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Just eight months old when her father, Edward, duke of Kent, died unexpectedly, the princess Victoria moved significantly closer to England’s throne. The task of raising a potential female monarch assumed critical importance for the nation, yet Victoria’s girlhood and adolescence have received scant attention from historians, cultural critics, and even her biographers. In this engaging and revealing book, Lynne Vallone shows us a new Victoria—a lively and passionate girl very different from the iconic dour widow of the queen’s later life.
Based on a thorough exploration of the young Victoria’s own letters, stories, drawings, educational materials, and journals—documents that have been under appreciated until now—the book illuminates the princess’s childhood from her earliest years to her accession to the throne at age eighteen in 1837. Vallone presents a fresh assessment of “the rose of England” within the culture of girlhood and domestic life in the 1820s and 1830s. The author also explores the complex and often conflicting contexts of the period, including Georgian children’s literature, conventional childrearing practices, domestic and familial intrigues, and the frequently turbulent political climate. Part biography, part historical and cultural study, this richly illustrated volume uncovers in fascinating detail the childhood that Victoria actually lived.
The Baby in the Palace
You now try to go to the Round Pond, but nurses hate it, because they are not really manly, and they make you look the other way, at the Big Penny and the Baby's Palace.
J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906)
Almost one hundred years after her birth in 1819, as novelist and playwright J. M. Barrie slyly points out, Queen Victoria's image might havecalled to mind pocket change rather than pomp and glory, and the place ofher birth was merely an architectural backdrop to promenade and play.From this perspective, the old queen signifies little to Edwardian children.In Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, the narrator compresses the widelyknown facts and fancies of Victoria's life at Kensington Palace from birth toaccession — her solitude, love of dolls, the Archbishop of Canterbury's audiencewith the newly made queen, and her public coronation into a child'sversion of Victoria's life story: `She was the most celebrated baby of theGardens, and lived in the palace all alone, with ever so many dolls, so peoplerang the bell and up she got out of her bed, though it was past six o'clock,and she lighted a candle and opened the door in her nightdress, and thenthey all cried with great rejoicings, "Hail, Queen of England!"' Barrie'scommentary on Victoria's status as either baby on the throne or coin of therealm, made within the context ofa story celebrating endless boyhood, highlightsfor Barrie, and for us, the mysterious power of both icon and child. Today,as in the past, parents, schools, and society in general attempt the impossiblewhen they desire to know and to fix, in an absolute way, the ever-inscrutable`Child'. How much more difficult it might be to capture a child from the pastwhose life span has labelled an age, and whose supposed character has inflecteda cultural personality. `Victorian' means many things — proper, pompous, andproud are a few apt adjectives — but these are descriptors of age, not of youth.Barely does `Victorian' refer to the girlish, playful, or clever. Before the `door'that Barrie considers a boundary was crossed, before the crowning of the girl-sovereign,Queen Victoria was, indeed, just a baby in the palace.
The events that led to Victoria's unlikely residence in Kensington Palacewere set in motion well before she was born, with the failures of parturitionand the domestic tragedies of George III's descendants. Not surprisingly,the miserable marriage between George III's heir (the Prince Regentand future George IV) and his first cousin Caroline of Brunswick, producedbut one child — Princess Charlotte, Heiress Presumptive to the throne. Herdeath in 1817 at the age of twenty-one after delivering a stillborn boydashed the hopes of both the Regent and the nation that a young queenwould eventually be crowned. With the death of Charlotte and her child,George IV's line became extinct, and it was up to the next son of George III,William (later William IV), to wear the crown and beget heirs to thethrone. Ironically, of King William's twelve children only the two daughtersof gentle Queen Adelaide were legitimate, yet they were also sickly anddied in infancy. The third surviving son, Edward, Duke of Kent, marriedsomewhat late in life, and fathered a healthy child, Alexandrina Victoria, in1819. His death eight months later, before there was any chance for a sonto supersede his daughter in the line of succession, enhanced the likelihoodthat Princess Victoria would one day claim the throne.
This brief sketch of Victoria's family history offers a backdrop to thestory of an unlikely queen: if Princess Charlotte or her son had lived, if theRegent had fathered another (legitimate) child, if one of Adelaide's daughtershad survived, or if the Duke of Kent had left Victoria's mother pregnantwith a son before he died, Victoria would not have become queen andBritish history would have been irrevocably altered.
Kensington Palace was a venerable old building by the time the Kents cameto live in it. Originally Nottingham House, the structure was purchased byWilliam III in 1689 and enlarged by Christopher Wren and William Kent.Acres of beautiful gardens surrounded the boxy palace which was well situatedin what were then the `intensely rural' outskirts of London. Thepalace was close to the bustle of town, but essentially functioned as a quietcountry retreat. Although draughty, plagued by insects, and somewhatderelict, Kensington Palace was a symbolically important location for awandering son of George III to call home, if only temporarily. For economy'ssake, the debt ridden Duke of Kent had been living in Brussels andthen the town of Amorbach. The impending birth of a royal infant, however,was strong inducement to return to his native land, `in order to renderthe Child [the Duchess] bears, virtually as well as legally English', thoughhe was not especially welcomed by the other members of the Royal Familyalready ensconced in the palace or nearby. Indeed he was informed, in nouncertain terms, `not to expect a cordial reception'.
Although it first necessitated borrowing additional funds and then along and arduous trip from Amorbach to London for the heavily pregnantDuchess of Kent, Victoria was born in Kensington Palace at 4 a.m. on 24May 1819, a robust English daughter. This fact was highly pleasing to herparents, and often remarked upon as testimony of Victoria's appropriatenessas queen, even given her German relations. Victoria was later urged toemphasize her English birth to counteract criticism of the Germanness ofher mother (she was the widow of the Prince of Leiningen and the sister ofPrincess Charlotte's husband, Leopold) and the House of Hanover generally.(Once affianced to Victoria, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, her firstcousin, suffered similar criticism from the press.) Although the Duke ofKent is often credited with the prophetic proclamation that his infantdaughter would one day be queen, just after her birth he wrote in responseto a friend who had expressed the wish that this child would one day becrowned, and the regret that she wasn't a son: `But the fact is I see no reasonto wish the case [the child's sex] otherwise, except as far as private inclinationmight dictate; for while I have 3 brothers senior to myself, and onepossessing every reasonable prospect of having a family, I should deem itthe height of presumption to believe it probable that a future heir to theCrown of England would spring from me.'
No one could have been less concerned about her place in the line of successionthan the infant Victoria, and by all accounts she continued to be apromising and lively baby soon very fat on a diet of her mother's milk. (Shewas weaned in early December.) In a letter written to her mother soonafter Victoria's birth, the Duchess of Kent expressed her satisfaction withVictoria's large appetite and her surprise at the eyebrows raised in responseto her decision to breast-feed the infant princess: `I am so very happy that Ican breast feed her so well, I would have been desparate (sic) to see my littledarling on someone else's breast.... Everybody is most astonished that I ambreast feeding; people of the mondaine (sic) world are really very unhappy,how much genuine joie de vivre do they miss. By 1840, however, this storyof Queen Victoria's earliest days had been revised to emphasize theDuchess's doting care and the start to Victoria's pleasing `middle-class'upbringing. The anonymous `lady' author of Anecdotes, Personal Traits,and Characteristic Sketches of Victoria the First notes that the identity ofVictoria's wet nurse was of great interest to the public: `It was very speedilyannounced that the Royal Duchess intended to suckle the infantPrincess herself, and this expression of maternal tenderness so unusual toroyalty, was received with the highest satisfaction by the English people,who rejoiced to find that their future Queen was not likely to be rearedamidst the cold forms of etiquette, but under the free and uncontrolledinfluence of the affections of the heart.' Of course, at the time of her birthit was not entirely certain that Victoria would ever become queen, as thecomment above implies. Nevertheless, the young Princess was afforded allof the dignities befitting of a highly placed royal child. Her first officialportrait, an August 1819 watercolour by Paul Johann Georg Fischer, depictsa plump baby sporting a large Scotch bonnet with equanimity. (A length ofthe still-bright tartan ribbon worn by Princess Victoria on 2 November 1819remains preserved in the Royal Archives. Prince Albert's note accompanyingit indicates that the Fischer painting was sent to the grandmotherVictoria shared with him.) The resemblance between the infant and theDuke of Kent in this picture was surely meant to flatter the fond father (Ill.2 and Ill. 3). All due care was taken to ensure that the little princessremained in good health. She was successfully vaccinated for smallpox atten weeks of age (and later in 1827 and 1835).
`Drina', as Victoria was called as a very young child, was the only babyliving in Kensington Palace, although she was not the only royal infant ofconsequence. In the spring of 1819, The Times reported the arrival of nofewer than four additions to the Royal Family. The Duchesses ofCambridge and Cumberland gave birth to princes, and the Duchesses ofClarence and Kent delivered princesses: George Cambridge who would oneday be considered a good match for Victoria; Charlotte Clarence, who wouldhave preceded Victoria in the line of succession, and who lived for one dayonly; and George Cumberland, future King of Hanover. (The secondClarence daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1820 and lived for three months.)Victoria was never to know any of these cousins very well. After her husband'sdeath, when Victoria was less than a year old, the Duchess of Kentkept her young daughter close beside her within a small circle of intimates:her half-sister Feodore, twelve years her senior; her governess LouiseLehzen (hired as Feodore's governess and retained as Victoria's governess in1824); her Aunt Sophia (daughter of George III); and the Conroy family(John Conroy was equerry to the Duke of Kent and became a close adviserto the Duchess after his death).
The significance of the loss of her father when she was an infant cannotbe underestimated when judging Victoria's character and growth into awoman; she would seek male companionship and attention for the rest ofher life. Victoria's extreme gratitude for the `disinterested kindnesses' ofLord Melbourne, her first Prime Minister, attests to this fact. Charlot comments:`Melbourne's devotion to [Queen Victoria] was fatherly, her fascinationwith him was similar to that of a student of philosophy with a guru.'While the Duke was not particularly popular within the Royal Family, orperhaps outside it (he was a military man who had developed a reputationfor cruelty to his men and who was incapable of staying out of debt), afterdismissing his mistress of twenty seven years, Madame de St Laurent withreal regret, he nevertheless willingly accepted his `duty' to the successionand married a suitable bride. The newly wed couple appear to have beenhappy enough together, and great joy was evinced at Victoria's birth. Shewas baptized by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Cupola Room, thegrandest room in Kensington Palace (restored to its early eighteenth centurysplendour in 1991) at one month of age. The baptismal font had beenbrought from the Tower of London for the occasion. Victoria's christeningwas a stressful occasion for the Kents, as the Prince Regent was in badtemper and refused to allow the baby to be baptized with traditional secondnames such as `Charlotte' or `Augusta' as her parents desired—`Alexandrina'was for her godfather in absentia, the Tsar Alexander of Russia." The King'ssuggestions for a substitute name lacked creativity (let her take hermother's name, he said), and the baby was duly baptized `AlexandrinaVictoria'.
After the baptism, still plagued by debts, the Kent family was forced tovacate Kensington Palace. They chose to relocate to Sidmouth, Devonshirewhere households were cheaper to run. There the little family lived peacefully (if not entirely frugally) until the Duke of Kent took ill with a cold—caught,conventional wisdom asserts, because he was too interested in playingwith baby Victoria to heed advice and attend to his wet boots. Thisindisposition progressed into a serious pneumonia-like illness and withintwo weeks of suffering from pain, fever, and repeated bleedings, he wasdead.
Not only was the Duchess shocked and distressed by this unexpectedsecond widowhood (her private letters make it clear that though she hadmet him just once before their marriage, she was sincerely fond of her husband),but she knew that she was now awkwardly placed as the widowedGerman mother of an important child of the English Royal Family. Someof the Duchess's anxieties stemmed from her limited command of theEnglish language, though she tried to lessen the effects of the languagebarrier by taking English lessons as soon as she was married. The Duchess'sisolation was enhanced by her lack of friends in England and in the RoyalFamily, save for the Duchess of Clarence who had sent warm condolencesduring Edward Kent's illness and after his death. The Duchess chose toturn for guidance to a male adviser, John Conroy, an Irishman who had beenan equerry in the employ of her husband's household. Conroy's self-interestin regard to the Duchess and her daughter became obvious from themoment the Duke's life appeared to be in danger. In the letters the Duchessof Kent wrote to her friend Pauline von Tubeuf, it appears that she trustedConroy, even as he was pushing the mortally ill Duke to name him asVictoria's guardian. That the Duchess would not allow such a frighteningrequest to be brought before the dying Duke benefited Victoria, as this documentwould have assigned to Conroy greater power over her than he wasultimately able to achieve through his close alliance with the Duchess.John Conroy was to play a significant role in Victoria's childhood, however,as he continued to be intimately connected with the Duchess of Kent (butnot, it would seem, in a sexual relationship as sometimes rumoured) andheavily involved in Princess Victoria's education. Many of the memorandadiscussing aspects of Victoria's education are in Conroy's (nearly unreadable) hand, and it is very likely that he directed most if not all of theDuchess's professional correspondence. John Conroy and the `KensingtonSystem' will be discussed in detail in Chapter Two.
Victoria was fatherless, but not friendless in her early years as is sometimesasserted, perhaps on the basis of Victoria's own observations madeyears later when reflecting on her childhood. E. F. Benson provides amuch needed corrective to this vision of Victoria's `rather melancholy'childhood, asserting that it `would appear to have been much the same asthat of any other little girl of the upper classes, who was being very carefullybrought up by a lone]y mother, and who had the misfortune (thoughin this case there was a bright lining to that) of not having any brothers'. Infact, Victoria did have a brother — her half-brother Charles Leiningen who,fifteen years her senior, and the heir to the princely house of Leiningen, livedprimarily in Germany rather than in England with his mother. Her sisterFeodore, however, lived with Victoria and their mother at KensingtonPalace until she was married in February 1828 to Prince Ernest ChristianCharles of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, a handsome stranger (they had metonly twice before their engagement) who was many years her senior. Fromextant letters between the sisters dating from their separation, it is abundantlyclear that they shared a very close and loving relationship. Victoriaidolized her older sister's pretty looks and manners; they wore matchingdresses of white Buckinghamshire thread lace on Feodore's wedding day.Although the girls were constantly together until Feodore's marriage whenVictoria was nine years old, and were very frequent correspondents afterthat, this sororal aspect of Victoria's early youth has often been overlookedby later writers, if not by the Royal Family itself. Some of this loss ofmemory may be due to design: as the daughter of her mother's unhappyfirst marriage to a minor German prince, Feodore perhaps represented, orwas perceived to represent, that foreignness or `otherness' that the Duchessof Kent and the Royal Family were at pains to disguise in themselves. Ather death in 1872, Vanity Fair was brusque in its dismissal of Feodore'simportance: `The less said about the Queen's German relatives the better."There are no portraits of Princess Feodore and Princess Victoria together — althougha great many portraits of the young Victoria were publishedwhich has helped to create the erroneous impression that Victoria was anonly child.
Feodore never appears, for example, in an 1822 series of pencil drawingsof three-year-old Victoria drawn by the artist Lady Elizabeth KeithHeathcote, although she would certainly have accompanied the Duchess ofKent and Victoria on their seaside holiday at Ramsgate. Notwithstandingthe absence of Feodore, these little known drawings offer a glimpse into thedaily life of the young Victoria, as they depict her clothing, toys and playtimeactivities with the artist's daughter, Elizabeth Anne, five monthsyounger than the Princess. Lady Elizabeth was a student of Gainsborough,and her tiny pencil sketches, accented by lightly shaded coloured shoes andsashes, are obviously quick studies of active children probably intended asrecord keeping and mementoes rather than as display pieces. The Duchessof Kent and Lady Elizabeth were friends, which accounts for the access thelatter was given to the Princess. In the drawings, Victoria is shown to beplump, curly-headed, and happy (although one drawing shows a distressedprincess pointing to her injured foot) (Ill. 4). These drawings give clues tothe clothing Princess Victoria wore as a small child. Her indoor daytimewear was an off-the shoulder dress with short puffed sleeves, an empirewaist, and a sash tied in a bow. This is a fashion Victoria seems to havesported throughout her childhood: she is repeatedly depicted in such a stylein portraits commissioned during the 1820s (Ill. 5). In Lady ElizabethHeathcote's sketches Princess Victoria is often drawn wearing a pinaforeover and pantalettes under the dress, and blue shoes on her little feet. Shesometimes wears a necklace or a morning cap. In a drawing depictingVictoria seated on a donkey's back (a favourite way for Victoria to travel asa child), she wears a diminutive riding habit.
Less indicative of her stares than her clothing, the toys that appear inthe sketches — balls, books, a rabbit pull-toy, an easel and paints, shellsspilling from a bucket, and dolls — could be found in any middle-classhome.
Although these drawings may not be particularly notable for theirartistry (the character Victoria resembles any cherubic little girl), thesedrawings — which were not originally meant for publication or composedfor flattery's sake — help to illustrate Victoria's `normal' babyhood in a literalway. Some remnants of the material objects of Victoria's childhood canbe found in a small collection of her toys currently housed in KensingtonPalace. A large Georgian townhouse for dolls has survived in very goodshape, although it is clear that it has been enjoyed; it is of a size and simplicitythat would invite play. Princess Victoria wrote to Feodore in 1829,after their first Christmas apart, to describe her gifts. Among them was anumber of items to furnish the doll's house, including plates and a housekeeper doll, as well as a toy theatre. In general, these toys are sturdy, typicalplaythings of the Georgian era. Miniature wood furniture, a toycarriage, cradle, and various dolls with handmade clothing are all itemsthat could be found in many households. Perhaps the more delicate andexpensive toys had been broken in the past, but it seems that the toys ofVictoria's youth were, for the most part, practical and functional. Althoughshe was raised simply (her diet was plain and bland, her bedtime early, andher clothing mostly unembellished) and, until she was about five years old,with great indulgence, this child's advantages were obviously legion: servants,beautiful clothes, trips to the seaside, donkey carts, royal relations.
Excerpted from Becoming Victoria by Lynne Vallone. Copyright © 2001 by Lynne Vallone. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|List of Illustrations|
|Ch. 1||The Baby in the Palace, 1819-1827||1|
|Ch. 2||The Little Princess Enters Education Land, 1828-1832||40|
|Ch. 3||Private and Public Princess, 1832-1834||75|
|Ch. 4||The Importance of Being Victoria, 1835||122|
|Ch. 5||'The Fair White Rose of Perfect Womanhood', 1836-1837||168|
Posted May 2, 2004
Posted August 12, 2001
While much has been written about the monarch who gave an era its name, few words have been devoted to Queen Victoria's girlhood. That oversight has been rectified with this edifying and thoughtful account of Victoria's early years. She was a woman never remembered for her youth, the author notes, 'but for her seemingly never ending old age: her years of mourning, her black dress, her dour expression, her iconic stature...........yet Victoria was a young queen and once popularly called `the rose of England.'' We learn how this 'rose' was formed by the children's books she read; we gain insight into her early ardor and stubbornness from her letters, stories, and drawings. Nonetheless, above all, she was a royal child who at a scant eight months of age edged closer to the throne with the unexpected death of her father, Edward, duke of Kent. 'Becoming Victoria' details her life from birth until June 20, 1837 when she ascended to the throne. Even more this well illustrated volume is a remarkable picture of Georgian childhood among the privileged, a commentary on that period's political climate and mores. It is a substantial work of scholarship, one that will be especially enjoyed by those with an interest in history and the royals.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.