integrates these strands of personnel and personalities through her small group of histories, which she records so skilfully that the excellence of her prose and the lucidity of her insight are taken for granted. She does not lack sympathy for the woman at the core of this spiralling network of interdependence, who becomes the seventh subject of the book. The ‘Widow of Windsor’ spent more than 40 years without a close friend. Other than her eldest daughter, Vicky, in Germany, her children feared and distrusted her. Her courtiers were loyal, but increasingly detached and professional. Conscious of her prestige, she resisted its obligations and considered herself vastly overworked by political demands. She spent long periods at Balmoral (perhaps the most dreaded destination for her staff), and at Osborne, on the Isle of Wight, and could take up as many as 80 hotel rooms for a six-week stay in the south of France. Her health was needlessly of immense concern to her, with the resident doctor visiting four times a day. Her only emotional outlets were a devout attendance at funerals of household members (and of her dogs), her correspondence with Vicky, and her semi-crazed affection for employees. She relished control, but had a distaste for confrontation, so her preferences and commands were conveyed at second-hand. A reprimand to a lady wearing too much makeup was to be delivered by ‘Dear General Gray’. ‘Dear General Gray will do nothing of the kind’, responded the general on receiving the message. Even Ponsonby, eventually the most important member of the household, frequently found that he had to communicate through a lady-in-waiting, a governess, or John Brown.

The dominance of this former ghillie was a cause of public derision, with Victoria referred to as ‘Mrs. Brown’. True to the custom of nepotism, Brown’s brothers were also employed by the queen, with the result that at Balmoral “the pipers, the footmen, the lamplighters and the Brown brothers were all habitually drunk … The Queen’s dinner was routinely accompanied by the sound of crashing china and the sight of wine poured liberally around rather than into glasses.” Victoria remained indifferent to it all, although any other offence in the household was never overlooked.

After Brown’s death, and the desperate (and successful) efforts of her most senior advisors to prevent her publication of an ‘almost ludicrously inappropriate’ memoir of him, she and the Indian Munshi soared into a mystifying and exploitative intimacy that lasted until the queen’s death, after which he quickly departed for India.

Hubbard’s integrity forbids the presentation of the queen as either victim or monster. She acknowledges Victoria’s ardent emotionalism, her capacity for fun — never as powerful as that for grief — her lack of snobbery, and her solicitude for those who formed her household. The political debates of the day heighten the text, along with the appointments over which Victoria presided, (Gladstone especially felt her ‘repellent power’) and the legislation of which she did or did not approve. This queen and empress, and mother of nine children, died in the arms of her doctor and her grandson, the Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Her instructions for her burial were that there should be no lying-in-state, that her coffin should contain Albert’s handkerchiefs and a lock of his hair, and a handkerchief and some hair of John Brown’s, with the wedding-band of Brown’s mother placed on her fingers, along with her own wedding ring. Hubbard’s description of the funeral, from Osborne House to Portsmouth, with the coffin on the deck of the royal yacht, Alberta, passing through a towering avenue of battleships, is another indication of this writer’s fine eye for detail.

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