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Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household

Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household

3.2 8
by Kate Hubbard

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Based on the letters and diaries of six members of Queen Victoria's household, Serving Victoria offers unique insight into the queen and her court. Seen through the eyes of her servants—including the governess to the royal children, her maid of honor, her chaplain, and her personal physician—Victoria emerges as more vulnerable, more emotional,


Based on the letters and diaries of six members of Queen Victoria's household, Serving Victoria offers unique insight into the queen and her court. Seen through the eyes of her servants—including the governess to the royal children, her maid of honor, her chaplain, and her personal physician—Victoria emerges as more vulnerable, more emotional, more selfish, more comical than the austere figure depicted in her portraits.

We see a woman prone to fits of giggles, who wept easily and often, who shrank from confrontation yet insisted on controlling the lives of those around her. We witness her extraordinary and debilitating grief at the death of her husband, Albert, and her sympathy toward the tragedies that afflicted her household.

A perfect foil to the pomp and circumstance, prudery and conservatism that has become synonymous with Victoria's reign, Serving Victoria is an unforgettable glimpse of what it meant to serve the queen.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Drawing on letters and diaries, Hubbard (Queen Victoria) follows six courtiers who served Queen Victoria during her 63-year reign as they chafe under the constraints of court life, dine and travel with the Queen, and even indulge in the occasional joke at her expense. Kindly Sarah Lyttelton, supervisor of the nursery, witnessed a monarch who compulsively controlled those around her and even saw children as an impediment to her life with Prince Albert. Beautiful, intelligent Charlotte Canning, lady of the bedchamber and an accomplished watercolorist whose work Victoria appropriated for her souvenir albums, found court life a welcome respite from her humiliating marriage. Spirited feminist Mary Ponsonby, maid-of-honor, found the Victorian court to be “ludicrously bourgeois and exceedingly dull,” while her modest husband Henry masterfully played the Queen’s complex and contradictory character to his advantage. Later in life, Victoria was outraged when her easygoing, gregarious doctor, James Reid, decided to marry; and sympathetic chaplain Randall Davidson also angered her when he counseled against publication of her inappropriate memoir of her deceased servant, John Brown. Although hardly controversial, this is an engrossing and fresh view of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch and day-to-day life at the Victorian court. 16 pages of illus. and photos. Agent: Georgia Garrett, Rogers, Coleridge & White. (U.K.) (May)
Kirkus Reviews
Mining the record left by six intimate Victorian servants, Hubbard (Rubies in the Snow, 2007, etc.) discovers a great deal about the British monarch, wife and mother. Discretion, self-reliance and the stamina to endure staggering periods of immobility and ennui marked the duty of the reliable courtier of stalwart Queen Victoria, who acceded to the throne at age 18 in 1837 and reigned until 1901. In this nuanced study, the author meticulously picks her way through the lives of the women and men carefully chosen to serve as Victoria's intimates over her long life: ladies of the bedchamber, maids of honor, lords-in-waiting, grooms-in-waiting and equerries, drawn from a low-aristocracy pool and serving the queen in rotation. Lady Sarah Lyttelton, a 50-year-old widowed lady-in-waiting, was new to the game in 1838, charmed by the young and still-single sovereign. She was in charge of keeping an eye on the maids of honor and making sure the new regime was not besmirched by the "doings" of the previous Hanoverians. The "frank and fearless" Victoria married her cousin Albert in 1840, and he proceeded to reorganize the household into a tight system of efficiency; soon the babies arrived like clockwork and Lyttelton was put in charge of the nursery. Charlotte Canning, an ace artist and young wife who became lady of the bedchamber, found her duties essentially companionable and social: accompanying Victoria on her open-air afternoon rides. Dining with the queen meant jawing an infinite parade of platitudes with an injunction on broaching politics. In other chapters, Hubbard highlights maid of honor Mary Ponsonby and her adviser husband, Henry Ponsonby, physician James Reid and Windsor chaplain Randall Davidson, who all endured a stultifying monotony of duty and probity, weddings and funerals, systems of etiquette and middlebrow refinement. A touching portrait of Victoria offstage and unguarded.
Andrew Holgate
“Well-written….Fascinating….Both eye opening and thoroughly engaging.”
Ben Wilson
“Compelling....The rhythm of court life at Windsor or Balmoral is the backdrop to a rich human drama, a story of people existing in uneasy intimacy with the royal family.”
Val Hennessy
“[Hubbard has] plundered a rich vein of fascinating and often new information.”
Daily Beast
“The appeal in Hubbard’s story is the excitement in an otherwise dull existence. Call it the sensuality of the stiffness….The emotional complexity is as entertaining as (and more astute than) most upstairs-downstairs soaps, even those written by Julian Fellowes.”
Wall Street Journal
“A vivid, entertaining and often comical portrait….Ms. Hubbard has achieved a real feat in writing so compellingly about life in the ‘airless bell jar,’ as she describes the court.”
The New Yorker
“Entertaining….Hubbard draws on a wealth of correspondence and diaries to weave an amusing ‘Upstairs, Upstairs’ drama.”
The Observer (London)
“Kate Hubbard’s entertaining book, drawing on the vast pile of correspondence from ladies in waiting, maids of honour and others, paints a picture of court life that is compellingly vivid.”
Library Journal
"Lady of the bedchamber," "Superintendent of the nursery," "Maid-of-Honour," and "Resident Medical Attendant" were some of the positions in Queen Victoria's court household. As impressive as these titles might sound, those ladies and gentlemen of the lesser aristocracy who filled them did so largely out of a sense of duty. Life in the royal household is described as "miserable," made up of "stiff dinners, ditch water and cold bedrooms." One of the queen's doctors became such a "hopeless" alcoholic he was persuaded to resign. A lady of the bedchamber, Lady Jane Ely, desperate to leave after years of devoted service and with her health broken, was roundly told that "Lady Ely's health and well being were of little consequence beside those of the Queen." She could not be spared, though it was "killing her." It is a testament to Hubbard's talent that she manages to convey why Victoria's household remained devoted to a monarch they all recognized as a selfish woman who did very little work. VERDICT Readers interested in the Victorian era and the British royal family will enjoy this well-written and remarkably interesting account of the "woeful dullness" and "loneliness" of life inside Victoria's court.—Elizabeth Mellett, Brookline P.L., MA

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.80(d)

Meet the Author

Kate Hubbard has been a researcher, teacher, and book reviewer. She currently works as a freelance editor. Serving Victoria is her first book to be published in the United States.

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Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
gaele More than 1 year ago
In a uniquely positioned perspective, Kate Hubbard utilizes the personal correspondences of six members of the household staff charged with serving the personal needs of Queen Victoria, presenting a brand new view of the royal, throughout her long reign.  From shortly after her ascendance to the throne at 19, details of the mundane of those in service are detailed by their own hand in letters to trusted friends and family.   This provides a whole new perspective on the Queen: one that shares some common ties to some of the “tell all books’ released by former royal household members, but is far less salacious or prurient in nature.  This is a fascinating read, presenting details of events, attitudes and even personal prejudices of the letter-writer in a way that provides an unguarded view, peppered with personal asides.  Although one must understand the attitude toward the crown she who wore it, staffing needs were filled most often through families with loyalties to the Queen and crown, and often, these loyalties resulted in generations from the same family being employed in the Royal Household’s Service consistently.  Once an understanding of that basic fact is to hand, the book becomes a fascinating, if occasionally minutely detailed read.   The book has several voices, although the most distinct changes come after Prince Albert’s death in 1861 after 20+ years of marriage.  Nearly consecutively in this book, the correspondents move from female to male, when Victoria sought out male members of her household for council, sympathy and apparently, male appreciation.   This is a book that develops slowly yet consistently provides information on the time, the Royal Household, and the concerns and interests of the correspondents. While there are no overtly obvious moments of “AHA so now I know her”, the insights and information provided in this book are fascinating and will help to present a fuller picture of the Victorian Court and the Queen.  The book also includes several illustrations that are ‘of the time’ and quite beautiful: from menus to carriage arrangements, castles and notes their inclusion provides the reader with visual representations of much that is spoken of in more general detail.    I received an ARC eProof from the publisher via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review on I am, Indeed. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A non-fiction book - but is very readable and interesting. Lots of facts and descriptions of the time period; however, the writing is excellent and engaging. Loved every bit of this book. A+++++
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read about half of the book and then quit. Pretty dry and lots to wade thru to get to points of interest.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Boring, dry, tedious and slow moving. Too many other great books to read to waste time on this one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Kate Hubbard is my name