Read The Last Princess Online

Authors: Matthew Dennison

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

The Last Princess (8 page)

Three of the ten Maori chiefs whose meeting at Osborne with Queen Victoria, Princess Helena, Prince Leopold and Princess Beatrice was reported in the
Australian and New Zealand Gazette
of 17 July 1863 were accompanied by their wives. The exotic appearance of the deputation of thirteen from one of their mother's furthest colonies impressed the royal children. Dusky-skinned, the Maoris were tattooed, they wore flax cloaks far removed from the customary dress of Queen Victoria's court, feathers in their hair and shark's-tooth and greenstone earrings.

The Queen received them in the Council Room, where they kissed her hand, and monarch and chiefs spoke through an interpreter. Even barriers of language and culture could not disguise from her visitors the Queen's continuing sorrow. Afterwards, from London, one of the chiefs, Kissling te Tuaha, wrote to the Queen: ‘Your Majesty the Queen, I salute you and your children, who are widowed and orphans through the death of Prince Albert. It is well, your Majesty; he has gone to God's right hand. Pray rather, your Majesty, for those who are in the world.’

It was always the same: the Prince Consort, though no longer present, was never entirely absent; the thought of him occupied the Queen's waking day and her sleepless nights. Her children accepted it as so. They could have told Kissling te Tuaha that their mother would ignore his injunction to pray ‘rather… for those who are in the world’.

The previous autumn, Beatrice had travelled abroad for the first time She accompanied her mother and siblings first to Belgium, where in the presence of King Leopold the Queen had been introduced to Princess Alexandra of Denmark and approved
her as a bride for the Prince of Wales, and then, with the Queen's half-sister Feodora in tow, to Coburg and the Prince Consort's birthplace. It was not a holiday. The Queen had combined state business (the choice of a future queen consort) with fidelity to family ties (meeting Feodora, who she hoped at this point would come and live with her, two widows together, united in sorrow and memories of the past). Her journey was also a widow's pilgrimage: she revisited the hunting lodge of Reinhardtsbrunn in the Thuringian forest, ‘one of the most beautiful spots imaginable’,
where, on 27 August 1845, she and Prince Albert had rested a night. In 1863, after the meeting with the Maoris, the Queen and Beatrice were once more in Germany, visiting the married Princess Alice at her ancient, tree-girt castle of Kranichstein, and afterwards journeying to the Rosenau, the house in which the Prince Consort had been born. On a terrace at the Rosenau, Beatrice was painted by German portraitist Richard Lauchert: turning towards the viewer, she holds in both hands a miniature of her deceased father. Lauchert's is the prettiest image of the princess ever painted: she wears a flounced white lace dress, fleetingly out of mourning save for the dark ribbon in her tumbling hair. The Queen thought it ‘lovely and so like’, but disliked the background, the sky ‘a leaden, lilacy blue – with no white clouds’, which would ‘not match with the fine turquoise-blue skies darling Papa made Winterhalter paint into our family pictures’.
Since the Prince's death the sun no longer shone even as a backdrop to children's portraits, a symbolic example of art imitating life.

Beatrice returned to Coburg with her mother two years later, in 1865, this time with all eight of her siblings. The Queen's purpose was to unveil a statue of the Prince Consort in the town's marketplace and for once she did not quash municipal plans for a day of pageantry and splendour. What followed was an impressive and colourful spectacle for the eight-year-old Beatrice, but one that as ever gave rise to mournful thoughts on the part of the princess's constant companion, her mother. Beatrice would have to wait another twenty years, until she herself was married, before being able to make any equation of travel and simple
pleasure. For now, like so much else in her life, it was chiefly a compound of family piety and duty.

Alone in Beatrice's life her education proceeded much as it would have done had the Prince not died. Certainly she was overseen by one not two parents, and the Queen took to interrupting schoolroom hours as she had never done with her older children, but the educational regime followed by the princess, under the overall control of Lady Car, was essentially that pursued by all the Queen's children, ‘from its earliest beginnings a truly moral and a truly
[education]’, as its author Baron Stockmar described it.

That ‘English’ education included lessons in French, under Mademoiselle Norele, and German with Fraulein Ottilie Bauer, a relation of Stockmar's remembered by one (non-royal) pupil as a ‘dried-up, withered little lady’
Fraulein Bauer, referred to by the Queen and her children as ‘Bauerlein’, remained part of the household beyond Beatrice's schoolroom days, later assuming the role of Reader to the Queen's Household. English itself was in the hands of Miss Hildyard, ‘Tilla’. History was both taught and absorbed on visits to sites of particular historic interest, such as the Tower of London. In a letter of 14 May 1868, ‘The Princess Beatrice thanks Lord De Ros very much for sending his interesting account of the Tower of London,’ which served as a pleasant recollection of her visit there.
Four years later, in Edinburgh with the Queen, Beatrice was taken on a tour of the palace of Holyrood House and its ruined abbey by Duncan Anderson, Keeper of the Chapel Royal.

On the earlier occasion, the sloping italic hand that thanked Lord De Ros was precise and extremely neat, written on widely spaced lines that may have been assisted by a ruler. Though encouraged to express herself on paper from an early age, Beatrice was not taught this particular script until after her seventh birthday, the Hon. Mrs Bruce writing to the Dean of Westminster, Dr Stanley, in the autumn of 1864, ‘Princess Beatrice… has at last begun her long-delayed writing lessons, but struck work the other day after making a long line of the letter P. “It is so difficult
to make their stomachs.” Not a bad idea…’
From this point onwards, for the remainder of her life, Beatrice wrote clearly and legibly, in marked contrast to her mother, whose amanuensis she was to become, and almost all her siblings. Her spelling, too, was consistently accurate, more so than the Queen's, though like all children she got off to an uncertain start. Lady Augusta Bruce, known to the princess as ‘Guska’ or ‘Oguska’, remembered an early attempt at letter-writing on the family trip to Coburg in October 1862:

Princess Beatrice has bestowed a good deal of her company on us during these rainy days. Yesterday she was established writing on ‘silk paper’, having bespoken ‘a nice little large silk envelope’, when the footman came in to summon me to the Queen. You should have seen the look with which she turned round and with withering contempt exclaimed
They might have known she was writing to Oguska, because she put a big O!

Aged only three, the princess had written to her father to congratulate him on his birthday, composing her letter with the help of Lady Car. Aged five, on her first holiday abroad, she wrote to a favourite lady-in-waiting, who was also of the party. Aged eleven, she wrote to Lord De Ros in the third person, a formal, already recognizably royal letter of a sort she would repeat hundreds of times. Queen Victoria was a passionate letter-writer and required that all her children share her habit. Princess Louise apologized to Prince Arthur in 1862, ‘So you see, dear Arthur, how little time I have to write.’ In addition to letters to her brother, Louise had to write to ‘Mr Ogg twice a week, the Dean twice a week, and Mrs Anderson three times a week’
the royal siblings were respectively fourteen and twelve. From infancy Beatrice acquired the family habit, and found it easy and natural to express herself on paper. It would prove a useful skill. As early as 1872, when she was fifteen, she began writing letters on the Queen's behalf, in the first instance from the Queen to her cousin Princess Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck. With the passage of years further correspondents would be added, alongside new
relations acquired by marriage and, eventually, friends of her own.

By then Beatrice had grown into the helper Queen Victoria required: quiet, attentive, unquestioning in her devotion and support. The transformation came about gradually. In January 1864 the Prince Consort had been dead two years. Lady Car wrote to Eleanor Stanley from Osborne describing what at that point was still a characteristic Beatrice incident. ‘The draughts all over the house are not to be described; the German governess asked Princess Beatrice the other day what windows were made for? “To let in
” was her immediate reply, and a more exact description of the Osborne windows there could not be.’
In the same year, the Princess of Wales's lady-in-waiting Lady Macclesfield encountered the younger royal children at Windsor. She was unimpressed by Beatrice, whom she considered petted and spoilt. On that occasion Beatrice announced to Lady Macclesfield that the Queen had decided on the names ‘Albert Victor’ for the Prince and Princess of Wales's newborn eldest son. The Prince had yet to speak to the Queen about the matter, and his subsequent annoyance at Beatrice's prattle may have coloured Lady Macclesfield's recollection of his youngest sister. Incidents of this sort would later proliferate, Beatrice usually cast in the role of hapless bearer of bad news from sovereign to estranged heir. The long-term result, predictably, was a remote, unsatisfactory relationship between the Queen's eldest son and youngest daughter.

‘I had such a funny thought today, just for my own amusement,’ Beatrice confided to Lady Augusta Bruce shortly after the death of the Prince Consort, ‘but it turned out an improper thought so I would not let it think.’ ‘No doubt’, wrote Lady Augusta, ‘the poor child was going to play or some such diversion which didn't suit a house in mourning.’
At the outset of the Queen's protracted bereavement, Beatrice understood no more than the inappropriateness of herself feeling happy while her mother suffered. Too young to grapple with complex adult emotions, she trained herself simply in denial. If there is pathos in her statement, it was lost on the Queen. Beatrice expressed
herself straightforwardly to Lady Augusta, whom she had known all her life and regarded as a friend, an artless confidence bestowed by a bewildered child on an alternative mother figure. As time passed, the bright, ebullient child of the Prince Consort's final years would be revealed in such passing snapshots only to her family and a small group of old familiars with increasing infrequency.

It is easy for the biographer to enmire in black crepe those years of Beatrice's childhood following the Prince Consort's death. To do so is to illuminate only half the picture. Aged four and a half at the time of her father's death, after the initial surprise Beatrice would not ordinarily have missed him unduly; her nurse Mrs Thurston noted that she hardly mentioned him. She was a robust, high-spirited, tomboyish child. During the awful summer of 1862 she shut her governess into Prince Arthur's fort at the Swiss Cottage and roared with laughter as that enterprising instructress pretended to be a dog in a kennel and barked at her royal charge. To Augusta Bruce, Beatrice wrote, ‘I have a broose on the side of my nee… What fun to tumble on the floor did you mind it.’
Like her brothers and sisters before her, Beatrice had begun to learn to ride as a tiny tot, taking her first lesson on her second birthday at Osborne. At Balmoral the Queen and Princess Alice rode out with her, moderating their speed to the sedate amble of her pony Tommy. Her father's death did not put an end to her riding (in April 1865 Landseer produced a portrait in pastels of Beatrice on her pony), nor to the Queen's. Indeed it was on the pretext of providing herself with a familiar face to act as groom on her rides on her pony Flora that the Queen decided, in consultation with Dr Jenner and Keeper of the Privy Purse Sir Charles Phipps, to bring John Brown to Osborne in October 1864. For Beatrice there was still dancing, too. In June 1863 she wrote to her brother Arthur to thank him for his present of a tortoise: ‘It runs very funnily and I like it very much… Miss Lowe is here and I take dancing lessons twice a day with her.’
At Osborne in the summer there was also croquet, which Beatrice had mastered sufficiently by the age of seven to beat the Dean of Westminster. This may have
been a victory of tact on the Dean's part rather than skill on Beatrice's, but its verisimilitude would have required at least a degree of competence on the part of the younger player.

Had it not been for the Queen's insistence on what for all her children became an unnatural prolongation of grief, Beatrice would soon have rediscovered the high spirits that came naturally to her. She was an intellectually curious child.

The history of Lot and his wife was read to her yesterday and she was much taken up about the fate of the ‘poor lady’. Today, when she was having her dinner at the Queen's luncheon table, and some salt on her plate – she exclaimed, perhaps this is a bit of Lot's wife – the little princess entered into a long discussion as to the kind of salt into which Lot's wife was turned – whether it really was like what was in the salt cellars, that the Queen at last said, ‘Well, suppose you ask Bertie – he has been at the Dead Sea, you know.’

She was happy, too, amid the rough and tumble of what, with Helena, Louise, Leopold and, intermittently, Arthur, still at home to share her pranks, should have been a rumbustious, laughter-filled childhood.

The Queen, of course, had other thoughts. One result of the attitude towards their father's death that she devised for her children was that, although their lives retained vestiges of the family childhood enjoyed by their oldest siblings, they did so in outward appearance only: in spirit they were quite changed.

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