On 1 August 1832, the thirteen-year-old Princess Victoria of Kent made her first entry into her diary; it was a diary, as she described it on its title page, which had been given to her by her mother, the Duchess of Kent, at Kensington Palace the day before. Bound in red, the diary bears the stamp of her name in gilt letters: “H.R.H The Princess Victoria”; it had been given to her so that she could keep an account of the 1832 progress which she would make to Wales, with her mother.
Significantly, this diary is in her own handwriting, for her diaries are preserved in this form until 1 January 1837 – the year of her accession – after which copies exist in the hand of her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice. These would continue until 1901, a mere nine days before Queen Victoria’s death, her life, therefore, straddling an era of unprecedented historical evolution. By the turn of the twentieth century, Queen Victoria would have been able to claim that as a child she still remembered King George IV, having been popped into his carriage at Windsor and tactfully, when asked what music she would like to be played, choosing “God save the King”.
Otherwise, there exists the typescript of Lord Esher from 1 August 1832 until 16 February 1840, that is, from her first diary entry up until a week after her marriage to Prince Albert, thereby escaping Princess Beatrice’s editing, which begins with the Queen’s diary for 1837. Drafts exist in Queen Victoria’s hand up until December 1855. Today, the journals of Queen Victoria run to some one-hundred-and-forty-one volumes and are kept in a bookcase of their own at Windsor.
The first entry of Queen Victoria’s diary, written at the outset of the progress to Wales reads as follows: “Wednesday, August 1 1832. We left Kensington Palace at 6 minutes past 7 and went through the lower-field gate to the right. We went on and turned to the left by the new road to Regent’s Park. The road and scenery is beautiful, 20 minutes to 9. We have just changed horses at Barnet, a very pretty little town. 5 minutes past half past nine. We have just changed horses at St. Albans…” (Quoted in Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, Pg 36, 2000).
This entry whilst detailed, is impersonal, probably because this diary was read by the Duchess of Kent and her governess, Louise, Baroness Lehzen. Perhaps tellingly though, they contain a fulsome amount of quite nondescript detail as soon as the party departs from Kensington Palace – this could also emphasise the fact that the life Princess Victoria was leading at Kensington was both cossetted and controlled, with every new impression outside of the Palace, being of fresh interest to her.
Queen Victoria, as photographed by W & D Downey for her Diamond Jubilee, 1897 (By W. & D. Downey (active 1855-1940) (collectionscanada npg.org) [United States Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
The diaries of Queen Victoria exist then in various edited forms, beginning when she was a thirteen-year-old Princess and continuing up until her death, documenting observations both personal and political and are therefore in themselves a unique record of their kind. Long breaks occur in the Journal which the Queen then wrote up later, for example after periods of illness or the births of her children – the birth of her second daughter, Princess Alice for example, causing a gap of nearly three weeks in her diary for 1843. The other main lapse in 1861 (of a fortnight) was due to the death of the Prince Consort.
Sometimes her diaries contained enclosures or reports that she considered relevant to include next to her own entries, occasionally even sketches in the margins made randomly on her travels. The Queen took her Journal with her whenever she travelled, and during this time, it was her Wardrobe Maids who looked after it. The Duchess of York, in her book ‘Travels with Queen Victoria’, had the inspired idea of using the Queen’s diaries and sketchbooks to help re-trace her travels in the present day, to countries that the Queen visited such as France, Germany and Italy. At Prince Albert’s birthplace of Schloss Rosenau, near Coburg, the Duchess recorded the powerful experience of reading Queen Victoria’s diary entries in the exact place where she wrote them, a place of huge emotional importance to the Queen. She wrote: “It is a curious sensation to be reading Queen Victoria’s words in the very room that she was describing….” (HRH The Duchess of York, with Benita Stoney, Travels with Queen Victoria, Pg 111, 1993).
Sensational statistics exist as to the Queen’s quite remarkable written output, extending to her political and extensive personal correspondence. Her letters to her eldest daughter, Crown Princess Frederick of Prussia for example, are bound in some sixty volumes at Friedrichshof, near Frankfurt; this massive collection is a testament to forty years of a private, royal mother-daughter correspondence. Selected letters of Queen Victoria’s alone run into multiple volumes, such as the three-volume set published by John Murray. The author Giles St Aubyn for example estimated that the Queen wrote roughly 2,500 words every day of her adult life. (Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, XV, 2000).
The Journals of The Queen from 1837-1901 are contained within blue ruled notebooks produced by the court stationers Parkins and Gotto and are the one hundred and eleven copies compiled by her fifth daughter, Princess Beatrice, who burned each diary on the completion of her transcription of it, as the original arrived from the King’s Librarian. For this, Beatrice has suffered considerably at the hands of history, which has never quite forgiven her for editing her mother’s autobiographical writing in this way. But, we must remember that for Beatrice, this quite gargantuan task was the result of a responsibility which the Queen herself had given her youngest daughter over her diaries and correspondence. Princess Beatrice’s transcriptions extended to even re-writing entries as she saw fit. Beatrice probably saw this as a means of protecting her mother’s legacy and in so editing The Queen’s life, forced posterity to respect her sincerely held reasons for doing so. The result of these diaries – which have never been published in their entirety – do indeed inspire respect in the reader. It took years to complete this vast task, symptomatic again of Beatrice’s selflessness and devotion to her mother. She wrote for example to Lord Esher in 1904, three years after Queen Victoria’s death: “Could you call on me at Kensington [Palace]… I would give you the key of the box so that you could get some volumes of the Journals out for me. Having finished the last book I had for writing into…” (Matthew Dennison, The Last Princess, Pg 222, 2007).
The Queen’s own handwriting became increasingly difficult to read in later years; it was for example, the cause of despair for the future Tsar Nicholas II of Russia: “I got another letter… from Granny [Queen Victoria – his fiancée, Princess Alix of Hesse was one of the Queen’s favourite grandchildren]… but not knowing her handwriting it took me a good deal of trouble to decipher it….” (Andrei Maylunas, Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, Pg 62, 1997.)
Gradually, Queen Victoria’s large script all but disappeared into the margins of ever wider black-edged borders on her mourning notepaper, especially as her eyesight began to fail; a photograph taken towards the end of the Queen’s life shows her with spectacles, struggling to read a letter. So perhaps, Princess Beatrice’s dutiful editing of her mother’s diaries, also enables us to read the content which does survive.
“Another year begun, & I am feeling so weak and unwell that I enter upon it sadly…” (Quoted in Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, Pg 492). This was the Queen’s diary entry for New Year’s Day, 1901. The great Journal that she had begun at thirteen was finally brought to a close a fortnight later, at the age of eighty-one. Poignantly, it is Princess Beatrice’s handwriting in red ink, which records the simple reason for why this was the last entry in the last of those blue-lined notebooks. Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901 at Osborne House, the private royal residence that she and Prince Albert had acquired on the Isle of Wight. It was – quite literally – the closing of a book.