Read The Last Princess Online

Authors: Matthew Dennison

Tags: #History, #Europe, #Great Britain, #Biography & Autobiography, #Royalty

The Last Princess (10 page)

My gratitude for what was, my love and admiration for – and devotion to – adored Papa are as great, and part of myself. But with the easing of that violent grief, those paroxysms of despair and longing and of daily, nightly longing to die which for the first three years never left me, and which were a rendering asunder of heart and body and soul – the power of realizing that married life seems gone.

It had taken more than five years, but the unthinkable had crept up on the Queen: her grief was working out its course; despite her best efforts she felt it less keenly; even her memories of shared enchantment were dimming. In the Royal Household the Prince would continue to be spoken of in hushed tones; the life of the Prince the Queen commissioned from Theodore Martin was, on publication the following decade, a virtual hagiography of excellence; the Queen continued to erect monuments in memory of the man she loved so much more than did his adopted country – but now there was room for other interests and objects. Even Christmas, a celebration invariably marred by its proximity to the anniversary of the Prince's death, was happy that year.

On 27 December fourteen-year-old Leopold (habitually among the most disaffected of the Queen's children) wrote to Alice in Darmstadt, ‘We are spending a very merry Christmas here, last night the tree was stripped… and after the tree had been stripped we played at “Blind man's buff”. We are going to act charades next week so we are very busy preparing for them.’
and ‘Final’ were the words chosen for the charades, the former tactful given the store set by the Queen on a full, obedient and uncomplaining participation in the family life of her peripatetic home by all her unmarried children. Three weeks later the children acted in closer accord with their natural tastes, offering ‘Banditti’ on 21 January. Far from objecting, the Queen mustered commendations even for Leopold's performances.

In 1864 the Queen had relaxed the mourning worn by her maids of honour, those junior ladies-in-waiting whose role was partly ornamental, partly one of assistance and diversion of the monarch. In place of black they were permitted to wear grey, white, purple and mauve. On 26 March, in anticipation of her seventh birthday, Beatrice was photographed sitting on a desk – as if to emphasize her smallness, her ‘Baby’ stature – wearing a full-skirted dress ornamented at the hem and on the bodice with stripes of black velvet, and with a black ribbon in her long hair. But the dress itself was white. The following year, when the Crown Prince and Princess of Prussia's visit to Windsor coincided with the Crown Princess's birthday, the family celebration took almost the form of birthdays during the Prince Consort's lifetime, with ‘a juvenile party and magic lantern at five-thirty – a large dinner and evening party’.
Beatrice's own birthdays took on a similar festive atmosphere. Though she had to make do with tea-time children's dances at Windsor rather than the splendid children's balls previously held at night in the Throne Room of Buckingham Palace, she fared better than her brother Leopold. The programme for Leopold's fifteenth birthday in 1868, according to lady-in-waiting Lady Waterpark, included ‘some sacred music in St George's Hall before dinner at which the Queen was present’.
One advantage of having a dance thrown for her was the necessity of Beatrice practising her dancing in advance, a source of pleasure in itself. As she wrote to Lady Car in 1868,
‘Mes lecons de danse commenceront demains; elles m'amusent beaucoup.’

Lady Waterpark was present at Beatrice's birthday dance in 1868. She took with her Charlie Anson, son of Frederick Anson, who lived in a house in the castle cloisters. Charlie Anson was a
contemporary of Beatrice's and as such a precious and rare commodity. The Queen did not encourage her children to make friends outside the family and seldom invited children to court. By 1868, although the atmosphere of gloom in which her children had lived hitherto was lessening, their existences remained unusually lonely. By virtue of her position as youngest of the family, her nearest siblings both brothers, her closest sister almost a decade her senior, Beatrice was alone in the schoolroom. With half of her siblings married by her tenth birthday, she was also alone for much of her time outside the schoolroom.

In 1888 the Queen replied to a Miss Low, who wrote to her in the course of researching a book about historic dolls: ‘The Queen has no hesitation in saying that she was quite devoted to dolls and played with them till she was fourteen… None of her children loved them as she did.’
The Queen had overlooked that Beatrice played with dolls, and for the same reason as her mother: she became in effect an only child, with only inanimate companions to divert her. This arose not from an oversight on the Queen's part, but was deliberate.

In January 1869 the Queen told the Crown Princess, ‘The Grosvenors come tonight till Monday. They bring their eldest girl [Elizabeth Harriet] – that Beatrice may see her – who they say is so lovely.’
There would, of course, be no question of Beatrice returning the visit, and whatever she may have thought of the loveliness of her mother's guest, the Queen took care that Beatrice and Elizabeth Grosvenor had little opportunity of becoming close friends. If this seems cruel on the Queen's part, it was indeed so, though possibly at this point her behaviour was subconscious rather than part of a considered plan. Later, with Louise's marriage and removal from court, the Queen would become preoccupied with the thought of losing Beatrice, the last daughter who remained to her. Then all her actions tended to bind Beatrice fast to her side, denying her chances of making friends and expressly prohibiting thoughts of marriage. But even at this early stage, before the Queen had thought of Louise marrying, her course is difficult to excuse. Repeatedly throughout her widowhood she had lamented the lack of a friend of her own
age and sex who could in full measure understand and share her suffering. As in all her dealings with the youngest daughter she loved better than any other of her children, she never countenanced the possibility that Beatrice had similar needs, or appeared to consider that a life without friends was a wretched prospect for a girl already denied so many ordinary pleasures by virtue of her position as the Queen's daughter, surrounded almost exclusively by representatives of an older generation.

Seclusion was forced upon Beatrice: the results are easy to imagine. Encountering Beatrice aged ten at Osborne, in the context of an informal visit, Catherine Paget, an Isle of Wight neighbour and friend of Helena's, found her very quiet, with ‘rather a nervous way of speaking and laughing’.
Despite this, Miss Paget admitted the princess's self-possession. What is remarkable about this assessment of Beatrice's character made at such a young age is that it held good for the remainder of her life, her quiet nervousness the result of her mother's behaviour towards her and the atmosphere in which she grew up, self-possession the corollary of her consciousness of her royal rank.

To seventeen-year-old Victoria of Hesse – that niece whose christening handsome Alexander of Battenberg had attended in 1863 – her grandmother the Queen wrote of the perils of making friends: ‘You are right to be civil and friendly to the young girls you may occasionally meet, and to see them sometimes – but
girl friendships and intimacies are very bad and often lead to great mischief – Grandpapa and I never allowed it.’
Significantly the Queen added, ‘Besides… you are so many of yourselves that you
want no one
else.’ Beatrice was twenty-three by the time this letter was written, the Crown Princess, the Queen's eldest child, forty. Some forty years of motherhood had not altered the Queen's conviction (one perhaps that only an only child can hold) that it is impossible to be lonely within a large family. What the Queen overlooked was that, by the time Beatrice was approaching her teenage years, that large family had shrunk dramatically. With Louise's marriage to the Marquess of lorne in 1871, of the Queen's nine children only two continued to live at home with her full-time, Beatrice and
Leopold. Even so the Queen did not see this as a problem: ‘Beatrice is clever, and most amiable and I am sure in every family a Brother would like to be with his sister,’ she wrote to her youngest son, at the same time forbidding him establishing over-friendly relations with members of the Household, equerries and maids of honour.
Leopold declined to be coerced and courtiers’ diaries record few instances of prince and princess spending time together voluntarily – a game of bezique at Osborne one year, a shared supper alone in Leopold's bedroom the following winter.

Leopold suffered from haemophilia. The illness, with its constant danger of internal bleeding, disqualified him from the boisterousness of much ordinary childish play, necessitating a degree of vigilance and, inevitably, periods in bed suffering, recuperating or resting. But when conditions were right and his mood sanguine, a combination obtained during the Queen's holiday to Switzerland in 1868, Leopold drew pleasure from the company of his youngest sister.

The Queen had taken a
three-quarters of an hour from Lucerne, on a hill overlooking the lake, her purpose to escape the heatwave that held England in its grip. She travelled with Louise, Leopold and Beatrice, Lady Ely, Sir Thomas and Lady Biddulph, Sir William Jenner, Colonel Ponsonby, Leopold's tutor the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, and Beatrice's German governess, Fraulein Bauer. There were expeditions into the countryside, and picnic teas with delicious local blackberry tarts. The Queen was reminded of Scotland. Sadly, the heat that she had journeyed so far to escape had settled over Switzerland, too. With Louise and several attendants, the Queen retreated to a mountain inn, where the conditions were less comfortable but the air more bracing. Beatrice and Leopold remained at the Pension Wallis with Lady Biddulph, Colonel Ponsonby, Duck-worth and Fraulein Bauer. Even the presence of their respective educators did not dampen the children's spirits, and the holiday-within-a-holiday became for both Beatrice and Leopold the high point of their Swiss sojourn. On 28 August Ponsonby wrote to his wife, ‘Upon the “Cats away the Mice will play” principle, we
are going it… Today we went to Alpnacht and then drove to Lungern, had luncheon in a field and rambled in woods, Leopold and Beatrice quite delighted.’

For the most part, Leopold resented Beatrice's special relationship with their mother. He was also devoted to Louise to the extent that he felt no need for close companionship with his younger sister. During one of his bouts of illness, Beatrice wrote to Louise, ‘Mama has gently told dear Leopold that you might perhaps come… and you ought to have seen his look of delight.’
It is characteristic that she stated the fact simply and did not demur from reporting to her absent sister Leopold's compliment. In her tone is no trace of grievance or complaint, only pleasure in Leopold's happy anticipation of Louise's visit. It was not a reaction that Beatrice would ever inspire in her brother.

What brother and sister did share was a love of music. Music would provide one of the chief distractions of Beatrice's lonely second decade, along with her position as aunt of an increasing number of English and Continental nieces and nephews, many of them closer to her in age than her own siblings, and her fondness for animals which, given her circumstances, living in a series of large houses each with an extensive outdoor staff, she was able to indulge fully.

Until her bereavement the Queen had been a regular and enthusiastic visitor to the theatre, the opera and even the circus. She had a particular fondness for the operas of Bellini and saw
Norma, I Puritani
La Somnambula
twenty times each. The singing lessons she began with Italian bass-baritone Luigi Lablache weeks before her seventeenth birthday continued until her pregnancy with Beatrice in 1856. Then the Prince Consort died, and there was no more music and no more singing. But in 1869, the year in which royal servants were at last permitted to discard the black crepe armbands they had worn since December 1861, the Queen resumed playing the piano. She did so not because she derived any pleasure from the activity but for Beatrice's and Leopold's sakes. ‘I do hear more music than I did some time ago,’ she wrote to the Crown Princess in the New Year of 1870, ‘and ever since this autumn have played myself
again, with Beatrice and Leopold – to please them as they read so well at sight and are very fond of it. I am as fond as ever of it when I hear it, but I don't feel any very great enjoyment in listening to it. No that is gone.’
Over time, the habit would reestablish itself, and the Queen presumably resolved the apparent contradiction of being fond of hearing music but not enjoying listening to it, since she mentions that, during her stay at Inverlochy Castle near Fort William in September 1873, she ‘played with Beatrice on the piano’ in the morning and again in the evening of the same day.

Music had been a shared passion for the Queen and Prince Consort; they took it for granted that their children would learn to play the piano and enjoy singing. In both Beatrice's and Leopold's cases, their talent far exceeded the requirements of a polite drawing-room accomplishment. Both read music easily from sight and would progress to master a number of instruments, Leopold playing the piano, flute and harmonium, Beatrice the piano, harmonium and organ. Such was Beatrice's facility at the piano from an early age that her teacher, Mrs Anderson, previously the Queen's music mistress and the same Mrs Anderson to whom Louise in her letter to Arthur had described writing three times a week, suggested to the Queen that Charles Halle give Beatrice more advanced lessons than she was able to do. Halle arrived at Osborne in December 1867 and was rapturously received by Helena, Louise, Leopold and ten-year-old Beatrice, who kept him at the piano for an hour and a half, his next day being taken up with playing duets with Helena. Halle was sufficiently impressed by Beatrice's skills to suggest they play a duet together for the Queen. Master and pupil rehearsed, but when the time came for the recital, Halle swapped the music and presented Beatrice with an unknown piece. Despite her misgivings, Beatrice acquitted herself so ably that the Queen was unaware of Halle's ploy.

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