Copyright © 1995 Donald Spoto.All rights reserved.
One Big Happy Family 1837 to 1861
I will show them that I am Queen of England!
Alexandrina Victoria never used her first name in childhood, and as Queenthe omission became official. Born in Kensington Palace, London, on May24, 1819, she was eight months old when her father, Edward, Duke of Kent,fell ill with a heavy cold that turned to pneumonia. After twelve days underthe care of his doctors, who applied the popular remedy of incisions, leechesand cupping, the fifty-two-year-old Duke bled to death on January 23, 1820."English physicians kill you," grumbled Lord Melbourne, Victoria's firstPrime Minister, years later. "The French let you die." The Duke's death wasfollowed six days later by that of his father, King George III, and so Victoriawas yet closer to the throne.
The child's tutelage was managed by four people: her mother, the German-bornDuchess of Kent, who for years spoke no English; her uncle,Prince Leopold of Belgium; Captain Sir John Conroy, her father's equerry(or royal attendant) and later her mother's lover; and a tutor, BaronessLehzen. Three of these four were Germans who had not much concern forBritish history or constitutional theory. "Up to my 5th year," Victoria laterrecalled, "I had been very much indulged by everyone ... all worshippedthe poor little fatherless child." Her only connection to other youngsters washer half-sister Feodora (one of her mother's two children by a former marriage); she married when Victoria was nine and went off to Germany. Fromthen on, the child was left quite solitary in a world of adults.
Life at Kensington Palace was duly quiet, ordered and deferential, withthat peculiar combination of English gentility, Hanoverian briskness andCoburg blandness. Trained to be regally courteous, young Victoria neverthelessinsisted on her preferences. She had an intense dislike of bishops, forexample, and tried to avoid their company "on account of their wigs andaprons")--an aversion that endured to the end of her life. Nor would shesuffer scolding easily. "When you are naughty you make me and yourselfvery unhappy," said her mother. "No, Mama," replied the child, not me,not myself, but you!" When a tutor arrived and asked Mama if the child hadbehaved, the cautious response was, "Yes, she has been good this morning,but yesterday there was a little storm." Victoria sprang to correct her mother:"Two storms--one at dressing and one at washing." Admonished by hermusic teacher--"There is no royal road to music, Princess. You must practicelike everybody else"--the student slammed her piano shut. "There!You see, there is no must about it." All that remained, her household mayhave thought, was the coronation itself.
But her youthful arrogance knew its limits. "How old! " she wrote in herjournal on May 24, 1837, her eighteenth birthday, "and yet how far am Ifrom being what I should be."
Four weeks later, in the small hours of June 20, King William IV died ofliver failure. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chamberlain(head of the royal household) hastened to Kensington Palace, where at sixin the morning the Duchess of Kent roused her daughter and told her of thegentlemen's presence. The girl hurriedly put a dressing gown over her nightclothes and went downstairs alone to meet them. Seeing the group of menin the great parlor bowing respectfully in her direction, Victoria knew thather ailing uncle had died and that she was now Queen of England. Laterthat day she wrote in the journal she religiously kept for almost sixty years:
Since it has pleased Providence to place me in this station, I shall do my utmost to fulfil my duty towards my country. I am very young, and perhaps in many, though not in all things, inexperienced, but I am sure that very few have more real good will and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have.
The Privy Council confirmed her accession that same day, several membersnoting with pleasure that the moment forever separated the crowns ofBritain and Hanover, for that German kingdom's so-called Salic law wouldnot allow a woman to succeed. Although a tiny figure at her full adult heightof four feet eleven inches, Victoria was a commanding presence before theCouncil. Her ostrich-egg blue eyes, porcelain skin and perfectly coiffed lightbrown hair were features appealing enough to disarm the skeptics. "She notonly filled her chair," remarked the Duke of Wellington. "She filled theroom!" Almost immediately Victoria barred her mother, Conroy and theircronies from intimacy in her new life; she rightly distrusted their intriguesand unbridled lust for power.
The new Queen soon manifested to her people and government an oddmixture of girlish high spirits, reticence and imperious pride. There weresigns, as her early biographers Sidney Lee and Lytton Strachey noted, of afierce temper and a hard egotism, and soon the staff at Buckingham Palace(to which Victoria relocated) was overwhelmed with byzantine rules of etiquette.Venial infractions merited sharp glances and haughty correctionsfrom the diminutive Queen.
Her firmness became fixed after her coronation in June 1838. "Theself-will depicted in those small projecting teeth and that small receding chinwas of a more dismaying kind than that which a powerful jaw betokens,"wrote Strachey; "it was a self-will imperturbable, impenetrable ... dangerouslyakin to obstinacy." And the obstinacy of monarchs is not like that ofothers.
But within weeks of her coronation Victoria found her life dull andunfulfilled. Although she enjoyed the formalities of Court and rapidly developeda strong sense of herself and her role, she was bored with the endlessapprobation routinely tendered the Sovereign. The nation adored her, mostlybecause of the contrast she offered to her immediate predecessors. Butadoration from afar was cold comfort to a hot-blooded young woman. Herfamily and even her Prime Minister thought she should marry as soon aspossible.
It was with her Prime Minister, Viscount Melbourne, that Victoriaformed the first rewarding adult bond of her life. A handsome, benevolentwidower of fifty-eight, he was a political and paternal mentor to the youngQueen and also roused what was perhaps her first romantic response to aman. Ignorant of a father's love, separated from normal human friendshipsand limited in her social contacts, Victoria needed a consort as much asshe required a guide through the thickets of monarchical responsibility.Melbourne was not to be the former, but he admirably fulfilled the functionsof the latter. That invaluable diarist Charles Greville knew (as did Victoria'smother) that the Queen's feelings were "sexual though she does not knowit." As for the Prime Minister, his social life was full (mostly with the worldlyand well-bred Elizabeth, Lady Holland), and in fact his warm sentiments fora woman forty years his junior were nothing more than those of a surrogatefather whose eager, adoring child happened to be Queen of the realm. Inany case, she shone in Melbourne's company as in no other.
But to Victoria's dismay a general election meant that Melbourne wouldsoon be replaced by a new Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, and a newgovernment--a political shift that was entirely out of the monarch's hands.Unable to face the prospect of a reign without Melbourne, the Queen forthe first time behaved unconstitutionally, manifesting her independent spiritin the notorious crisis of the Ladies of the Bedchamber in May 1839.
These Ladies, traditionally the wives of Lords chosen by the Queen forpersonal qualities of dignity, decorum and loyalty, attended her at importantpublic functions. Because it was thought entirely appropriate in the earlynineteenth century for the Prime Minister to surround the Queen withLadies sympathetic to his political views, Lord Melbourne and his governmentnominated Ladies of the Bedchamber from his own Whig Party, thosevocal predecessors of the Liberal Party who were associated with industrialinterests, religious nonconformity and political reform. Indeed, Victoria'shousehold was so resoundingly partisan that a saying went the rounds ofLondon in 1838 and 1839 that "a conservative cat was not so much aspermitted to mew within the precincts of the Queen's Palace." With Melbourne'sdefeat in 1839, Victoria was obliged to summon Peel, the oppositionleader, to form a new government.
But Victoria disliked this chilly intellectual, and when Peel's first requestwas that Ladies of the Bedchamber represent his views rather than hispredecessor's, Victoria stood firmly opposed. She could not, she insisted,consent to act in a manner repugnant to her feelings. "The Queen of Englandwill not submit to such trickery," she wrote to Lord Melbourne, adding thatPeel's men "wish to treat me like a girl, but I will show them that I amQueen of England." Sensing quite correctly that he did not have the monarch'ssupport, Peel declined to form a government. Melbourne returned tooffice, and it was clear that Victoria was to be very much a vocal anddecisive Queen. Her personal triumph, however, dispelled the last mistof enchantment surrounding a youthful Queen in the year following hercoronation, for her action deepened public resentment against the Crown.London crowds rudely shouted at "Mrs. Melbourne" as Victoria rodethrough the streets of London. "I was very young then," she wrote yearslater, "and perhaps I should act differently if it was all to be done again."
By the summer of 1839, Victoria demonstrated a snappish irritability thatburst forth in Hanoverian fits of temper, increasing impatience with ministers,a kind of desperate clinging to Melbourne or whichever kindly, earnest,older counselors he introduced--and a sudden and alarming increase in herweight. Melbourne and her uncle Leopold (by now King of Belgium) urgedVictoria to perform a simple exercise program of daily walks lest her squatfigure become downright obese. But when she walked, Victoria objected,stones slipped into her shoes.
"Have them made tighter," Melbourne rejoined.
"My feet swell!" Victoria complained.
"Do more walking, then! " urged Melbourne, who alone could get awaywith this sort of exchange.
"No!" cried the Queen.
"Yes!" trumpeted Melbourne. Then her voice dropped almost to a whisper,and there was the hint of a smile: "Donna Maria [the Queen of Spain]is so fat and yet she took such exercise." To this Lord Melbourne had noreply. The argument was over, and so were all objections to the Queen'sweight; like Topsy, she grew and grew until her final illness. By the time ofher marriage, she weighed 12 stone 13-181 pounds--which, because shestood under five feet tall, was "an incredible weight for my size," as sheconfided to her journal.
Help was on the way--not for Victoria's dietary indiscretions and sedentarydisposition, but for the weightier matter of love. Before she was Queen, shehad briefly met her first cousin, Prince Franz August Karl Albert Emanuelof Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, always called Albert, who was three months youngerthan she. She had liked him at once when she was seventeen, but on reachingthe throne and being reminded of his eligibility by Leopold (the originalmarriage broker), she was reluctant to abandon her independence for anyman. In addition, Victoria was now pursuing a merry social life--frequentattendance at the theater, opera and circus, and dinners with courtiers (accompaniedby the strains of weary musicians) at Buckingham Palace as lateas one in the morning. From this round of pleasant activities she initiallyhesitated to yield to what she considered the demands of matrimony and theintrusive pains of motherhood, vocations she saw as restrictive on a life thatwas essentially whimsical.
But when she and Albert were reintroduced in October 1839, Victoriawas at once hopelessly, passionately in love. "I found [Albert] grown andchanged," she wrote in her journal, "and embellished. It was with someemotion that I beheld Albert--who is beautiful." He was indeed a strikingman--at five feet seven inches tall, Albert towered above Victoria--andcontemporary paintings, early gravures and other written witnesses confirmher diary entry:
Albert really is quite charming, and so excessively handsome, with such beautiful eyes, an exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate moustachios and slight but very slight whiskers; a beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist.
Clearly, nothing of him escaped her keen eye.
Albert's attractions to the Queen were not merely corporal. Unlike Victoria,he had a rich formal education (from tutors and at the University ofBonn) that embraced the arts, science, languages and music. A proficientpianist, organist, singer and composer, he was also learned in art and architecture.He was, in other words, nothing like the Hanoverian kings, and herepresented to Victoria everything she longed for in a teacher, guide andcompanion. Five days after their reunion that October, she proposed marriage,he accepted, and (according to the smitten Queen) they "embracedeach other and he was so kind, so affectionate . . . and seemed so happy, thatI really felt it was the happiest brightest moment of my life."
Of Albert's love for Victoria and their subsequent life together there isno equivalent written commentary, but if fidelity as a husband, constancy as afather and dedication as an assiduous consort are emblems, then his devotionmatched hers. On November 23 their engagement was announced, and onFebruary 10, 1840, the marriage was held in the Chapel Royal of St. James'sPalace, London. Bride and groom were both twenty. That morning, full ofanticipation, she wrote that the previous evening was "the last time I sleptalone."
Theirs was clearly a union of two passionate souls, and any image ofthe Queen as a movie-cliche Victorian--all muddy repressions and sexualrevulsion--is a complete distortion of her character. "I & Albert alone,which was SO delightful," Victoria wrote of her "most gratifying and beweldering"wedding night at Windsor Castle; "I NEVER NEVER spent suchan evening." She never imagined she "could be so loved. . . . His love andaffection gave me feelings of heavenly love & happiness. . . . He clasped mein his arms, and we kissed each other again and again! His beauty, hissweetness and gentleness--really, how can I ever be thankful enough to havesuch a Husband! Oh! this was the happiest day of my life!" She addedsignificantly that she and Albert "did not sleep much."
Before the end of March, the Queen was pregnant, "the ONLY thing Idread," as she had confided to her journal three months earlier. And dreadpregnancy she did forever after--a fear that did not deter her, however,from bearing nine children, all of whom survived to adulthood. The passionateyoung woman who abandoned herself full throttle to the marriage bedspent twenty-one years alternating between "the sufferings and miseries andplagues" of pregnancy and the "enjoyments to give up" during that time.
"Without that [pregnancy]," she wrote to her first child--Princess Victoria("Vicky")--eighteen years later, "certainly it is unbounded happinessif one has a husband one worships! But I had 9 times to bear with realmisery. . . and it tried me sorely. One feels so pinned down--one's wingsclipped--in fact, only half oneself. This I call the `shadow side [ofmarriage].'" Sounding very much like a campaigner of the late twentiethcentury, Victoria wrote again after the birth of Vicky's first son, the futureKaiser Wilhelm II of Germany: "It is indeed too hard and dreadful what wehave to go through and men ought to have an adoration for one, and indeeddo everything to make up for what after all they alone are the cause of!"
And so a Germanic dynasty in England was reinforced when Victoria marriedher cousin; the House of Hanover was officially replaced by the Houseof Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and Albert's descendants would bear his familyname, Wettin. He learned fluent English, which he and Victoria spoke togetheras much as German; that, after all, was her first language, and itsaccents forever lightly shaded her speech.
At first Victoria was slow to share any power or responsibility with herhusband. "In my home life I am very happy," Albert wrote to his old friendPrince William of Lowenstein three months after his marriage, "but thedifficulty of filling my place with proper dignity is that I am only thehusband, and not the master in the house." In other words, he had nothingto do.
Finally, on November 21--at Melbourne's urging and just as Victoriawent into labor with her first child---Albert was officially given access togovernment boxes and represented the Queen at the Privy Council; he wasalso appointed Regent should she die in childbirth. From that autumn Albertwas Victoria's unofficial private secretary, and by the time she formallynamed him Prince Consort in 1857, he had been virtually a co-sovereign forseventeen years. This expansion of his influence certainly sprang from herrespect and devotion; it also derived from Albert's assumption of dutiesduring and after her nine pregnancies when, according to custom, she wasentirely removed from public life and restricted mostly to her bedroomfor more than a year each time. Thus many referred to an "Albertine Monarchy."
Much of their early life and work together occurred at BuckinghamPalace. Bought by George III from the Duke of Buckingham, it was refurbishedby George IV; Victoria was its first royal occupant when she and herentourage moved there within weeks of her coronation. She did not like it,but at least it was convenient to her ministers and to London entertainments.But with its endless narrow, cold corridors linking more than six hundredrooms, there was nothing about it to invite a cozy family life--especiallyafter an assassination attempt on the Queen and the "Boy Jones" incident.
On June 10, 1840, with the Queen's first pregnancy well advanced, shedecided to take the air with Albert. "We had hardly proceeded a hundredyards from the Palace," he wrote in a graphic memorandum,
when I noticed on the footpath on my side a little mean-looking man holding something towards us, and before I could distinguish what it was, a shot was fired, which almost stunned us both, it was so loud and fired barely six paces from us. Victoria had just turned to the left to look at a horse, and could not therefore understand why her ears were ringing. . . . I seized Victoria's hands and asked if the fright had not shaken her, but she laughed at the thing. I then looked again at the man, who was still standing in the same place, his arms crossed, and a pistol in each hand. . . . Suddenly he again pointed his pistol and fired a second time. This time Victoria also saw the shot, and stooped quickly, drawn down by me.
The culprit turned out to be an unbalanced eighteen-year-old who wasremanded to an asylum; at least six other attacks on the Queen occurredover the next several years in London--from firearms loaded and unloaded,from sticks, from objects rudely hurled. Although in each case the Queengamely continued on her journey through the city, the incidents certainlyencouraged the family to vacate London. Albert, susceptible to bouts ofexhaustion and depression in the best of times, rarely found solace in urbanlife, and it was he who pressed Victoria to transfer the family to one of theroyal residences--Windsor Castle, Balmoral Castle or Osborne House--wheneverpossible.
In another incident, during the night of December 2, 1840, a seventeen-year-oldnamed Edmund Jones blithely leaped over the palace wall, creptthrough one of the windows, sat on the throne, and then toured severalapartments before one of the infant Princess Victoria's nursemaids heardhim and summoned a page. As it happened, this was Jones's second visit toBuckingham Palace, his first having ended quickly before he could reach theinner sanctum. "I wanted to know how they lived at the palace," declared"Boy" Jones, as he was called in the annals of minor palace lore. "I thoughta description would look very well in a book." His research earned him abrief term in the House of Correction, and after yet another uninvited visitto the royal residence a year later, Jones was shipped out to sea. There was alesson here for Prince Albert, who set himself the unenviable task of improvingsecurity, at which he had little success. (One hundred forty-two yearslater, as Queen Elizabeth II was to learn, things had scarcely improved.
Eventually, Victoria, Albert and their children spent as little time atBuckingham Palace as possible, although the court was officially centeredthere from January 1841. Parliament allotted more than [pound]175,000 for improvementsto the palace, and many members, as thrifty as Victoria, werenone too pleased that the Royals were so often absent. The family favoredWindsor, the largest inhabited castle in the world, occupied uninterruptedlysince it was built by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century; hereAlbert modernized the farms and supervised major exterior and interiorimprovements. But they were most comfortable at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, which was completed in 1856. The surrounding valley and forestsreminded Albert of the German landscapes he loved, and Victoria muchpreferred the Scottish Highlanders to any company save that of her family.Equally remote was Osborne House on the Isle of Wight in the EnglishChannel, where Victoria eventually died. On an estate of nearly a thousandacres, the Prince Consort worked with the renowned London architectThomas Cubbitt, supervising between 1845 and 1851 the construction ofthis grand Italian villa. The design and construction of Balmoral and Osbornewere entirely under the supervision of the Consort.
In a way, Albert's management of the royal residences was an emblem of hisleverage. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the entire reign of QueenVictoria was directed by her husband's spirit, as much after his death asbefore. Cultivated and sensitive, he had a wide streak of German melancholy,and with this he tempered her impetuous, passionate nature; taught her thevirtues of order, discipline and hard work; confirmed her in a stern morality,and undertook her education in the arts, history and government. Becauseof Albert, the brittle prerogatives of a mostly discredited English thronewere replaced by a potent political influence. Active in the national socialcrusades against slavery, child labor and dueling, he was, thanks to hisEuropean background, just as valuable to the Queen in international affairs.Disputes with Prussia in 1856 and with America in 1861, for example,were settled largely because of Albert's skillful negotiations: Foreign Officedispatches were recast so as not to bear the timbre of saber rattling.
His major contribution to British political history, however, may havebeen his insistence that the monarch remain detached from party ties inorder to be "necessarily a politician"--to exert a proper political influencethat would be all the more effective precisely because it was nonpartisan. Inthis way Albert developed the constitutional role of the monarch, since hebelieved that only she could understand the true needs of her people andadvance a disinterested view of the common good.
Culturally and intellectually, his contributions were no less significant.Albert raised the standards of the nation's art appreciation and educationthrough a proliferation of free museums, and he supervised the enhancementof the royal collection of paintings. In 1841 he was appointed chairman of acommission on the arts, and his first task was to oversee the decoration ofthe rebuilt Houses of Parliament. As a gifted musician, be was an active andinfluential patron of composers: Mendelssohn, among others, was a frequentvisitor to the Royal Family. Until her marriage, Victoria's aesthetic tasteswere solidly bourgeois, but Albert altered that, and she was soon applaudingperformances of Mozart's Magic Flute more heartily than the trifling entertainments to which she had been accustomed. And as chancellor of CambridgeUniversity, Albert was directly involved in updating and broadeningboth its curricula and the number of valuable foreign visiting scholars.Poorly educated herself, Victoria was awestruck by her husband's variouscompetences.
Earnest, intelligent and dutiful, Albert eventually won the respect ofBritish statesmen and citizens, if not their affection; there was still a wideband of the population suspicious of a foreign consort. His German accentand manner, his austerities, his preference for the intellectual over thesportinglife all conspired toward his unpopularity--until Albert successfullysponsored and personally managed the six-month-long Great Exhibition of1851, the world's first international fair and an unprecedented celebrationof more than one hundred thousand products of the Industrial Revolution.And even after several years of conflict with the palace in the 1850s, LordPalmerston, Prime Minister and no warm friend of Albert, had to acknowledgehis "extraordinary abilities and wisdom."
Of a total national population of twenty million, six million came to theGreat Exhibition in the Hyde Park exhibition hall, nicknamed the CrystalPalace for its three hundred thousand panes of glass supported by a cast-ironframe. This event alone was a personal triumph for Victoria and Albert asit was a national one for Britain. Not long after, the word "Victorian" wasfirst used in print and conversation to express the nation's new sense of bothachievement and destiny--as well as of a dutiful family fife as the foundationof society.
And so Victorian society prospered from the 1850s. Wages, incomes andprofits soared, and there was a golden era for agriculture as well as forindustry; nevertheless, there were vast pockets of poverty and unemploymentand a wide disparity in the privileges enjoyed by the various ranks in society.
Victoria was the first monarch to be solidly middle class in social attitudes;she distrusted aristocratic smugness, believed in the proprieties of lifeand heralded the sanctity of duty. Free all her life from racial prejudices andno guarantor of class distinctions, she was at the same time not a crusaderfor democracy, and under Albert's custody she was learning the godly necessityof her position and the quasi-divine mission entrusted to the Empire. Inher education she was always the most docile pupil of her adored husband.
That Empire was spreading broadly across the world. British sea powerwas at its strongest, British pluck at its most daring, and the economy at itsmost adventurous in, for example, the rapid growth of railroads, factoriesand canals. And the Queen herself embodied the nation as had no monarchbefore. Her cozy tastes and her preference for a quiet family life and asimple, ordered existence harmonized perfectly with the aspirations andimaginations of precisely the people who had made possible Britain's rise tosupremacy: the working middle class. It was, after all, at the beginning ofthe nineteenth century that commerce at last was considered respectable andthat a gentleman might work without shame. Those who toiled in a factorycould for the first time ascend to be tided tycoons, enjoying as much influence(if not as much social prestige) as the landed gentry who for centurieshad ruled the nation. Thus the economic power base of England experienceda radical overhaul just as the monarchy--and people's attitude toward it--waschanging, too. The respect for the Crown which Victoria and Alberthad regained was, in this regard, perhaps the primary element that keptBritain from revolution in 1848 when the political structures of all Europeshook and toppled.
Nor was the Queen herself, however authoritarian and parochial, uninterestedin the Continent. In 1843 she was the first monarch to make a statevisit to France, where a statesman was impressed by her "air of dignity, andshe had a sweet expression which gave one confidence"--this despite a"dreadful toilette.... She wore geranium flowers placed here, there, andeverywhere. She had plump hands with rings on each finger and even on herthumbs; one of them held a ruby of prodigious size [and so] she founddifficulty in using her knife and fork ... and even more difficulty to removeand replace her gloves." Victorian excess extended beyond home furnishings.
But Victorianism (perhaps the only "ism" to draw its name from a monarch)also began to signify a host of restraining moral characteristics:well-mannered,respectable behavior, a sense of duty and thrift, and an uncomplainingapproach to hard work. To borrow from the era's great playwrightOscar Wilde, the important thing was to be earnest, although Wilde himself(among others) criticized and satirized the artifices of the upper classes whotoo often raised social standards to a ridiculous level. But no suchobjection was leveled against the Royal Family, whose domestic life was quickly restoringluster to a Crown darkly tainted by the last century's monarchical antics.
Upright and severe in the way of the German court, Albert took in handthe moral education of his highly sexed, whimsical young bride, and it washe who really formed her personality into the woman of legend. In manyways Albert was the sterner and more persuasive character, and before longhis philosophy (based on an ethic of decency without any specifically religioussubstructure) was hailed by the Church of England and put before theentire nation as a tone-setting element of Victorian style. From him theQueen learned to prefer only the company of those considered to be ofimmaculate character, a social standard for which she herself had previouslycared "not a straw," according to the Duke of Wellington. And yet herrigor had a balancing distinction, for she loathed aristocratic snobbery andpretensions, hated class divisions, and was genuinely concerned for the poorand disenfranchised. Victoria had scant patience and little time for "thesociety of fashionable and fast people," and the mere hint of pomposity inher own family roused her ire: if her grandson, the Kaiser of Germany,whom she much loved, continued to adopt "imperial airs in private as wellas in public, he better not come here," she said late in life.
Albert's intense moralism, inculcated by tutors in his youth and fortifiedby his own gravity in adolescence, had an even earlier origin. Like Victoria,he had been deprived of a parent in childhood. When he was five, his motherwas banished from the house because of her love affair with a military manshe eventually married. Victoria and her Consort devoted themselves withundiluted solemnity to the creation of a family life impenetrable to scandal,and at least until the maturity of their eldest son they were successful. Therespect they earned can be amusingly summarized by the often-cited commentof a Victorian lady who at the end of a performance of Shakespeare'sAntony and Cleopatra remarked that it was "so very unlike the home life ofour own dear Queen!"
In fact, the royal home teemed with new occupants, for Victoria bore ninechildren between 1840 and 1857. Although she hated childbearing and hadnot much interest in her offspring until they were well out of toddlerhood,she gladly risked pregnancy for the pleasures of Albert's bed. This ampleprogeny was not planned, and in this regard it is important to recall that theChurch of England forbade any form of birth control except abstinence -- justas nineteenth-century secular society thought abstinence the onlyrespectable option to parenthood. (Such a perspective contributed to thegreat new ranks of prostitutes catering to the middle class.) As for Victoriaand Albert, they were not much educated in reproductive matters and followedthe orders of physicians, who recommended against intercourse onthe days just after menstruation and, as safest, the time of a woman's midcycle.In light of such counsel, the population explosion--at BuckinghamPalace and nationwide--is not surprising.
Thus it happened that shortly after the birth of their first child, PrincessVictoria (on November 21, 1840), the Queen was dismayed to learn that shewas pregnant again. A boy was born on November 9, 1841, and christenedAlbert Edward; throughout his life, his family called him Bertie. His mothercreated him Prince of Wales that December, and at the age of fifty-nine hebecame King Edward VII. Before releasing the official announcement of thebirth, Albert read it to his wife: "Her Majesty and the Prince are perfectlywell." The Queen threw back her head and laughed heartily: "My dear," shesaid, "this will never do!"
"And why not?" asked Albert.
"Because it conveys the idea that you were confined [with childbirth]also!" At the Queen's suggestion the bulletin was modified: "Her Majestyand the infant Prince are perfectly well."
But following the child's birth, all was not to the Queen's amusement.Victoria fell into a severe postpartum depression, convinced she was uselessand unnecessary--a feeling she may have at least partly brought on herselfby having a wet nurse breast-feed the infant. She then fought bitterly withAlbert when he insisted that her own childhood governess and confidante,Baroness Louise Lehzen, be dismissed in favor of a new English nanny fortheir children, a woman who had no ties to Victoria's mother and an earlierCourt. The conflict over this matter was, as it happened, a noisy and bitterone, with Albert storming off to his quarters, pursued by a screaming Victoria.She rapped on his door, shouting, "I am the Queen!" but was met onlywith the scorn of silence. But she grew frightened at such uncharacteristicfroideur from her husband and collapsed outside his suite, sobbing, "Please,listen--I am your wife." With that, the door opened, and Albert bent downto lift his wife into his arms. "That is better," he said, "and that is the truth--Iam your husband." Lehzen soon departed, and from that day, Albertwas indisputably master of the royal household.
At least one other commotion occurred in 1853, after their fourth son,Leopold, was diagnosed as a hemophiliac. Victoria's anguish was manifestin a sullen silence, followed by a series of petty but violently loud argumentsshe incited with Albert--and then more reticence. Albert then wrote hiswife a long letter, urging her to speak openly of her pain and anguish, not toharbor everything secretly. It was a lesson she would take to heart.
Their third child, Princess Alice, arrived in 1843; she was to marry Louis IVof Hesse-Darmstadt and was the mother of Alexandra, who married CzarNicholas II. The fourth child, Prince Alfred, born in 1844, married GrandDuchess Marie, daughter of Czar Alexander II; their descendants includedkings and queens of Romania, Yugoslavia and Greece. In 1846 came PrincessHelena, who wed Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein; in 1848, PrincessLouise, who married the ninth Duke of Argyll; in 1850, Prince Arthur, whowed Princess Louise of Prussia; in 1853, Prince Leopold, whose wife wasPrincess Helena of Waldeck-Pyrmont; and finally, in 1857, came PrincessBeatrice, who married Prince Henry of Battenberg (their daughter marriedthe King of Spain). Thus, with descendants in almost every country onthe Continent, Victoria merited the nickname given even in herlifetime--"Grandmotherof Europe."
The Grandmother of Europe had a very definite resentment of someaspects of her station, however. A woman, she once complained, "is bodilyand morally the husband's slave. That always sticks in my throat. When Ithink of a merry, happy, free young girl--and look at the ailing, aching statea young wife is generally doomed to ... you can't deny [this] is the penaltyof marriage!" Queen Victoria was no campaigner for women's suffrage(which she saw as a "mad, wicked folly" , but neither was she blind tocertain raw facts of nineteenth-century family life. Whereas the confinementof pregnancy was the "shadow side," wifely subservience was a "penalty."Yet by all accounts and despite the depressions that accompanied herpregnancies,Victoria, Albert and their children were for several years a remarkablyhappy and close family.
There were, of course, the usual problems of childhood discipline, andin January 1847, Victoria and Albert devised a plan for the training of theirchildren. Until six, their education (French, English, German and religiousinstruction) was entrusted to a governess; afterward, there were classes inmore advanced subjects with special tutors.
Particular care was taken with Bertie, the heir to the throne. At herhusband's recommendation, Victoria deliberately distanced herself emotionallyfrom the Prince of Wales, apparently in the belief that he would maturemore independently and develop leadership qualities if he were not tied tomaternal affections. But by the age of seven, Bertie showed a marked preferencefor sport over study. Intimidated by his father, he developed an embarrassingstammer that would take several years to overcome; this handicapwould be virtually a family trait, inherited by several of his sons andgrandsons,and surmounted with varying degrees of success.
The Queen and her Consort wished Bertie to be the perfect heir to thethrone, and an intense curriculum was drawn up. A strict timetable and dailyreports were instituted, but these led to a monotonous round of boyishfailures and parental scenes. Alternate methods were then briefly attempted.At the age of twelve, Bertie was under the mentorship of an indulgentteacher named Henry Birch, who believed that long walks through thecountryside were more effective in inculcating good study habits than actualextra sessions of mathematics or history. This failed miserably.
Then, as was often the custom of the time, a phrenologist was summonedto assess the bumps on the boy's head; it was believed that the discovery ofa dramatic map of his scalp would reveal where the Prince's best talents lay.This examination proved ineffective, alas, as did an experimental diet orderedby a doctor who hoped to improve Bertie's intellect and temperamentby a complicated nutritional scheme.
The girls were similarly free-spirited but not so intractable and far moreintelligent. Yet they were not to be dealt with easily. When a certain Dr.Brown entered the household staff, six-year-old Vicky (named PrincessRoyal at birth) heard her father address him simply as "Brown" and took tothe same familiarity. The Queen, to no avail, corrected her daughter timeand again, impressing on her the necessity of the more courteous "Dr.Brown." Finally, Vicky was threatened with "bed!" if she disobeyed onemore time. When next the doctor arrived, the Princess looked at him and ina loud voice said, "Good morning, Brown!" Then, seeing her mother's angryface, Vicky rose and curtsied, adding, "And good night, Brown, for I amgoing to bed."
Similarly willful was Princess Beatrice. Once, at the age of two, shewanted a particularly rich dessert at lunch. "Baby mustn't have that," saidher mother quietly, "because it's not good for Baby." Taking a large helping,the child calmly continued the third-person allusion: "But she likes it, mydear."
Her younger sister Louise, who married the Marquess of Lorne (later theninth Duke of Argyll), shocked the family at a later age by separating fromher husband in 1884. He had been governor-general of Canada until theprevious year, and the couple had been admirable pioneers in the roughNorthwest Territories. Following a serious sleigh accident, Louise convalescedin Europe, where she came to the conclusion that her husband boredher to distraction. For the rest of her long, regained single life, shededicatedherself to art and education.
Vicky and Beatrice, especially, grew up to develop significant intellectualand artistic gifts. Vicky spoke fluent French and German by the time shewas six and later excelled in a variety of disciplines. Even after she marriedPrince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, becoming Crown Princess and eventuallyEmpress, she pursued her cultural interests and became an accomplishedpainter and sculptor. Benefactor of liberal causes, opposed to all kinds ofauthoritarianism, founder of schools for the higher education of women andthe training of nurses, Vicky was a sensitive and devoted daughter andherself the mother of eight. More than eight thousand letters passed betweenthe two Victorias, a correspondence providing rich insight into the familyand their times.
As for Beatrice, she, too, shone in studies and distinguished herself as apianist and composer; several of her works were published to some criticalacclaim. But her enduring achievement was her role as her mother's privatesecretary, a function she filled before and after her marriage to Prince Henryof Battenberg and the birth of her four children. Widowed at thirty-eight,she devoted herself, after her mother's death, to the transcription and editingof 111 volumes of the Queen's journals. This turned out to be a compromisedproject, however, for Beatrice--more Victorian than Victoria--consideredher mother's frank and even racy diction most unqueenly and deletedwhat she thought were inappropriate comments. Queen Elizabeth II, decadeslater, often shows visitors to Windsor Castle sample pages of theexpurgated diaries, noting her personal regret that Beatrice had too freelyaltered Victoria's style and even, in an excess of zeal, consigned theoriginalsto the fire.
The delight of the parents in their daughters was more than counterpoisedby their disappointment with the young Prince of Wales. No heir had beenborn to a reigning monarch since the first child of George III eighty yearsearlier, and so the birth of Albert Edward in 1841 led many to hope for thecontinuation of the monarchy to which Victoria and Albert so dedicatedthemselves. But this was rash optimism. Despite the parents' ambitions forthe future King and their attempt at strict disciplinary control of his life,hefailed to develop intellectually and morally to any degree remotelyapproximatingtheir standards.
Because the Queen regarded the aristocracy as appallingly depraved, itwas unthinkable that Bertie attend school just like any other gentleman's lad.Egalitarian fraternization would, she reasoned, drag him down even furtherfrom his royal estate. And so be was kept at home with private tutors,where his slowness and indifference had little real correction apart from theponderous lectures his father regularly offered. By the age of twenty, Bertiewas a pleasant, carefree, congenial layabout with, it seemed, little torecommendhim except his pedigree. Because of his frivolity, the Queen refused toentrust him with any civic, social or ceremonial responsibilities. And becausehe was given no duties, he grew more and more irresponsible.
Could Victoria and Albert have recognized them, there were signs ofsome real abilities in their son. He did reasonably well in brief enrollmentsat Oxford and Cambridge, although his father disallowed him residence withother students and set him up privately with equerries and servants to guardagainst bad conduct. Only when the Prince of Wales was sent on a royalvisit to Canada and America in the summer and early autumn of 1860 hadhe any degree of freedom. He saw grain elevators in Chicago, bid at acountry fair in St. Louis, and danced past midnight at a ball in Cincinnati.
Photography was all the rage worldwide that year--queen Victoria hadsent an official photographer to document the Crimean War in 1856--andit is no exaggeration to say that the Prince of Wales became the world's firstcelebrity precisely because of photographers. All over the world people knewhow the heir to the throne of England grew, what he looked like with eachpassing year, how he dressed. His family sat immobile for the long sessionsthen necessary, but Victoria was naturally shy and avoided the camera whenshe could. Bertie had no such reticence. All over America he was besiegedby photographers so that the press could have their answers to questionspeople asked: How did he dress? Was he handsome? What was the style ofhis hair? In Pittsburgh and Baltimore he walked with citizens along thecobblestoned streets; the newspapers had done their job, and he wasmobbed. For the first time there was some consideration given to his safety,and in Washington and New York, Bertie was restricted to carriages. Afterthree hundred thousand turned out to cheer and accompany him in Manhattan,it took several hours for him to travel the few miles from the pier to theFifth Avenue Hotel. There he was warmly received by politicians and thepublic, and news of this pleased his parents--until he returned to them witha casual American wardrobe and an American cigar in his mouth.
In January 1861, Bertie arrived at Cambridge, where no less a lecturerthan Charles Kingsley, Regius Professor of Modem History, found that heasked "very intelligent questions." Bertie's father sent him that summer tospend ten weeks attached to the Grenadier Guards near Dublin. There,Prince Albert set his son an impossible training regimen at camp: to risethrough the ranks a week at a time, which was of course beyond his ability.He did manage, however, to keep up with the demands of an aspiring actressand soldiers' camp follower named Nellie Clifden, a local of easy virtue whowas so familiar with the army barracks that from routine she could find herway to any particular man's bed in the dark. Letters from Albert urgingBertie to think about marrying a Continental Princess were politely ignored;he would marry, replied the Prince, for love only. Nevertheless, he agreed tomeet the Danish-born Princess Alexandra, then not quite seventeen. Perhapsbecause Bertie was besotted with the fiery Nellie, he failed to be impressedby the stunningly beautiful Alix (as she was called by intimates); in any case,he returned to Cambridge and to occasional meetings with Nellie in London.
That autumn of 1861, news of the young Prince's affair was kept fromVictoria but not from his father, who was predictably outraged and drafteda letter to Bertie. Nellie was already smirkingly termed the Princess of Wales,Albert wrote. Doubtless she would soon have Bertie's child, and Bertiewould be summoned to court to present "disgusting details of your profligacy!"Albert's anger was directed not only at what he considered his son'simmorality but also at the potential damage to the image of the monarchy ata time when memories of the Hanoverians were still fresh and democraticvoices were being heard more and more stridently in the land.
Albert himself was ill and exhausted from overwork and a chain ofconcerns both familial and national; he had also been in considerable gastricdistress since October 1860, and abdominal pain had taxed him to the pointof nervous collapse that December. Weary, too, from fighting the unfairallegations registered against him during the Crimean War (specifically, thathe had tried to influence Parliament in favor of the Russians), Albert nowhad to cope with a doubled burden of work, for Victoria had withdrawninto months of mourning after the death of her mother that March.
Additionally, eight-year-old Prince Leopold's worsening hemophilia wasa torment to him; there was a threat of war in Europe over several Germanduchies; and the American Civil War threatened to involve Britain, whosemills needed the South's cotton. At the same time, Bertie was trying hispatience, and at the end of November he forced himself to visit his son, thenback at Cambridge, in the vain hope of putting an end to the boy's scandalousconduct.
Albert returned to Windsor Castle shaking with chills and fever, unableto take any food or water. More alarming still, by early December his luciditywas often affected. With his beloved eighteen-year-old daughter Alice attendinghim as best she could, he wandered about Windsor, moving fromone bedroom to another, addressing Victoria irrationally, then sleeping, onlyto awake fully reasonable and coherent. The alternation of moods, of brightoptimism with dire talk of death, panicked the Queen and her children.
At last the Prince's doctors diagnosed typhoid fever, which they saidwould soon pass, but by Tuesday, December 10, everyone knew the situationwas grave. (Historians later suggested that his terminal illness was either aperforated ulcer or, more likely, stomach cancer.
Victoria was almost paralyzed with fright, but she sat with her husbandand cradled his head against her shoulder. On Thursday the twelfth, Albertsaid he heard the birds chirping at Rosenau, his family's country home nearCoburg; he then inquired of Victoria about cousins he had not seen foryears. Then, as Alice was ministering to him, he asked if Vicky, in Berlinwith her own new family, knew he was ill.
"Yes," replied Alice. "I told her you were very ill."
"You should have told her that I am dying. Yes, I am dying."
And so he was. On Friday the thirteenth, at Alice's summons, Bertierejoined the family. "The breathing was the alarming thing," wrote Victoria,"it was so rapid. There was what they call a dusky hue about the face andhands, which I knew was not good." By five o'clock that afternoon, a bulletinwas issued to a hitherto ignorant public, and the Queen was told her Princewas swiftly losing ground. Between fits of hysterical weeping, she sat calmlyat her husband's bedside. But all his mental confusion seemed to vanish ashe became weaker. He kissed his wife, clasped her hand and whispered overand over, "Gutes Frauchen ... Gutes Frauchen ... Good little wife ..."
On December 14, Bertie, Helena, Louise and Arthur gathered quietlyaround their father's bed. His beloved Vicky was still in Germany, Alfred atsea, Leopold on the Riviera for his health and Beatrice-only four yearsold--waskept far distant. When the Queen noticed how rapid her husband'sbreathing had again become--short, desperate gasps--she leaned over him."Es ist Frauchen. It's your dear wife," and she begged for a kiss. Remarkably,he stirred, kissed her and then sank back. Victoria left the room sobbing.Just before eleven, the forty-two-year-old Prince drew his last breath, andAlice calmly and wordlessly went to bring her mother back.
"Oh, yes, this is death!" the Queen cried, her voice rising in a terriblewad as she entered the room. "I know it, I have seen it before! "
She collapsed onto Albert's lifeless form, calling his name and nicknamesin English and German. For the next several months the Queen was almostmad with grief, and her family and ministers feared a permanent descentinto madness. That, as it happened, was unwarranted pessimism. But it istrue that Victoria was pitched into a dour widowhood from which she neverreally recovered and into a seclusion from which she did not emerge foryears. She wore full mourning dress for the rest of her life.