Rob Hardy on books


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Another Day at Court, and Another, and...



Rob Hardy


It is said that no man is a hero to his valet. Similarly, no queen, even that most queenly queen of all, Victoria, could be always a glorious royal majesty to her ladies in waiting. It might have been an honor to have been appointed to her court, but it was also a trial in many ways, ways that included imperious demands on picayune matters, and also a deadly boredom. Our understanding of Victoria is improved in looking at her intimate court, a task taken on in Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household (Harper) by Kate Hubbard. The author may be well known in England for her books on history, but this is the first of them to be published in America. The dullness of court life (and that is one of its hallmark characteristics) does not extend to Hubbard's description of it, which is detailed and often funny, even when the events are routine (for a royal home, that is) and repetitive. Hubbard has gone through letters and diaries of household intimates to give a chronological picture of the inner circle from the Queen's accession, through the changes in government and the death of Prince Albert, to the death of the Queen herself. She says, "I found these uneventful records - the stiff evenings, the damp carriage drives, the endless waiting about for 'orders' - curiously fascinating. Their very dullness intrigued." The picture here of Victoria presents a fine way of understanding the extremes of her merits and of her faults. 




This is not an "Upstairs, Downstairs" view of palace life; those serving the Queen in this book are not cooks and footmen. Hubbard concentrates on the experiences of six of them and in her introduction lists their relatively lofty statuses: "Sarah Lyttelton, lady of the bedchamber and then superintendent of the royal nursery; Charlotte Canning, lady of the bedchamber; Mary Ponsonby, maid-of-honour; Henry Ponsonby, private secretary; Randall Davidson, domestic chaplain; and James Reid, physician-in-ordinary." Through the Queen's long reign, and through this exhaustive text, they come into service and leave, along with plenty of other characters herein. When one of them, Mary Bulteel (Mary Ponsonby after her marriage to Henry), finished her first interview with the Queen, she "made a low curtsy, backed out of the room, restrained my shrieks, cut nine pirouettes and remained in a state of collapse outside the door." And shortly thereafter, just before her first royal dinner party, she was "like a ginger beer bottle fizzing with impatience." Reality was far less bubbly. Even though Victoria did not like extended dinners, and tended to eat her own portion quickly, dinners were dull and not for sparkling displays of table conversation. They were followed by whist or needlework, or chess for Albert, or spelling games, or quadrilles if things were really lively. "The household may have yawned their way through Windsor evenings; not so the Queen, who... was easily, and frequently, amused." (This contrasts with the famous, although apocryphal, quotation from the Queen, "We are not amused.") The Queen was delighted by "puzzles or spillikins [jackstraws], or singing duets, or merely sitting and gossiping with her ladies."  




This last emphasizes a particular characteristic of the Queen, an abiding interest in her household. The picture of the Queen as a judgmental prig still applies as far as her feelings on members of her own class. With her servants, however, she was tolerant (often overly so) to, say, their excessive drinking. The Queen may have insisted on evenings everyone else found dull including hours of just standing around, and she may have forced her household into uncomfortable sodden carriage rides or rough channel crossings, but she cared about their feelings. She wrote a bossy note to the Prince of Wales that servants "ought to be comfortably lodged, but not luxuriously, but I think and so do all right minded people that the chief thing is treating them kindly... making them feel that they belong to the family and are cared for..." The Queen followed her own advice, and was quick to detect when her staff had been slighted and to bring immediate reprisals. "Through the 1860s, when she claimed to be crushed beneath the weight of work and duty, somehow there was always the opportunity to fire off notes and memos to her master of the household on the hiring of a new linen room woman, or a confectioner (good confectioners were hard to come by...), or the pension due to a retiring housemaid, or the proposed dismissal of a man who waited in the steward's room and had been caught stealing (the Queen felt that given his age and length of service, some provision should be made)." 




The loyalty was repaid. When Georgiana Liddell was appointed to be a maid-of-honor, her mother wrote urging discretion, careful use of time, avoidance of gossip or flirtation, and endurance in her duties of sitting or standing for hours. Then she summarized, "Your first duty is to God; your second is to your Sovereign; your third to yourself." The household was especially important to the Queen after Albert's death, when "her need for others to lean on became acute." Her own children were too preoccupied to provide this sort of sympathy, and she looked toward her household for it. She channeled part of her grief into ostentatious mourning, and prescribed for her courtiers black gloves, shoes, stockings, fans, buckles, and handkerchiefs. She gave detailed orders for "crepe weepers," long streamers women would wear in their hair trailing down their backs, and black swords for the men. Her perpetual grief after Albert's death in 1861 she augmented for the rest of her long life with deep interest in deaths of her ladies-in-waiting, private secretaries, and menial staff members, and of their families. She took pains to commemorate the anniversaries of such deaths as well. If she were not upset over a death, she would get upset over a marriage; she hated having her courtiers change their lives by marrying. Her physician delayed marrying because of her hesitation, and when it could be delayed no longer, she wrote a congratulatory letter that conveys her dismay better than it does congratulations: "Before leaving Osborne, the Queen is anxious to express to Sir James Reid her sincere good wishes for his happiness in his intended marriage with Miss Susan Baring. The Queen cannot deny that she thinks their position will present many difficulties, but she feels sure that they will both do their utmost to lessen as much as possible the unavoidable inconvenience to the Queen and that Sir James will still faithfully devote himself to his duties as in the past." (He did.) 




Hubbard does not concentrate on John Brown, probably because his story has been told in full before. His fearlessness and absolute loyalty made him a favorite of the Queen, who needed strong male companionship after Albert's death, but few others could stand him. He died in 1883 (and, of course, was excessively mourned), to be succeeded by another servant adored by the Queen and loathed by everyone else. This was a handsome young Indian nicknamed "The Munshi" (from an Urdu word meaning "clerk"). He had arrived among other Indian princes for her Golden Jubilee in 1887, and insinuated himself with the Queen, who doted on him, liked to have him in attendance to cook up curries for her guests, and sat with him for daily lessons in Hindustani. When he was ill, she would visit him more than once a day, and she signed letters to him "your loving mother." The Munshi was resented more strongly than Brown had been, and he was a thief as well; there was almost a mutiny within her staff before she slowly came around to realizing that her servant might have some failings of some sort or another. 




Hubbard has done a remarkable job looking into a world that was ruled by tradition and repetition, and making it interesting by her insights into the tangled realm of the court. She admits that Victoria's court was "an airless bell-jar," and quotes one poor lady-in-waiting as having to endure hours of "the smallest possible talk." For all that, the Queen inspired devotion among her household with her little acts of consideration, humility, or vulnerability. One of her maids-of-honor toward the end wrote, "This is the most touching thing in the world, these little Sunday evening talks with the greatest of Queens, who before God is the humblest of women, and it is the greatest privilege to serve her be it ever so feebly."



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