Read The Last Princess Online

Authors: Matthew Dennison

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

The Last Princess (9 page)

‘You must treasure her in your hearts as a
– one who is rare in this World!’ the Queen wrote to her granddaughter Victoria of Hesse, on the death of the Queen's daughter, Victoria's mother Princess Alice. ‘It is a great
to be her child, but it is also a great responsibility to become
really worthy
of her – to walk in her footsteps – to be unselfish, truthful, humble-minded –
– and try and do
you can for
as she did!’
Seventeen years earlier, she might easily have rehearsed the same sentiments at daily intervals to those five of her children still under her care. It was too heavy an expectation to impose upon a child, and one that the three most sensitive children,
Louise, Leopold and Beatrice, addressed by withdrawing within themselves. In Beatrice's case, so complete would that withdrawal become that it shaped her personality. Much later, in the company of her husband, she escaped, but she did so in private and for all too short a time.

Faced with scriptural conundra such as the fate and composition of Lot's wife, the little princess asked pertinent questions for which she was rewarded with laughter and answers. But to those larger questions shaping her future her mother saw no need for answers; and the frustration of Beatrice's natural curiosity unsurprisingly engendered over time a lethargy about looking outside herself and beyond what was immediately obvious. ‘I have not the moral strength to see you and hear you so constantly unhappy,’ Princess Feodora told the Queen in 1864, cutting short her four-month stay with her half-sister.
For those children still at home, too young for the most part to comprehend the concept of ‘moral strength’, such escape would prove impossible. Constant unhappiness was simply a fact of life.

The children were cast upon themselves. They had lost in effect not one parent but two. ‘Orphaned’ in this way and cut off from other children of their own age, they grew increasingly dependent on one another and, to a lesser extent, the circle of their attendants. The Queen and Prince Consort's tendency had been to divide their large family by age or sex. As the number of their offspring grew, they commissioned from Winterhalter a series of group portraits: Bertie with his nearest brother Alfred, Alfred with his nearest sister Helena, Louise with her younger brothers Arthur and Leopold, and the four eldest princesses together. For the wedding of the Crown Princess, her four sisters, including the eight-month-old Beatrice, each gave her a brooch: the patterns were identical but each was set with different stones -diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds. For Alice's wedding, the unmarried brothers Alfred, Arthur and Leopold joined forces to buy a present of ‘three keeprings, diamond, ruby and emerald’, while the junior princesses Helena, Louise and Beatrice jointly gave ‘a locket and a pair of ear-rings in turquoise and diamonds’.
In November 1865 Beatrice addressed birthday wishes to the
Prince of Wales: ‘Leopold and I together send you a present which we hope you will like.’

Proximity in age and shared sex may have appealed to the orderliness of a mind like the Prince Consort's, but in truth neither guaranteed affection between the children in question. Beatrice and her nearest sister Louise enjoyed a lifelong troubled relationship while, despite the Queen's best efforts, Beatrice struggled in vain to secure any reciprocation of warm feelings from Leopold. ‘Beatrice is quite well and so good… she is not a “stupid little thing” as you call her,’ Helena reproved her youngest brother in May 1862.
It was only one of a number of instances of Leopold's irritation at Beatrice, an irritation justified by his mother's declared preference for Beatrice, his nearest sister, and Arthur, his nearest brother. Pig-in-the-middle and missing his father, Leopold did not pause to consider that neither Beatrice nor Arthur was culpable of courting their mother's favouritism. ‘I have had tea with Leopold, it was very nice,’ Beatrice wrote to Arthur from Windsor on 11 December 1864.
Leopold's feelings are not recorded, but it is significant that even into adulthood he continued to refer to Beatrice by their mother's moniker for her, ‘Baby’, the usage combining contempt with envy at the closeness of mother and daughter and the ease of their relationship, so different from his own relations with the Queen.

Helena's intervention on Beatrice's behalf may have been prompted by an instinct for fair play alone, but third and fifth royal daughters were close both in affection and temperament. Before her marriage, Princess Alice had regarded her last sister with quasi-maternal protectiveness; now, in the short term, Helena looked on Beatrice in a similar light. Beatrice called her sister ‘Na’. At the children's dance at Windsor in 1866 for Helena's twentieth birthday, her last before her marriage, it was ‘dear little Beatrice… [who] proposed “dear Na's health and many happy returns of the day, as it is her last birthday at home”,’
a statement, Louisa Bowater recorded, that was greeted with shrieks of laughter from Louise, Arthur and Leopold, all of whom, unusually for guests at a dance, were then suffering from
whooping cough. Beatrice would grow to share Helena's placid disposition and unswerving, partly fearful devotion to the Queen. Though it was Beatrice who throughout her life stayed at her mother's side, Helena, too, remained almost always on call, living close by the Queen's principal residences if not, like Beatrice, in the same building as her mother. ‘Our darling little Baby… is the only thing I feel keeps me alive, for she alone wants me really. She, perhaps as well as poor Lenchen, are the only two who still love me the most of anything,’ Queen Victoria wrote to the Crown Princess in April 1863.
From early days the sisters’ friendship successfully spanned their eleven-year age gap. After Alice's marriage it was Helena who helped the Queen, occupying much of the leisure time that the Queen did not devote to Beatrice. But in 1866 Helena, too, married. Louise became their mother's helper. Beatrice lost another mainstay of her tiny circle, and took a step closer to the role that was to be hers for life.


‘A nervous way of speaking and laughing’

The spring of Bertie's wedding, Beatrice met her future father-in-law for the first time. She was six. The Queen had invited to Windsor Prince Alexander of Battenberg, father of four sons and a daughter, the prince of royal Hessian blood, besmirched in the case of his children by Alexander's morganatic marriage to the non-royal Countess Julie von Hauke. By contemporary standards Queen Victoria was open-minded about such nice distinctions of princely rank. A soldier's daughter, she was also fond of fighting men and a handsome face. Alexander was not only strikingly good-looking – a benison he would bequeath to all his sons – he had served with distinction in the Austrian imperial army, notably at the Battle of Solferino. He was the uncle by marriage of the Queen's daughter Alice, who was expecting her first child at Windsor. In due course that child, a girl, would be christened, also in the Queen's house. Alexander's stay at Windsor would include the baptism of Princess Victoria of Hesse, his first great-niece, the Queen's fourth grandchild and Beatrice's second niece.

The Prince, whom the Queen found ‘very clever and agreeable’,
did not feel constrained by that injunction to discretion which, in principal, governed courtiers’ correspondence. His letters to his sister Marie record his impressions of the Royal Family:

Bertie… is exceedingly friendly and cordial to me. The younger sisters, Helena and Louise, are pretty and intelligent, especially the
former. The Queen's youngest child, Beatrice, is a dear little girl with flying golden curls down to her waist, but she seems to be thoroughly spoiled by everyone. The boys are nice: Alfred… is a typical naval officer; Arthur is thirteen and rather shy, so is ten-year-old Leopold; they are strictly brought up.

Until the last of her sisters left home, and Beatrice took on the task of full-time personal assistant to her mother, her lot was one of spoiling within a strict upbringing – at the time of Alexander's visit played out against a backdrop of prevailing mournfulness. With the passage of time that mournfulness lessened, sunshine began to irradiate the shadows, the merest glimmer at first, waxing gradually, unnoticed as yet by outside observers such as Alexander of Battenberg. It was the misfortune of the Queen's children that all happiness was associated with the Prince Consort; the sting in the tail of every pleasant diversion was its coda of sorrowful reminders irresistible to the Queen. For her younger children, who had not experienced or did not remember the past happinesses to which their mother clung, this train of thought was alien and obscure, though none would have confessed as much.

In October 1865 the royal children staged a play at Osborne. Tha t the play happened at all was indicative of the Queen's changing state of mind. The Queen humoured her children up to a point, watching a rehearsal rather than the performance itself. Th e entertainment attained noteworthiness in her eyes on account of a decorative recitation by Beatrice and the handsome appear-ance and footlights prowess of her other favourite child, Arthur. In her Journal she recorded,

To please the children went down to the Council Room to see the rehearsal of a little Play the Boys are acting, ‘Box and Cox’. It was a terrible effort, for it reminded me of so many happy performances, dearest Albert sitting near me, directing everything, and correcting the Children, applauding and encouraging them. Before the play, Baby made her appearance as a milkmaid, and recited ‘Le Pot au Lait’. Arthur looked wonderful in a wig with black eyebrows, also Leopold. Arthur acted exceedingly well.

The following month Colonel Stodare was invited to Windsor. He presented an evening of ‘Magic and Ventriloquism’, including ‘The Sphinx’ (‘an entirely new and original illusion’) and ‘The Instantaneous Growth of Flower Trees’. It was the sort of entertainment that would have been familiar to the Queen's older children, but for Beatrice it represented an enchanted interlude, a previously unglimpsed world of children's party tricks, lighthearted amusement and harmless silliness.

The Queen was still struggling to resist any diminution of her sadness. She continued to rebut all efforts to divert her from her sorrowful and determinedly lonely course. But against her will, her emotions were slowly shifting. From beyond palace and castle walls, ministers and the mass of the people alike clamoured increasingly for her return to public life. Queen Victoria was not the woman to respond positively to demands – throughout her life she refused compliance with those who backed her into a corner. She did not concede the justness of the requests that she show herself in public which multiplied through the mid-18 60s. Rather, in her justification of her refusal to satisfy those requests, she acknowledged implicitly their reasonableness as demands from a country to its sovereign, just not, at this juncture, this sovereign, in her own eyes a frail and sorrowing widow prematurely aged by tragedy and overwork. To one of her more sympathetic correspondents, the Prince Consort's future biographer Theodore Martin, she had written as early as 1863, ‘It is not the Queen's
that keeps her secluded… it is her
overwhelming work
and her health… From the hour she gets out of bed till the hour she gets into it again there is work, work, work – letter-boxes, questions, etc, which are dreadfully exhausting – and if she has not comparative rest in the evening she would most likely not be
The excuses of overwhelming work and her health would serve the Queen well through the next four decades when confronted with disagreeable requests; the crux of the matter was inclination. At the Prince Consort's death the Queen's inclination had been simply to mourn as she awaited her own demise, which she confidently anticipated following swiftly on its heels. Through the second half of the
1860s she inclined increasingly to a return to the life she had abandoned, though as yet only in the private not the public sphere and only up to a point: she did not, for example, set aside her mourning dress or resume her once eager theatre-going, and anniversaries associated with the Prince remained deeply pious, joyless occasions. Nevertheless, there were positive implications of this period of slow renewal – private theatricals among them – for the children the Queen had required to share her tenebrous incarceration.

In 1867, days after her wedding anniversary, the Queen wrote to the Crown Princess:

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