Read The Last Princess Online

Authors: Matthew Dennison

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

The Last Princess (7 page)

Year after year, the anniversary of the Prince's death stimulated his children haplessly to say the wrong things to their mother. On 19 December 1863, the Queen replied to the Crown Princess: ‘You say how you wish to console and comfort and assist me. Dearest child – the only, only way is by trying to soothe, and weep as it were with me, not by trying to divert me from the one beloved object.’
Beatrice was by then six years old; already she had spent a third of her life under the shadow of her mother's grief. Unlike the eldest of her siblings she was too young to offer the Queen vain attempts at consolation, and so avoided those reproaches which in other cases threatened to sour relations between mother and child. Beatrice comforted her mother more simply, without any appeal to reason or good sense but straight-forwardly,
as one would tend a suffering child, soothing and kissing her. Every morning, Augusta Bruce recorded, ‘Princess Beatrice spends an hour with Her, and is in agonies when She sees Her cry. “Dear Darling” as She calls Her, hugging and kissing Her so tenderly.’
In these morning encounters the roles of mother and child were reversed, Beatrice embarking on her long schooling in the self-denial that ultimately would appear to the outside world her principal characteristic. Once she had been encouraged to show off, her funny, clever ways applauded by family and courtiers alike. Now, though as yet she remained that precocious little girl, she was learning to subsume herself in her mother's concerns, responding rather than initiating, the active giving way to the passive.

It is possible that the Queen did not speak directly to Beatrice of her sorrow at all, but simply found in her a willing, kindly listener to an inexhaustible fund of stories about the Prince. Undoubtedly, Beatrice retained the ability to divert the Queen with her disarming pertness and childishly lopsided logic, which even in the darkest days still gave rise to intermittent laughter. On the Queen's part, she recognized that her delight in Beatrice was a permissible distraction for one whose life had become a waking death: the Prince had loved Baby and revelled in her ways, no guilt could attach to his widow's deriving similar pleasure. She instructed Helena to write to the Crown Princess relating Beatrice's funnier sayings. But the Queen's emotional well-being required more than the stimulus of a child's comical antics or the balm of her morning kisses, while Beatrice's development could not proceed along normal lines so long as her time was divided between the company of a mother overwhelmed by unhappiness and periods alone in the schoolroom. The Queen required adult solace, Beatrice the company of children and an atmosphere that embraced the present as well as the past. Neither requirement would be satisfied.

The Queen seems scarcely to have been aware of the needs of her youngest daughter – oddly, given that she herself had grown up fatherless and frequently lonely and unhappy. She was sunk so deep in self-absorption that she could acknowledge nothing
beyond the demands of her suffering, her constant refrain that the extent of that suffering be recognized by others. She could not endure in silence and had no intention of sorrowing in solitude. Her family, her household, her ministers, her country—all must share her titanic grief. The Prince was irreplaceable and her children were no substitute, but this was no reason why one of them should not step into the breach at the Queen's side and help her shoulder her unmanageable burden. A daughter would be preferable to a son. Quickly the Queen remembered that it had always been the Prince's intention that one of their daughters remain at home to help her. As she wrote to the Crown Princess -married and living in Germany, off the hook both on account of distance and her ‘great and high’ position, the Queen being a respecter of thrones – ‘I must never, during the few… years still remaining, be left without one of you – and with five daughters this will be quite easy. Dear Papa said so himself.’

With the Crown Princess safely out of reach, Alice was next in line. She had nursed her father with unflinching selflessness and afterwards, sleeping in the same room as her mother, maintained a nightly vigil that probably saved the Queen from complete nervous collapse. Alice was engaged, but her fiance, Louis of Hesse, until he inherited the Grand Duchy of Hesse was a princeling of limited consequence. In the first years of their marriage, Alice and Louis's responsibilities in Germany would be trifling compared with the Queen's need for day-long secretarial assistance and sympathetic hand-holding. They then must live with the Queen. There could be no room for argument. The Queen had decided as early as December i860 that Louis did ‘not [have] any duties to detain him much at home at present’
and thus no reasonable grounds for objection.

When Louis became Grand Duke, Alice would leave her mother. Into her place would step Helena, or Louise. Or even, in due course, Beatrice. ‘As long as life remains in this shattered body, it will be devoted to her children and her country,’ the Queen promised her Prime Minister Lord Palmerston in May 1862.
In truth, she expected her children to devote themselves to her, and her country to exercise tolerance and understanding.

Alice did not remain with her mother. She was married on i July 1862 and Beatrice saw the family circle diminish further. The Queen did not miss her second daughter unduly: ‘Much as she has been to me… and dear and precious as a comfort and an assistance, I hardly miss her at all, or felt her going – so utterly alone am I.’
The Queen had three daughters remaining. She had in fact already decided that Helena, ‘Lenchen', not Alice was her ideal helpmeet; to Uncle Leopold she commended Lenchen's usefulness and the manner in which ‘her whole character [was] so well adapted to live in the house’.
For the moment Alice and the Queen, between whom good relations would gradually deteriorate, continued on cosy terms. Alice used her parents as the model for the upbringing of her own children and in time wrote to her mother, ‘I try to copy as much as is in my power all those things for my children that they may have an idea when I speak to them of it what a happy home ours was. I do feel so much for dear Beatrice and the other younger ones who had so much less of it than we had.’
Alice must have known of Beatrice's morning visits to her mother. Perhaps she would grow to feel uneasy at leaving behind her youngest sister to her mournful fate.

Just how much less of that ‘happy home’ Beatrice had than her elder siblings was immediately obvious to William Leighton Leitch, visiting Balmoral the summer after the Prince Consort's death. Leitch had been summoned to give painting lessons to Helena, Louise, Arthur and Leopold (Beatrice was still too young for watercolours). H e was an old familiar of the Royal Family's and had spent three weeks at Balmoral the previous autumn teaching the Queen and her daughters. T o his wife he described the wholesale changes he found at the castle:

Everything was quiet and still. How different from my first visit here – the joyous bustle in the morning when the Prince went out: the Highland ponies and dogs; the ghillies and the pipers. Then the coming home – the Queen and her ladies going out to meet them, and the merry time afterwards; the torch-lit sword-dances on the green and the servants’ ball closing the day. Now all was gone with him who was the life and soul of it all.

The Queen would resume drawing lessons in 1863, then managing even to chat and occasionally laugh ‘at the little difficulties and drawbacks’,
but for the first widowed summer there would be no such distractions. With a heavy heart the Queen had made it through Alice's wedding, a small, decidedly funereal affair in the dining room at Osborne. Beatrice was a bridesmaid, a source of some excitement, but even Baby enjoying herself in her finery could not rouse the Queen. ‘It was a terrible moment for me,’ she confided to her Journal.
It would not be a happy summer.

The following spring came another wedding, that of the Prince of Wales to Princess Alexandra of Denmark. The Queen had wished initially that the service would take place on her own wedding anniversary, but objections were raised and the date was fixed for a month later, 10 March, at St George's Chapel, Windsor. Mourning was temporarily lifted, with the exception of ‘the Ladies of Her Majesty's Household, who must be in grey, lilac or mauve’, according to a memorandum sent to the Lord Chamberlain's office;
the Queen's unmarried daughters, who wore white with mauve ribbons and carried mauve and white wreaths; and the Queen herself, who remained in inkiest black and witnessed the ceremony from the partial seclusion of the Chapel's Royal Closet. Her distance from prying eyes did not serve to increase her enjoyment of the service – her only pleasure was in watching her adored Beatrice. ‘When the procession entered’, she wrote in her Journal, ‘and our five fatherless children (the three girls and two little boys) came into view, the latter without either parent (at Vicky's wedding, they walked before, behind and near me), I felt terribly overcome. I could not take my eyes off precious little Baby, with her golden hair and large nosegay, and smiled at her as she made a beautiful curtsey …’
The princess's appearance struck another less-than-impartial witness, Lady Augusta Bruce: ‘You may suppose’, she wrote affectionately, ‘what a person [Beatrice] looked like with the wreaths, long silk stockings and gigantic bouquet.’
At the entry of the Prince of Wales, the Crown Princess burst into tears, followed by Princess Alice, then Princess Beatrice, who was still so short compared with her full-grown sisters that when the
princesses came to kneel for the prayers, ‘all that could be seen of [her] was a cloud of golden hair behind the altar rails,’ according to eyewitness Mary Stanley.
Afterwards, cross-examined on the cause of her tears, Beatrice was unable to provide any explanation, but responded with characteristically vigorous indignation to ‘the idea of its being because she saw the others weep!’
The Prince and Princess exchanged vows and up welled the chorale composed by the Prince Consort before his death, its solemn notes threatening further tears on the part of the bridegroom's family. Clear among the voices rose that of ‘Swedish nightingale’ Jenny Lind, the opera singer the Queen and Prince had heard first the year before Beatrice's birth in the Festhalle in Bonn.

When the service was over, the Queen did not attend the family luncheon for thirty-eight. She lunched quietly with Beatrice and the widow of the Prince of Wales's governor General Bruce. Her mood was coloured by the inevitable sorrowful memories of her own wedding day, Bertie's new-found happiness an unnecessary reminder of what she had lost. It is not difficult to imagine the verdict on weddings shaping in Beatrice's mind.

The Queen had commissioned William Powell Frith, chronicler par excellence of the mid-Victorian pageant, to paint the Prince's marriage ceremony. Much of Frith's work was undertaken at Windsor after the event, including, as the Queen noted in her Journal for 8 April 1863, ‘Photographing of the girls and Baby for Mr Frith's wedding picture.’ Significantly, Beatrice already merits special mention: it is not enough that she be included within ‘girls’ alongside the Queen's other unmarried daughters, Helena and Louise. Perhaps Beatrice's status as ‘Baby’ defied attributions of gender; she was outside all that, which was part of her charm for the Queen: not a girl but ‘Baby’. Certainly in years to come the Queen would determinedly attempt to deny any attainment of sexual maturity on Beatrice's part. She would continue, too, to refer to her last baby in terms that marked her as distinctive and special – and cut off from her siblings.

Frith was working on likenesses of Helena and Louise when
Beatrice first encountered him. She burst into his temporary studio in the company of her new sister-in-law the Princess of Wales, the Crown Prince and Princess and her nephew William. The atmosphere of businesslike calm was shattered – ‘of all the rows! those children shouting, laughing and romping with the Princesses’.
When the noise subsided, the artist asked six-year-old Beatrice if she would not have liked to be one of Alexandra's bridesmaids. ‘Oh, no,’ she replied. ‘I don't like weddings at all. I shall never be married. I shall stay with mother.’

The Prince Consort had been dead less than a year and a half. The previous summer, for the first and last time, Beatrice had been a bridesmaid, an excitement in a young girl's life. By the time of her brother's wedding that excitement was forgotten, confused by a growing apprehension that weddings were not necessarily happy events. Fifteen months’ exposure to her mother's sorrow had begun already to change the last princess, her outlook distorted by a woman whose principal achievement to date was a resoundingly happy marriage.


‘Beatrice is quite well’

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