Queen Victoria’s life remains a fascination hundreds of years later, but perhaps less well-known by the casual royal watcher is the other Victoria: her eldest daughter, the Princess Royal, who was known to her family as Vicky. Author Clare McHugh decided to tackle the fascinating story of Vicky’s life in her first novel, A Most English Princess.
The book chronicles Vicky’s girlhood with her parents, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, along with her many siblings, and follows her courtship, engagement, and marriage to Prince Friedrich of Prussia, who would later become King of Prussia and German Emperor. Torn between two countries and missing her family in England, headstrong Vicky must learn to survive in an unfamiliar and unwelcoming culture.
An aspect of the novel I found particularly interesting was how much Vicky relied on her parents’ advice and how involved they were in the small details of her life, down to her decision to breastfeed. The rapid-fire letters sent back and forth between Vicky and her parents touched on domestic issues but also decisions made by the Prussian king which her family, especially Prince Albert, frequently disagreed upon. This caused strife in her marriage as well as in Vicky’s relationships with her in-laws and politicians in Prussia, and the novel really dives deep into the political and military issues of the time in the lead-up to World War I.
Royal Central chatted with McHugh about the extensive research involved in this historical novel, Vicky’s close relationship with Prince Albert, and how a future series of the drama Victoria might play out with Vicky involved.
Kristin Contino: I have to admit I didn’t know a ton about Vicky before reading A Most English Princess, but after finishing it I’ve been prompted to do a lot of Googling! What made you decide to write about Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter as the topic of your first novel?
Clare McHugh: Something about Vicky’s life spoke to me! Her story aroused my sympathy and my curiosity. And the more I read the more she appealed to me. I think it started when I read how in the family, Vicky, as the eldest and the most academically gifted of Queen Victoria’s children, was assumed by all the others to be their mother’s heir. It was only when Bertie, her younger brother, was aged nine did he realize that no, it would be HIM. This reminded me that families are small worlds unto themselves and how the “rules” of the real world can sometimes come as a surprise—especially the inequitable way women and girls were treated.
But I was also attracted to Vicky as a subject by what I learned about her as a wife and a mother. She fell in love so passionately with her husband Fritz, in the manner of teenagers! But the two of them managed to keep that loving bond strong as they grew older and endured a number of challenges and tragedies. I thought that would be interesting to explore—how did they do that? As a mother, Vicky really had some bad luck to start. The longed-for male heir, Willy, suffered a birth injury. How did Vicky cope with this blow to her pride, and a secret sorrow that she felt guilty about her whole life long? I hope the book shows that she struggled with Willy and didn’t always make the right choices. In that way she was a very human and relatable woman. I thought readers would be interested in meeting someone who enjoyed great privilege but also some crushing disappointments.
Have you always been interested in royal history, and do you have a favourite member of the Royal Family? (both past and present)
Yes, royal history of Britain has always interested me–men and women born into extraordinary circumstances. I am less interested in the glamour than in the way individuals try to cope and “make meaning” for themselves in a fishbowl environment. I met Princess Diana once and she is the same age as me, born the same year. And while I felt for her—her marriage unsuccessful, the rejection she felt so keen— I can’t relate to her as much as I do to Vicky, who will always be my favorite royal. Vicky was opinionated, admonitory, didn’t always read a room well, but she was so valiant. She kept pointing out what wasn’t good about the situation in Germany. She pursued her passion for painting, and yet was still an excellent public servant and a loving mother of 8 children.
The novel was so well-researched, it almost felt like nonfiction at times. Tell us about your research process. Did you travel to any of the places where Vicky lived/visited?
Yes, I think my book is best for people who like a lot of HISTORY in their historical fiction. I studied the diplomatic history of 19th century Europe in college and it continues to fascinate me–especially the character of Otto von Bismarck, German Chancellor and Vicky’s nemesis. I have spent a great deal of time in both Germany and England, but I have never been to Potsdam where Vicky is buried. I plan to go there when the pandemic is over.
What do you think about the relationship Vicky had with her parents? Do you think they (especially Prince Albert) interfered too much in her life and the politics of her new country?
This is such a good question!!! I think it’s important to remember that Prince Albert came to England alone, basically. He had lost his mother at an early age and he was the “lesser” partner in his marriage to Victoria, who was Queen. Of course, he turned out to be extremely influential in the UK, and a partner in governing with his wife. But at the start Albert was vulnerable and when his clever and delightful eldest daughter was born, and turned out to share so many of his interests, he and she became extremely close. He wanted the world for her, as any devoted parent does. And he wanted to protect and guide her. I think he didn’t anticipate exactly how she would be regarded in Prussia, although he had his fears–which I have him expressing in the book. He didn’t anticipate the rise of Bismarck and he didn’t live long enough to really help Vicky and Fritz in the new Germany that Bismarck created. I fault him only for being a bit naive. I think Queen Victoria was often a pain as a mother–badgering Vicky for letters, telling her off, being selfish and ignoring her needs. But no one is perfect, and Vicky was a very devoted daughter nonetheless.
Are you a fan of TV’s Victoria? How do you think they might portray Vicky in future series?
I have mixed feelings! I think it’s like a romance novel, and strays too much from historical fact for me, but I like the casting and the production values. I think Vicky will be flattened in this series, into a character without a lot of depth. The nuances of her personality are not something that this show would be interested in exploring.
Do you have a follow-up to the book planned?
Since the book has been published I have learned of a romantic interlude in Vicky’s later life not previously known to historians. I am considering exploring that in a sequel! I am also writing a novel set in the US in the 1970’s and 1980’s, which is not about royalty, of course.