Friday, July 29, 2011

Mother to daughter, queen to princess

Dearest Child, Letters Between Queen Victoria and the Princess Royal, Roger Fulford, ed.

When people ask me about my job, about what an archivist does, I sometimes tell them that I spend all day reading other people's mail.  It might be letters from the 1850s, or from the 1990s - and some days it's more financial reports and building plans and committee minutes.  But I do read an awful lot of other people's mail. I even do it for fun, in book form, whether it's fictional mail like Jane Austen's Lady Susan, or Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs; or real-life mail, Abraham Lincoln's, or in this case, the British Royal Family's.

When I was reading Jehanne Wake's biography of Princess Louise, I saw this book cited in the sources and remembered that I had checked it out from the library once but never read it.  I also discovered that there are four other published volumes of letters between the two Victorias, mother and daughter, and I expect I will be reading them as well.

The letters in Dearest Child cover the years 1858 to 1861.  The first was written on the day of the Princess Royal's marriage, at age seventeen, to Prince Frederick William of Prussia.  The last was written three days before the Prince Consort's death in December 1861.  They are mainly from Queen Victoria to her daughter, though some of the Princess's are included, primarily in answer to her mother's or to add additional detail.  The letters are obviously edited and culled; in some cases, only a line or two is given.  Faced with hundreds of letter, the editor, Roger Fulford, was very selective in what he included, yet he had a broad goal: "to retain the heart of the correspondence, revealing the life of the Queen, her interests and preoccupations."

In his introduction, Fulford speculates that Queen Victoria, isolated within her position, longed for equal friendships, particularly with women.  Once her daughter married, Victoria immediately put her into that role, as a confidant, while retaining of course her motherly prerogatives of advice, probing questions, and demands.  The letters bear this out with frank discussions.  Did it bother her daughter, the first-born child, to read more than once how furious Victoria was to be "caught" in her first pregnancy, how much she resented the disruption that children brought to her early married life?  Commenting frequently on the Prince of Wales, the Queen could find nothing good to say about her eldest son: his head small, his chin weak, his features outsize, his hairstyles ridiculous, his nature lazy and boorish.  At the same time, the Queen enlisted his sister in the search for prospective brides, about whom both commented very freely as well.  The Princess Royal also helped arrange the marriage of her sister Alice, to another German prince.

In addition, the letters focus on the younger Victoria's married life in Prussia, both at court and in her husband's divided and quarrelsome family.  The Princess bore her first child, the future Kaiser Wilhelm, in the first year of marriage.  Two years later, as the letters ended, she had borne a second child and was pregnant with her third.  Naturally, pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing were frequent subjects in the letters, but so were Prussian politics and the strained family relationships.

In March of 1861, the Queen's mother, the Duchess of Kent, died. Victoria's grief overwhelmed her, and she withdrew even from family life.  It was an eerie, unconscious rehearsal for the greater loss that she would face that December.

What draws me to letters and diaries, especially those written privately with no expectation that anyone but the recipient would ever read them, is the life and personality that flow through the words.  It is very different from biography.  Even when heavily edited, as these are, it is the people themselves who speak to us across the years. That is the fascination of archives.


  1. When I read Dearest Vicky, Darling Fritz earlier this year, which quotes heavily from the letters between Queen Victoria and Vicky, I was impressed by the intimacy of their correspondence. I love reading letters and diaries regardless of the author(s) but when they're letters between two such interesting women, how could one resist? How often do you have access to the first person perspectives of such pivotal historical figures? This was already on my TBR list but I'll be looking forward to it even more now!

  2. I was surprised and fascinated by Queen Victoria's frankness. She even complained a couple of times about Prince Albert!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!