Queen Victoria kept her journals from the year 1832 up until around two weeks before her death in 1901. Her voluminous correspondence is well known; indeed, it was averaged by the author Giles St Aubyn that the Queen wrote up to some 2,500 words per day (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, XV). Three volumes of her letters were edited by Arthur C. Benson and Viscount Esher, and published under the title The Letters of Queen Victoria: A Selection from Her Majesty’s Correspondence between the years 1837 and 1861. These edited volumes remain what their subtitle says they are – a selection – telling us perhaps as much about the editors that chose them as about the royal author herself.
Benson and Esher had been commissioned with this task ‘of no ordinary difficulty’ by order of King Edward VII; remarkably, we learn in the preface to the first volume that the papers concerning Queen Victoria’s life up until 1861 – that year that has so often been seen as dividing the Queen’s life firmly into two halves, with Prince Albert and after Prince Albert – were all chronologically bound, numbering ‘between five and six hundred volumes’ (A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, The Letters of Queen Victoria: A Selection of Her Majesty’s Correspondence between the years 1837 and 1861, iii, 1908). But there was of course, however, another part of the Queen’s life – before Albert.
What is much less known, is that within the first volume of The Letters, is an early memoir which Queen Victoria about her childhood. It is precisely this earliest part of the Queen’s life, which she covers in her memoir – before the Prince Consort, Victoria before Albert, as it were.
The memoir was not written as an insert for her journal, nor does it appear in her correspondence. It was a private memoir and as no autobiography exists of the Queen and many of her journals were copied, censored and rewritten by her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice – on her instructions – the memoir is also remarkable for the fact that it exists in the first place. The diary tells us a great deal about the Queen, as opposed to her royal childhood as it really was; crucially, the memoir reveals to us how she chose to remember it, recollection being a selective process. Her childhood was by no means as miserable as she would later describe, although she was clearly isolated and that by design (Ibid, 22). With the bias of age, she simply concluded that her childhood had been an unhappy one. Quite why she decided this, is not fully clear.
By the time she wrote it, Queen Victoria had lost her mother, the Duchess of Kent, who died in 1861; the outpouring of grief for her mother was protracted and severe. The mother with whom she had had such a strained relationship as a child and throughout her later youth, had become by 1861, one she had learned to love. It is strange perhaps that the guilt and sadness over this period did not make her want to try to view her childhood differently; but then with Queen Victoria, honesty was paramount as she saw it, so perhaps, for this reason, she did not self-deceive.Queen Victoria wrote this short memoir in 1872, and it is preserved amongst her papers at Windsor. I have wondered what may have prompted the writing of this memoir. It was not something she continued at any later stage and was clearly focused on the early part of her childhood. Why in 1872? My theory for this is the fact that on 23 September 1872, Queen Victoria’s beloved half-sister, Princess Feodore, of Hohenlohe, died at Baden. It is not difficult to imagine that the death of this adored companion of her childhood, provoked a reminiscence of this kind. This would seem to be backed up by a letter held amongst the Gladstone papers at the British Library, written by Queen Victoria to Gladstone: ‘Her loss is quite irreparable… Her [the Queen used the royal ‘third person’ in political correspondence] only and most admirable Sister and the vy last Link (for no one is left now) with her Childhood and Youth gone. Life becomes more and more dreary’ (Quoted in Ibid, 355).
Kensington Palace touched a very particular nerve in Queen Victoria’s memory. Princess Feodore had departed from Kensington Palace to marry Prince Ernst of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, leaving the tearful Princess Victoria to write: ‘I clasped her in my arms and kissed her and cried as if my heart would break… I love no one better than her…’ (Quoted in Hibbert, 22). Queen Victoria’s emancipation from Kensington of course, happened on 20 June 1837, the day of her accession.
Feodore is mentioned briefly in the memoir, with a shudder, because it was rumoured that her aged uncle, George IV might even marry her (A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, The Letters of Queen Victoria: A Selection of Her Majesty’s Correspondence between the years 1837 and 1861, 12). Although the Queen does not explicitly say that Feodore’s death inspired the writing of this memoir, I think the above is at the very least, suggestive.
The memoir is quoted in full in Benson and Esher’s first volume of the correspondence, in the second chapter, Memoir of Queen Victoria’s Early Years. It spans pages 10-14. We read the Queen’s first memory, which was of crawling on a yellow carpet at Kensington Palace, which had been put there for her use and being told that her uncle, the Duke of Sussex, would scold her if she cried, for which reason, she was always terrified whenever she saw him (Ibid, 11).
We learn of the simplicity of her daily routine as Princess Victoria at Kensington, conscious that this time, her life is not written down in the juvenile journal which was usually read by the Duchess of Kent, who had died eleven years previously. She describes that she never had her own room until her accession and shared her bedroom with her mother, the Duchess of Kent. Breakfast was taken at half-past eight in the morning, luncheon at half-past one, with evening dinner at seven. She recalled that she ate her bread and milk from a small silver basin and that tea was only taken as a ‘great treat’ later on (Ibid, pp. 11-13).
Claremont at Esher, was a place of particularly precious reminiscence, as the home of her beloved uncle, Prince Leopold, later King of the Belgians. It was where of course, the much-lamented Princess Charlotte, only (legitimate) daughter of the Prince Regent had died following childbirth; later the residence was given to the Queen’s youngest son, Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, after his marriage to Princess Helen of Waldeck-Pyrmont. The Queen recalled that Claremont was a bright memory in her ‘unhappy’ childhood. It was here that she took lessons in the bedroom of her governess (Ibid, pp. 10-11).
There were memories of George III’s family, of visiting her aunt, Princess Augusta at Frogmore (Ibid, 13) and of going to George IV’s resplendent mansion of Carlton House. She remembered her Aunt, the Queen of Württemberg (Princess Royal), visiting in the mid-1820s, and seeing her drive in the Park in the King’s carriage, with ‘red liveries and 4 horses, in a Cap and evening dress …’ (Quoted in Ibid, pp. 11-12).
Remarkable also, were her recollections of George IV, written down when she was in her fifty-third year. She recalled the visit to Windsor, when George IV invited herself, Princess Feodore and the Duchess of Kent. There was a visit to Cumberland Lodge, when the King was staying at nearby Royal Lodge. George IV took the young Victoria by the hand, saying ‘Give me your little paw.’ Queen Victoria remembered the King as ‘large and gouty but with a wonderful dignity and charm of manner. He wore the wig which was so much worn in those days.’ Clearly, he must have been impressed with her, because he bestowed upon her, his picture set in diamonds, worn by princesses on a blue ribbon at the left shoulder. As Princess, Victoria was extremely proud of this and the King’s mistress, Lady Conyngham [the mother of that Lord Conyngham who would later gallop romantically to Kensington Palace with the Archbishop of Canterbury to tell her of her own accession in 1837] pinned it to her shoulder. (Ibid, pp. 11-12).
There were outings and evenings in Windsor Great Park as far as Sandpit Gate, where George IV had his exotic menagerie and excursions to Virginia Water, where the King, spotting her in his phaeton in which also sat her aunt, the Duchess of Gloucester, ‘Pop her in’, and so she was. She was put between the King and her aunt, who clasped her around the waist. With truthful tact, she later said to the King’s question of what she had enjoyed best: ‘The drive with you‘.
We must imagine Queen Victoria writing these words down, dipping her pen into her inkwell – and her imagination. If she wrote the memoir partially at Windsor Castle, she would have been able to overlook the Great Park from the windows of her private apartments, in which she had driven with George IV to Virginia Water, or gone to visit her aunt, Princess Augusta, at the same Frogmore where now, the Duchess of Kent and Prince Albert both rested in their respective mausoleums.
Never again did she continue this extraordinary memoir, where it cut off so suddenly. She returned to her journals, her correspondence and her paint box – the mediums to which she was best accustomed. The memoir remains a unique document amidst the papers of the Queen. For most unusually, the memoir ended – with her early childhood.