Read The Last Princess Online

Authors: Matthew Dennison

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

The Last Princess (3 page)

Though a lifelong favourite of the Queen's, the Crown Prince did not inspire such a eulogy on this occasion, overshadowed by his imperial counterpart. Fritz of Prussia and the Princess Royal were two of baby Beatrice's three sponsors (the third was her maternal grandmother, the Duchess of Kent); the Queen would later remind the Princess Royal, then married and living in Germany as Crown Princess, that she had forgotten to send Beatrice a christening present.

The Duchess of Gloucester was dead but not forgotten, her name included among those of the great-niece she never met who, like her, would become the last survivor of a large family. Queen Victoria's elder half-sister Feodore was remembered, too ('Feodore’, the Queen once announced, ‘is a dear name which I love to see repeated’
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) – as were the Queen herself, her mother and her first-born daughter, all three Victorias. ‘Beatrice’ was the only surprise among the infant's names, associated with England's Plantagenet monarchs and perhaps, for the thoughtful, artistic Prince Albert, with the poetry of Dante, the romance of Dante and his Beatrice being a popular subject among contemporary artists both at home and abroad. Nine days after Beatrice's christening the Queen created Prince Albert Prince Consort by letters patent, thereby plucking from the royal couple's side a thorn of long standing concerning the Prince's rank and title. For her part, the Queen received for her pains ‘a lovely lilac silk peignoir, trimmed with guipure lace’,
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a present from the Empress Eugenie of France, the very thing with which to celebrate the end – for the final time – of her ‘degraded’ physical condition. If the Prince felt vindicated by his wife's official affirmation of her reliance upon him in her public as well as her private life, the Queen felt only happiness. No nervous indisposition followed her daughter's birth. On the contrary, she was embarking on what she would afterwards recall with pride and pleasure as an epoch of ‘progress’.
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The Queen removed to her seaside retreat of Osborne to recover fully, but was back in London in June, faithful to her
self-imposed rule that the lying-in period not exceed six weeks. That month she and Dr John Snow encountered one another under more decorous circumstances, at a palace levee for leading men of the day. The following year, aged only forty-five, Snow died. Neither doctor nor anaesthetic was forgotten by the Queen, who in 1859 wrote to a friend to congratulate her on the birth of her first daughter: ‘The Queen is very glad to hear that Minnie is going on so well
&C
had the inestimable blessing of chloroform wh[ich] no one can ever be sufficiently grateful for.’
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Almost two decades after the birth of her first child, Queen Victoria's
‘nombreuse famille’
was complete. Its dissolution was imminent. On 29 June the palace announced the engagement of the Princess Royal to Frederick William, Crown Prince of Prussia. Beatrice's eldest sister would be married within less than a year of the last princess's birth.

TWO

‘The most amusing baby
we have had’

It was not a family to enter lightly. The Queen disliked babies, abhorred breastfeeding (a practice then growing in popularity among upper-class women) and, herself the only child of a widowed mother, with few girlhood friends of her own age, felt ill at ease with children, her own included. ‘I have grown up all alone,’ she would remember when Beatrice was two; ‘accustomed to the society of adults (and never with younger people).’
1
Added to this, in her role of mother, as in every role she embraced, she was indissolubly Queen too, writing to one grown-up daughter in years to come that she expected ‘that
confidence
and
consideration
which are due to me both as a mother and as the Sovereign’.
2
For Queen Victoria, although a constitutional monarch, central to the role of Queen was an instinct for government. The year after Beatrice's birth Lord Clarendon quoted the opinion of a Prussian courtier: ‘The Queen is really insane about her maternal authority.’
3
None of the Queen's children ever fully escaped her vigilance and her sphere of control. Even marriage offered limited respite, as the Prince of Wales discovered: ‘Much talk in London about the extraordinary way in which the Queen undertakes to direct the Prince and Princess of Wales in every detail of their lives… A daily and minute report of what passes at Marlborough House [the Waleses’ London home] is sent to [her],’ Lord Stanley reported. It was June 1863; the Prince of Wales was rising twenty-two.
4

‘It is indeed a pity that you find no consolation in the company of your children,’ Prince Albert wrote to his wife, in one of those careful, measured missives that were his chosen channel of correction when an outburst of the Queen's temper threatened
to overwhelm them both. ‘The root of the trouble lies in the mistaken notion that the function of a mother is to be always correcting, scolding, ordering them about and organizing their activities. It is not possible to be on happy friendly terms with people you have just been scolding.’
5

The Queen was not uninterested in children. She once puzzled over a lady-in-waiting's letter to discover whether or not the baby under discussion had yet been weaned,
6
and was delighted to hear that a great-grandson had been weaned early ‘as it is such a big Child I hear’;
7
and she was able to take pride in her babies as physical specimens: ‘The Queen pleased with Her grandchildren but convinced that Her own [children] were prettier,’ Lady Augusta Bruce wrote to her sister in July i86 0 of the Queen's encounter with her two eldest grandchildren, eighteen-month-old Prince William of Prussia and his baby sister Charlotte. It was simply that for the Queen children did not provide companionship; they had, she felt, ‘to be kept in order and therefore must not become too intimate’.
8
She did not recognize that constant checks and an insistence on order in themselves precluded intimacy, and was at a loss to alter her approach. Only for Beatrice would exceptions be made and the princess become, too young, intimate, friend, confidante and object of devotion. But by then circumstances had irrevocably changed.

‘You are very wrong in thinking that I am not fond of children,’ the Queen wrote to the Crown Princess, ‘I admire pretty ones immensely.’
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From birth Beatrice was gifted with an unarguable head start in her mother's eyes: she was an attractive baby with a healthy appetite and robust constitution, ‘a pretty, plump, flourishing child… with fine large blue eyes, pretty little mouth and very fine skin’.
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To this she added liveliness and the winning disposition that, throughout infancy, would earn her licences inconceivable to her elder siblings. She is ‘a darling little baby’, the Queen wrote with maternal pride to Princess Augusta of Prussia, ‘so fat, with a skin like satin, great blue eyes and the tiniest little mouth you can imagine; and besides she is so lively and good-tempered’.
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Her eldest sister agreed: ‘Quite the prettiest of us all, she is like a little fairy.’
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Such prettiness could not pass unrecorded. On 28 October, the Queen visited Upton Park, near Slough, home to the artist E. M. Ward and his wife Henrietta. She admired Mrs Ward's sketches of the Wards’ children. On the following day private secretary Charles Grey wrote on the Queen's behalf to request from Mrs Ward ‘a similar sketch of the youngest Princess’.
13
The resulting small image is not endearing: the large-eyed baby lies with a doll at her feet in front of an open window, contending only partially successfully for the viewer's attention with a stiff curtain and the plump cushion against which she rests her head. Evidently the Queen was pleased, however: the painting hung in her dressing room at Windsor Castle, and Mrs Ward's skills were shortly exploited again for a picture of the seven-month-old princess in the arms of Mary Ann Thurston, the young widow who, in 1844, had embarked on a tenure of more than two decades as much-loved nurse to the royal children.

The following year sculptress Mary Thornycroft was commissioned to carve a marble image of Princess Beatrice reclining in a nautilus shell. This was among the Queen's Christmas presents from the Prince Consort. It completed the series of statues of the Queen's children Mrs Thornycroft had undertaken since the 1840s, and stood with them in the drawing room at Osborne, one of several markers of that house's explicit role as family home rather than official residence. In the same year, with Beatrice approaching her first birthday, the Queen began to fret that Winterhalter, who had so successfully and so exhaustively charted her burgeoning dynasty, would be prevented by absence abroad from recording this last lovely addition to her brood:
‘la petite Princesse Beatrice qui est si jolie’,
as she wrote to the errant portraitist.
14
But Winterhalter did not desert the Queen. On her fortieth birthday, in 1859, the Prince Consort was able to present his wife with a circular portrait of the golden-haired princess wearing a string of fat beads and a mauve dress. Never one to trust to chance, at the same time the Queen had commissioned from Winterhalter another picture of her own, an engagingly mischievous image of Beatrice in a pink dress wearing an Arab headdress and holding an exotically costumed doll. Since this
image was a sketch rather than a finished portrait, Winterhalter received only £20 for his pains, half the sum the Prince Consort had paid him, but the Queen was sufficiently pleased to hang it in her bedroom at Buckingham Palace. For Albert's birthday the same year she repaid like with like, presenting him with a full-length portrait of Beatrice by John Calcott Horsley. A lesser practitioner than his German counterpart, Horsley, whose public opposition to painting the nude earned him the nickname ‘Clothes’ Horsley, was an appropriately ‘moral’ choice to paint the infant princess.

The much-painted Beatrice was fifteen months old when her nearest brother Prince Leopold wrote to his father: ‘Baby makes such a noise, and when I am sitting opposite to Baby on the left side of the carriage, she kicks me and she goes on saying oogly oogly.’
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Within weeks Leopold wrote again: Beatrice was still kicking but by then had started to walk. Fairy-like in appearance she may have been, but her instincts were those of a very human child. The Crown Princess was absent from her first birthday party but sent presents in the form of a rose-shaped brooch set with coloured stones and a toy lamb. Both were placed on the table of presents arranged for the infant, at the centre of which was a large ‘B’ made of flowers. ‘Her table of birthday gifts has given her the greatest pleasure,’ the Prince Consort wrote to his daughter, ‘especially the lamb.’
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From the first Beatrice was bright, precocious and able to charm. The Prince Consort described her to his mentor Baron Stockmar as ‘an extremely attractive, pretty, intelligent child – indeed the most amusing baby we have had’,
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a view with which all who encountered her concurred. The Queen even went so far as to take pleasure in Beatrice's bathtime, a daily event in which she had seldom joined (in several cases she had
never
involved herself with bathtime), for Vicky, now eighteen and married, Bertie, seventeen, Alice, fifteen, Alfred ('Affie'), fourteen, Helena ('Lenchen'), twelve, Louise, ten, Arthur, eight, or Leopold, five.

For both her parents Beatrice was different from her siblings. Despite the fear she had expressed to Sir James Clark in 1856, the Queen accepted only reluctantly that there must never be a
tenth baby in the royal nurseries. Torrent-like, she expended on Beatrice all the maternal affection of which her nature was capable. For the Prince Consort, Beatrice's timely arrival went some way to filling what he described as the void in his heart caused by the removal to Berlin of the Princess Royal, the child who most closely resembled him. Repeatedly his letters to his married daughter related Beatrice's winsome antics and her comical sayings, a narrative free from censure, ardent only in affection. Once, the Queen had praised her husband's skill as a father, singling out his ability to combine kindness with firm management. Where Beatrice was concerned, kindness prevailed. ‘I was very naughty last night. I would not speak to Papa, but it doesn't signify much,’ boasted the three-year-old princess – a statement it is hard to imagine her eldest brother Bertie ever uttering.
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