The earliest memories of a historical personage are extraordinarily important, as not only do they reveal first consciousness of their world and circumstances but crucially, what they remembered first. They tell snippets of true events, as they saw them. Of course, we know that all true biography begins before birth and that event could hardly be expected to count amongst any of even the very earliest memories.
For someone with such remarkable powers of observation and retention, it is, therefore, especially interesting to consider what Queen Victoria’s first memories were. These even predated when she was observed as a child by Lord Albemarle in the garden of Kensington Palace, picturesquely with a watering-can in a white cotton dress and straw hat, also watering ‘the flowers and her own little feet’ (cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 28) or when Charles Knight, the publisher, spotted her on the lawn running suddenly away to pick a wildflower.
Earliest memories have a dream-like quality, occasionally mixing fiction with fact, or selective happenings, an arresting voyage in psycho-realism. Research has proved, for example, that babies are capable of recognising lullabies sung to them before birth, but any first memories retain something of a hazy quality, as recalled by an adult mind. Queen Victoria’s memories are no less so. They remain like a blurred photograph of those very early times at Kensington, peopled with the characters that came and went at the Palace; they act as a kind of family kaleidoscope.
Her first memory was apparently of watching her aunt, Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, being painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence (Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 27). This same aunt – the youngest daughter of King George III – survived into the earliest developments of photography, the daguerreotype, and was duly recorded with an adult Queen Victoria and her two children, the Prince of Wales and Princess Alice, visiting at Gloucester House in the 1850s by Antoine Claudet (Flora Fraser, Princesses, X).Before this was even earlier memories, such as her father’s repeater watch in its tortoise-shell case, ticking in her mother’s bedroom (Longford, 27) which painfully, she would recall when her mother, the Duchess of Kent, later lay dying in 1861. Her uncle, the Duke of Sussex, was a great collector of clocks, as well as books at Kensington Palace – where he also lived in his apartments and a remarkable library of over 50,000 tomes.
Queen Victoria sat down in 1872 and wrote a short, private memoir, rich in colourful detail and not at all described the ‘rather melancholy’ childhood, which she later decided it was: ‘I never had a room to myself… I never had a sofa, nor an easy chair, and there was not a single carpet that was not threadbare’ (cit., Hibbert, 19). Presumably, then, the famous yellow carpet was also threadbare.
By her admission, her ‘earliest recollections’ were of Kensington Palace, crawling on a yellow carpet, which had been ‘spread out for that purpose’. She was told that if she cried, her uncle, the Duke of Sussex, would punish her ‘for which reason I always screamed when I saw him!’ She had a childhood ‘horror’ of bishops ‘on account of their wigs and aprons’. This dislike of bishops was never entirely got over in the mind of Queen Victoria, although it was the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Howley, who galloped to Kensington Palace with the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Conyngham, to inform her of the death of her uncle, William IV at Windsor, translating in her own words to ‘consequently that I am Queen’.
However, she remained fond of, despite her professing horror, writing a glowing tribute on his death: ‘There was no important event in my life in which he was not interested & did not officiate. He was one of those who examined me when I was 12 years old. He confirmed me, came to me, the morning of the late King’s death, crowned me, married me, & christened our five children, besides churching me three times!’ (cit., A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 140).
This ‘horror’ of bishops was ‘partially got over’ with the Bishop of Salisbury, Dr Fisher, (fondly called ‘Kingfisher’) because he at least knelt down by the child and allowed her to play with his badge of Chancellor of the Order of the Garter. Poignantly, it was Bishop Fisher whom her father, the Duke of Kent, had called on as his friend in Salisbury, en route to Sidmouth, where he caught a cold in the spectacular cathedral (Hibbert, 14). When this cold returned in Sidmouth, it would develop into pneumonia from which the Duke would die on 23 January 1820, his baby daughter Victoria not even one-year-old. The Duke had known the Bishop since his own childhood and Fisher incidentally, was the uncle of the wife of Sir John Conroy, the Comptroller of the Household of the Duchess of Kent and the ‘Monster & demon Incarnate, whose name I forebear to mention’ (cit., Longford, 103) of Queen Victoria’s Kensington youth. Another Bishop tried to see her ‘pretty shoes’ to break the ice, but was unsuccessful.Claremont, by contrast, was in her own words, ‘the brightest epoch of my otherwise melancholy childhood – where to be under the roof of that beloved uncle [Leopold, later King of the Belgians]’ (cit., A. N. Wilson, 43), doted on by a small circle of ladies, including Louisa Louis, the devoted dresser of the late Princess Charlotte, who adored ‘the little Princess who was too much an idol in the House’ (cit., Ibid, 43).
Touchingly, Queen Victoria remembered being given a donkey by another uncle, the Duke of York whose death she remembered, at the much older age of eight. When he died, she recalled people running past the palace to see his funeral procession go down Kensington Road (Longford, 28). Probably, this was the white donkey on which she was once described as riding in Kensington Gardens, accompanied by ‘an old soldier, a former retainer of her father’s, leading her bridle rein’ (cit., Hibbert, 28).
That early ‘horror’ of bishops remained with her. She had confessed it in her private memoirs, but she repeated this intense dislike vocally to Lady Lytton after she had gone to a function at Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury, which she called ‘a very ugly party’ (cit., Hibbert, 295). ‘But your Majesty likes some bishops’, began Lady Lytton, naming the Bishops of Winchester and Ripon. ‘Yes’, replied the Queen, significantly, ‘I like the man but not the Bishop’ (cit., Ibid, 295).
In the popular painting of Queen Victoria receiving the news of her accession at Kensington Palace, the artist Henry Tanworth Wells depicted the young Queen in her sitting room. Bowed before her was the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Howley, whom we must suppose, the Queen valued truly as a man but not perhaps as a Bishop, if her above remark is anything to go by. Quite different were her feelings for the Revd Norman McLeod at Craithie, her ‘dear friend’ and chaplain, approvingly commenting in one of her Highland Journals on one occasion after returning from one of his services: ‘how satisfactory it is to come back from church with such feelings’ (cit., Hibbert, 296).
Something in Queen Victoria remained a child. Somehow touching the Kensington nerve in her was to go as deep as possible into the sunken realm of her childhood, probably because that childhood and the palace were more or less the same thing.
Her earliest memories began at Kensington, and at Kensington Palace, she received the momentous news that she had become Queen.