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Queen Victoria in her letters and journals

Queen Victoria began her journal in 1832 at the age of thirteen and continued to keep it until old age, with the last entry made just nine days before she died, constituting, therefore, a remarkable royal record. She took her journal with her wherever she went on her travels, which was entrusted to the care of her Wardrobe Maids.

The one hundred and forty-one bound volumes of Queen Victoria’s journals at Windsor tell us much about the Queen but also are a testament to only part of that truth. Regrettably for us, few of her journals have survived in their original state because they were later edited by the Queen’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice; although this was done in fulfilment of her mother’s wishes. But the editing did not stop there; passages were significantly re-written as part of this process. So, the editing of the Queen’s diaries has in some ways, edited our subsequent perception of her, making the Queen literally lose her voice intermittently, even in death.

If what she wrote has been filtered, that does not mean that what remains is not truthful; the Queen’s voice is so powerful that it unfailingly comes through. The gaps left in the journals are in some ways, filled in by the enormous epistolary legacy of the Queen, which was not censored by a later hand and remains boxed away in the many royal archives of Europe, silent as if waiting to speak. It is as if Queen Victoria has never wanted to stop talking. The Queen lives on in her words, and perhaps this is precisely why her journals were edited at her request. She wrote down frankly what she saw and thought, so her letters are her speaking ‘aloud’, her living legacy.

Published correspondence can only – like the journals – tell part of the story, because whilst her letters have not been edited, they have been selected. So we are left with what has been used, instead of what was taken out to form our opinion, as Yvonne M. Ward has observed when stating that the public image of Queen Victoria was primarily formed by the letters chosen by the editors of the nine volumes of The Letters of Queen Victoria: A Selection of Her Majesty’s Correspondence. Selection then is a type of editing through exclusion. Viscount Esher and A. C Benson edited the first three of the nine volumes of The Letters of Queen Victoria: A Selection from Her Majesty’s Correspondence, which were published by John Murray between 1907 and 1932, the period for publication alone a testimony to the gargantuan amount of work involved. These volumes of the Queen’s written words ran to over five thousand pages alone, some two million words.

An example of the Queen’s huge correspondence is that conducted with her eldest daughter, Crown Princess Victoria of Prussia, later German Empress, which is bound in no less than sixty volumes alone, selections of which were published by Sir Roger Fulford. The Queen wrote to Crown Princess Victoria of Prussia on average of about twice a week, but sometimes several times daily, for over forty years. This was in addition to a vigorous private correspondence (her letters to her uncle, Leopold I, King of the Belgians are a case in point) as well official communiques with her ministers, attending to her State Papers and of course, writing her journal.

Queen Victoria’s instinctive need to write and record everything was symptomatic of the age – a century of ever-moving pens on paper. Only a small number of her original handwritten journals survive, from 1832 up to 1 January 1837, the year she became Queen. (Queen Victoria’s drafts exist from 1843-55). These juvenile journals were mostly read by her mother, the Duchess of Kent with whom she shared her bedroom, which accounts for why only after her accession, do we start to see them properly become Victoria’s diaries – so in a way, this was the first censoring of them, because they were read by other eyes.

Her early journals are in themselves, a sign of the extent of her personal and political isolation at Kensington Palace. However, Victoria’s first journals as Queen also reveal a curious ‘other system’ in place to Sir John Conroy’s ‘Kensington System’, with her Whig Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, isolating her through ignorance from the truth about how the vast majority of her subjects were living and imbibing the young Queen that he adored, with his strongly held views, which were far removed from these realities: ‘It’s all slang; just like the Beggar’s Opera… I don’t like these things; I wish to avoid them’. Instead, her journals record a jovial and regular intimacy with her Prime Minister ‘Lord M’ that is markedly removed from politics and more personal, than otherwise.

Queen Victoria’s handwriting became ever more extensive over the years. Towards the end of her life, she took to wearing spectacles; a photograph of her taken in old age shows us her even struggling to read the letter she is holding in her hands. Her handwriting, in turn, as it got larger with her failing eyesight, became gradually more difficult to read, getting lost in the ever-wider black edges of her mourning notepaper. This was the cause of frustration to her family, including her future grandson-in-law, the Tsarevich Nicholas, later Tsar Nicholas II, who married her granddaughter, Princess Alix of Hesse: ‘Her letters are so awfully difficult to read…’

The fact that the Queen’s journals were edited should not mean that what has survived does not still represent a rich source of information for scholars of the nineteenth century social and political history, as well as that of royal autobiography, making what has survived all the more invaluable because of what was lost. The diaries of the Queen do exist in a full, unedited typescript by Lord Esher between 1832 and 16 February 1840 – six days after her marriage to Prince Albert – meaning that just under eight years have at least, escaped the sharp blade of the editing scythe.

This selected proof of the Queen’s monumental output is given further weight by the author Giles St Aubyn, who averaged in his essay of 1972, that Queen Victoria wrote some 2,500 words every day as an adult and that this worked out roughly to about sixty million throughout her reign. Had the Queen been a novelist, this would have meant a publication of about one novel per month, running to seven hundred volumes for her entire life. The one hundred and forty volumes of the Queen’s journals at Windsor number some 43,765 pages.

The Queen never was a novelist of course (although her favourite novelist was Ouida, who wrote Two Little Wooden Shoes). Perhaps it is this precise difference which explains quite why the Queen wrote so much because it was not in fact linked with creative output, but a genuine and instinctive desire to write, record and express her thoughts. Paradoxically, however, it became its own form of creativity. The Queen was a profoundly emotional monarch. Her letters and journals are a private record of a public figure, symbolic of the proud, Victorian age in fact – outwardly bound – like the Queen’s journals – but once opened, gush with passionate, inner life. Queen Victoria’s writings show in fact that she was really far from ‘Victorian’; and is in many ways, the antithesis of the age she came to define.

Queen Victoria’s actual, biological voice was described as ‘naturally beautiful’ by one of her Tory Councillors, John Wilson Croker. The Queen’s voice was recorded at Balmoral in 1888 by Thomas Edison, the Queen speaking into an early Graphophone wax cylinder, giving voice literally, to her age.

It could be assumed that the Queen was only unrestrained on paper and not as a person, but in fact, her personality is powerfully committed to the paper on which she wrote, always carefully marking what should go by messenger and what should go by post. As with so much, Queen Victoria’s journals represent much of the paradox of her personality, the privacy she insisted on in public, but then regarding her Highland journals, wanting to publish for a reading audience, her life in private, as her biographer A. N Wilson has observed.

The Queen generally used four-sided writing paper, 7 inches by 4 ½, with the first header containing an engraving or wherever she was writing from, such as Balmoral or Windsor. Examples of her Balmoral notepaper from 1875 show stags wandering about in the Highlands, with heavy black borders for mourning. This was the paper that the Queen’s hand (heavily ringed) would write on.

The Queen wanted her journals to survive but asked her youngest and favourite daughter, Princess Beatrice to edit them. This was not because she shied away from their honesty, but probably because for posterity, they told too much of the truth, as she saw it. Princess Beatrice began the gigantic task of editing the Queen’s journals in 1902 – ‘I have my dear mother’s written instructions’ – the year after her mother’s death. Although, she was not named the Queen’s literary custodian in her will. Princess Beatrice had in fact acted unofficially as private secretary to her mother, even writing her journal during her lifetime as the Queen dictated it. Now, Beatrice’s editing of her mother’s diaries was discretionary, and although she used the term ‘copy’, there is no doubt that much has been lost but this does say a great deal about how Queen Victoria trusted Beatrice to censor her voice, placing absolute confidence in her methods.

History has never really forgiven Princess Beatrice for what was essentially family feeling, which sought to ‘bequeath’ the Queen to posterity (and the nation) in the form that Beatrice having been assigned this task, deemed most appropriate. It is this which makes us all too often forget that the nation’s Sovereign was also a mother to nine children, who naturally had the right to sort those papers as any (royal) child would of any (royal) parent. We must assume that Beatrice removed any passage which might prove painful or upsetting to the Royal Family, or thought inappropriate to the Queen’s memory. Princess Beatrice became her mother’s literary ‘carer’ – after death. Princess Beatrice ‘copied’ the Queen’s journals from 1 August 1832 until 13 January 1901 into blue notebooks produced by the firm Parkins & Gotto and were not numbered until she had completed the task, burning each original volume as she did so. (They eventually came to one hundred and eleven).

We might wonder what it was that made Queen Victoria talk so often and so much. The Queen’s recent biographer, A. N. Wilson, suggests that this could be the natural consequence of a solitary childhood where a journal could have become a habitual form of lone conversation. But if it was a habit begun early, it clearly did not leave her, not even when she was no longer solitary and the mother of nine children and forty-two grandchildren, great-grandchildren notwithstanding. Her instinctive need to record remained.

Queen Victoria’s formidable output regarding words might make us wonder how she managed in fact, to write so much and live so fully. That the Queen incorporated so much private writing into her personal time outside of her official correspondence is proof that it was part of her daily regimen and also, her personality. It is also important to remember that the reason why the Queen conducted such a gigantic correspondence with her eldest child is that since 1858, the Princess Royal had been living in Germany as Crown Princess of Prussia. I, therefore,e became a way for the Queen to talk to her daughter from afar.

Victoria’s successors had similar ideas about their journals, but preferred destruction altogether, at least at first. The Prince of Wales – later Edward VII – kept a brief diary in his youth, but also ordered that his papers should be gone through after his death. George V when Prince of Wales in 1908, told Lord Esher that he had left instructions for the destruction of his journal after his death, which Lord Esher argued against. This wish to destroy should properly be seen as an inherited attitude from the Victorian period, where a private family man, such as George V certainly was, could be persuaded to preserve his journal, because of its inherent historical value. The wish to destroy was instead, a way of posthumously protecting one’s privacy.

Queen Victoria’s words are for posterity, the strongest clue as to her personality which despite censorship, still shines through. Her voice is still with us.

For despite Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, through her voluminous letters and (edited) journals, the Queen is still talking.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.