Read The Last Princess Online

Authors: Matthew Dennison

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

The Last Princess (6 page)

It was David Duff, writing in 1958, who offered an explanation for this point: ‘It was to Beatrice that the Queen ran on the evening of her husband's death, taking her to her own bed and wrapping her in the nightclothes of the man whom she would always mourn.’
17
This ghoulish and richly symbolic turn of events so impressed Duff that he returned to it again in the same book: ‘Taking Beatrice from the cot, [the Queen] hurried to her own bed and there lay sleepless, clasping to her a child, wrapped in
the nightclothes of a man who would wear them no more.’
18

David Duff drew on a number of private recollections, including accounts of Beatrice given to him by two of her children. Perhaps this information came from them, learnt from their mother. But they were not present at Windsor on that cheerless December night, and Beatrice herself could only reliably have remembered those moments had her mother confided them to her at a later date, or had she read the Queen's own account of events before herself destroying it as part of her long task of editing and rewriting the Queen's Journal after her death. All ‘observers’ agree that, whatever course of action the Queen pursued relative to Beatrice, Beatrice herself was not awake to observe it and commit it to memory. What's more, she was only four and a half years old. For the historian she was as effectively excluded from the scene as Eleanor Stanley, absent from the castle, and Mrs Macdonald, left behind in an ante-room, not privy to the secrets of the royal nursery or the Queen's dressing room. The Queen's own account, as it survives, emphasizes her personal agony, not the consolation she received from others, since she was, and would remain, inconsolable: ‘I stood up kissing his dear heavenly forehead and called out in a bitter agonizing cry: “Oh! my dear darling!” and then dropped on my knees in mute distracted despair, unable to utter a word or shed a tear!… Then I laid down on the sofa in the Red Room.’
19

The story of Beatrice wrapped in her father's nightclothes by a Queen too stunned by grief to analyse her actions has become an accepted part of the legend of Queen Victoria's extraordinary mourning. Certainly, the morning after the Prince's death, the Queen, forbidden by her doctors to kiss her dead husband's features or embrace him, kissed instead his clothes. She slept thereafter in the bed they had shared, with his coat over her, according to the Crown Princess, ‘and his dear red dressing gown beside her and some of his clothes in the bed!’
20
‘Sweet little Beatrice comes to lie in my bed every morning which is a great comfort. I long so to cling to and clasp a living being,’ the Queen wrote on 18 December to her eldest daughter.
21
If the Queen resisted wrapping Beatrice in her husband's nightshirt as the bells
tolled their desolate clarion, there is enough here to suggest how the assertion came about – by a process of Chinese whispers or the elision of discrete details into a single happening.

There is also the fact that nothing in the Queen's subsequent conduct renders such behaviour implausible. Queen Victoria shielded none of her children from the elemental force of her grief. Louise at thirteen, Arthur at eleven, Leopold at eight and Beatrice at four were all old enough for full exposure to their mother's agony, though none could have conceived what it meant for a wife to lose a husband, particularly this wife this husband, whom she loved with a mixture of idolatrous adoration and jealous passion. The Queen's ‘poor heart’, she wrote to Lord Palmerston six months later, ‘is pierced and bleeding’.
22
This pitiable spectacle must henceforth be her children's constant study. A month after the Prince died the Queen's eldest grandson celebrated his third birthday; as a present, the Queen sent him a bronze copy of a bust of his lately deceased grandfather by Marochetti, author of the Prince's sarcophagus effigy. Thirty years later she would express concern that a seven-year-old great-granddaughter did not fully appreciate the death of her grandfather: ‘Can poor dear little Alice take it all in? I trust she will never forget her dear GrandPapa.’
23
No one was too young to remember and lament. On the contrary, the innocence of the very young was in itself comforting, ‘for there is something refreshing, in the midst of misery and anguish like mine even, in an innocent little child. Our baby [Beatrice] has that in her which is so soothing…’
24
Beatrice had slept the night her father died. That very sleep gave proof of her innocence, her lack of understanding of events unfolding around her. She had gone to bed her parents’ baby and, in the morning, when only one parent remained, must continue in that role, referred to by the Queen as ‘Baby’ long beyond the close of her nursery years. The torchlight of the Queen's grief had fallen upon her. It would never lift.

In the spring of 1861 the gossipmongers of the courts of Europe
knew
that Queen Victoria was mad: her mind had given way in
an excess of grief following the death of her mother. What they mistook for madness was extreme nervous collapse, exacerbated by the Queen's determination not to be distracted from her sorrow but rather to dwell on it, clasping it to her as a substitute for the loved one she had lost. In the Queen's emotional life were no half-measures: she mourned as she loved, possessively and energetically. At the death of the Prince Consort, the mourning overtures heard nine months earlier for the Duchess of Kent reached a climax. They found an echo in the poetry of Tennyson. Writing to her eldest daughter, the Queen quoted from ‘In Memoriam’: ‘“O Sorrow, wilt thou live with me/No casual mistress, but a wife,/My bosom-friend and half of life,/As I confess it needs must be… “This is what I feel; yes, I long for my suffering almost – as it is blinded with him!’
25

The Queen met the poet on Beatrice's fifth birthday and took the opportunity of telling him how much she had been comforted by ‘In Memoriam’. Afterwards Beatrice also met Tennyson, in company with her sister Alice, and turned upon him what his wife described as a ‘pondering, puzzled, horrified gaze’,
26
perhaps disconcerted by some dishevelment in the poet's appearance or peculiarity of expression. The Queen was not mad, but the compass of her thoughts, enlarged by the Prince in life, at his death shrank to a single focus. This all-absorbing subject – the Prince sanctified by premature death – came to dominate the Queen's relationship with her youngest daughter. Nothing must distract her from her sorrow. Grown-up children had a way of obfuscating what mattered in a welter of lesser concerns and of losing sight of the Queen's suffering in the maelstrom of their own affairs. Only Beatrice was young enough to surrender wholeheartedly to a single obsession. And so, given no choice in the matter, she put on the nightshirt of her mother's ‘paroxysms of despair and yearning and longing and of daily, nightly longing to die’,
27
and embarked on the career as comforter that was hers by default. She would embrace that career with a single-minded devotion that never faltered. Her life henceforth was one of sacrifices, but one rewarded with the benison of her mother's sincere and often-expressed adoration.

FOUR

‘The bright spot in this dead home’

On 4 July 1865, Lewis Carroll gave Alice Liddell the first presentation copy of
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
The second copy he sent to Princess Beatrice.

Sir John Tenniel's Alice illustrations depict a spidery mid-Victorian girl with pretty eyes and blonde hair. As the Queen's line-drawing of her youngest daughter clasping her baby nephew William of Prussia shows, the young Princess Beatrice resembled that girl. She shared the fine features of her sisters Alice and Louise, only later succumbing to the Queen's heavier, more rounded physiognomy, which Helena and the Crown Princess had inherited. Her hair, which she wore loose, was of a rich strawberry blonde that the Queen was at pains to capture accurately in the numerous watercolour sketches she made of her. Despite being expected to spend much of her time outside the nursery sedentary at her mother's side, Beatrice retained for the moment her fairy-like, Alice-like grace in motion and a definitely childish restlessness and excess of energy. As the Queen recorded on 2 June 1865, ‘Baby's liveliness and fidgetyness was beyond everything, and she ended by throwing all the milk over herself – an unusually waspish tone for the Queen to adopt in relation to this adored youngest child.
1

The Queen, we know, was fond of pretty children. ‘The happy time is when children are six to five and three years old,’ she declared, decided in this as in all her tastes.
2
Her pleasure was increased if, added to good looks, the child was well behaved. To her uncle Leopold the summer before Beatrice's birth, she had described Prince Arthur, her favourite of her children: ‘… he is not only so lovely and engaging, but so sensible and clever
and such a very good little Child – that it is a delight to have him with you.’
3
The Queen took the same delight in Beatrice, and for the same reasons. The ‘darling little baby’ of whom, at four months old, she had written to Princess Augusta of Prussia was already by her first birthday ‘a great beauty’.
4
Remembering her fifth birthday twenty years later, Tennyson described her as ‘a fair-haired child whom it was a pleasure to look upon’.
5
For her mother she would remain specially pleasing throughout her life.

Shortly after Beatrice's fifth birthday, the Queen wrote to the Crown Princess, ‘Dearest Baby is the bright spot in this dead home.’
6
Overwhelmingly, the Queen regarded the Prince Consort's death in terms of its effect on herself. She lamented the Prince's loss to the country and deeply regretted for her children's sake the removal of a paragon among fathers, but the devastation was chiefly her own. No one else could fully comprehend her suffering, nor could any third person moderate the acuteness of her misery. As Queen her burden was one of lonely eminence; widowhood redoubled that loneliness. In her deep unhappiness, the Queen turned not towards her children – whose sorrow she could only acknowledge as secondary to her own – but away from them. Struggling to come to terms with their own bereavement, they in turn were predictably wrong-footed by their mother's attitude. They learnt that to say nothing was safer than saying what was wrong, and so homes that should have been cheered by the presence of a large family took on instead an eerie quiet; no laughter rent the shadows. Only Beatrice, too young for nuances, continued to behave with spontaneity and naturalness. Happily for her, her childish giggle was not irksome to the Queen, though even she learnt quickly to stop asking where her father was.

In her response to the death of her husband, as in all things, the Queen was a woman of contradictions. She wished to hear from her children that they missed their father as she missed him, though she denied that this was possible. She wanted them to support her in her terrible grief, but repeatedly asserted that no one could support her. With their father dead, she craved all
their love for herself, as if being loved wholeheartedly by nine children would fill the void left by the removal of that single, quite different sort of love – though she knew that it could not. She demanded their feelings fall into the line she had determined on for them, but felt her authority dissipated by the death of him on whom she had relied in everything, so that she was herself reduced to the status of ‘a deserted child’.
7
Her implicit insistence to all her children was that they idealize their father, though, as she admitted to her eldest daughter, she missed the physical love of the Prince as much as his finer feelings.

‘I do not want to feel better. I love to dwell on her… and not to be roused out of my grief,’ the Queen had written after her mother's death.
8
So, too, she felt at the death of the Prince Consort. Her grief had about it an orgiastic quality, as if she delighted in the deep black borders to her writing paper, the widow's cap she had adopted, described by Beatrice as her ‘sad cap’, her shattered nerves, racing pulse (‘constantly’, she boasted, ‘between 90 and 100 instead of being at
74!’
9
),
and weak limbs. Throughout her life, at moments of high distress the Queen lost the use of her legs. The Prince Consort had carried her from her mother's deathbed; later, in 1871, threatened by republicans and feeling herself hounded from all sides, the Queen would again find herself unable to walk; without the Prince, John Brown carried her.

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