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Queen Victoria’s dolls

The wooden dolls of the future Queen Victoria have long been the subject of fascination. Perhaps this is because we are fascinated by something so strongly associated with the childhood of that Queen who to a large extent, still remains in the historical imagination as either the monochrome royal widow or the elderly Queen-Empress of the Golden and Diamond Jubilee.

Several of these dolls are fittingly, today displayed at Kensington Palace, in the room in which the future Queen Victoria was born in 1819, displayed next to Princess Victoria’s dolls’ house. Queen Victoria’s opening of Kensington Palace to the public at the end of her reign would have meant that those visiting would surely have shared this fascination with these rooms so closely linked to the royal childhood of the monarch who had been Queen for so long in popular memory.

The royal dolls’ house that immediately comes to mind is of course, Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, which survives at Windsor and was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, in which a miniature photograph of a white-veiled Queen Victoria (1890-97) in a silver frame is also displayed, made for the Dolls’ House in 1924, when it was built. Dolls’ houses continued to be a feature of the Queen’s own family life; there is a large one to be seen in the 1870s photograph of the Royal Nursery at Osborne, taken by Ryde photographer Jabez Hughes. Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, was sketched in watercolour by the fashionable portraitist Franz Xaver Winterhalter in 1859, clutching an exotically costumed doll. The future Queen’s dolls’ house at Kensington was a conventionally appropriate toy for a royal child and represented a capsule of aristocratic life in miniature; it included a drawing room set up for tea and a kitchen; alongside a child’s tea set which was a present from her beloved aunt, the Duchess of Clarence, the future Queen Adelaide. (Annie Gray, The Greedy Queen, 15).

Dolls were an early feature in Princess Victoria’s childhood, but in this, she was hardly unique amongst her aristocratic (and royal) contemporaries, as they were naturally standard playthings for a girl such as she was. Even as early as 1822, her aunt Adelaide, then Duchess of Clarence, was writing to her beloved niece, a letter on her third birthday: ‘Uncle William and Aunt Adelaide also beg little Victoria to give dear Mama and to dear Sissi [Feodore] a kiss in their name… and also to the big Doll…’ (Quoted in A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, The Letters of Queen Victoria: A Selection of Her Majesty’s Correspondence between the years 1837 and 1861, 31). This is all the more poignant because the future Queen Adelaide had lost a child the previous year and doted on Princess Victoria.

Somehow these wooden dolls – of which there were one hundred and thirty-two – have come to symbolise the Queen’s isolated childhood at Kensington. Much comment has been made on the Queen’s later verdict of her ‘unhappy’ childhood, such as she judged it to be, for example, in the memoir she wrote down, in 1872. It is easy to understand why these dolls might have become symbolic in the popular mind, of that ‘unhappy’ childhood, and lonely as it certainly was, it was by no means as miserable as the Queen would decide it had been. While the Queen’s pronouncement on her own childhood is the most important on her own life, for that very reason, it may not be an accurate one, her own experience creating her personal bias.

The surviving evidence, by contrast, suggests that the future Queen was in fact, doted on as a child by her widowed mother, the Duchess of Kent, to which the volumes of bound correspondence in the Royal Archives from the Duchess to her daughter, certainly attest. A loving scribble on pink notepaper from the Duchess to the child Princess Victoria was left on her pillow, for New Years’ Eve 1828: ‘Believe me, my most beloved child, that nobody in this world can love you better than, your true and affectionate Mother…’ (Quoted in A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 45). The relationship between Queen Victoria and her mother inevitably improved with the eventual dismissal of her former governess, Baroness Lehzen, after her marriage to Prince Albert. Queen Victoria later remembered in 1858: ‘From my unfortunate circumstances [I] was not comfortable or at all intimate or confidential footing with my mother… – much as I love her now…’ (Quoted in Ibid, 44). The Queen’s explosion of grief at the death of the Duchess of Kent in 1861 was most probably all the more extreme because of the possible feelings of regret and guilt over her own prejudiced childhood. We know that when sorting through her mother’s effects at Frogmore, the Queen was profoundly moved by items that she found which related to her babyhood, which her mother had lovingly preserved, whatever the years of familial difficulty.

The Queen’s childhood at Kensington Palace was a lonely one, although this was also of course, entirely in keeping with the kind of isolation that might be expected for a royal child under such circumstances. But the future Queen was not alone – nor was it the kind of defiant ‘Of COURSE quite ALONE’ which she boldly wrote in her journal on her accession at the age of eighteen, in 1837. Her beloved half-sister Princess Feodore – twelve years her senior – shared Kensington Palace with her until her marriage to Prince Ernest of Hohenlohe-Langenburg; she left the Palace in February 1828, where her ‘only happy time was driving out’ at Kensington, by her own account, when she could be herself, in the company of Baroness Lehzen and her ‘dearest sister’, Victoria. (Quoted in Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, 22). Jane and Victoire, the daughters of the Duchess of Kent’s Comptroller of the Household, the Duke of Kent’s former equerry, Sir John Conroy, were grudging companions of Princess Victoria’s childhood, whom she sketched and had with her but were rather ‘friends’ who had been personally selected for her.

By contrast, Princess Victoria adored her ‘ANGELIC dearest Mother Lehzen, who I do so love.’ (Quoted in Hibbert, 34). With her direct reference to Lehzen as an ersatz mother, it is clear why the relationship with the Duchess of Kent was later remembered as a difficult one. The constant companionship of Lehzen – who never ‘once left her’ – (Quoted in Hibbert, 22) helps us to understand how making the wooden dolls became so important; in modern language, it was a shared bonding exercise between Lehzen and the Princess. The painted mannequins were dressed by Princess Victoria and Lehzen after contemporary figures in theatre or opera, or were figures from history – an interesting comment on Princess Victoria’s awareness of the world, her activities outside the palace and also, the royal imagination. It became a ready follow-on from the sketches that Princess Victoria had made of the Baroness Lehzen for example, and herself, in which the clothing features strongly, such as Lehzen’s lace cap. We might see these dolls as Victoria’s response to the world as she saw it, in which there was a shared curiosity between her and the public outside.

Lehzen and Victoria also sketched dolls, but importantly, these sketches show greater talent than the wooden dolls themselves. The crudeness of the dolls’ features lacks the fine skill of Victoria’s own sketches, of the dolls and others that she made at this time. Sketches from the future Queen’s book of paper dolls appear in her scrapbook ca. 1830; Lehzen painted some of the dolls, but one of these, for example, Lady Maria, was ‘Painted by Princess Victoria’ herself. The face of the paper doll is not unlike Princess Victoria’s, so perhaps an interesting question for self-portraiture and costume.

Each of these wooden dolls was listed in a copybook (Hibbert, 22) which provided the basis for Frances Lowe’s book, Queen Victoria’s Dolls, published in 1894, in the Queen’s lifetime. The copybook dates most of the dolls between 1831 and 1833, in between which Princess Victoria began the first volume of her journal. We might see these dolls as a creative exercise alongside the journal. Far from infantilising Victoria, these dolls show her I think, as a burgeoning teenager. Most of the one hundred and thirty-two dolls survive in the Royal Collection, although the number is no longer complete, with several now lost. The first reference to these dolls is in Princess Victoria’s journal for August 1832, where she describes having been given one such doll by Lehzen and that another doll was finished the next day. She took some of her dolls with her on the visit to Plas Newydd in 1832; we know this because she describes packing and unpacking them.

The dolls were exhibited at the London Museum in 1912, amongst other items put on first display with a royal provenance. (Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, 88). Significantly perhaps, the first surviving dress of Princess Victoria’s is a blonde lace dress, dating from 1831-32, when the Princess was aged about twelve. Whilst it is by chance that this is the earliest to survive, it is interesting to compare this alongside the costumes worn by the wooden dolls, as it dates from roughly the same time. Tellingly, most of the dolls are ladies. There are a few gentlemen dolls, however, such as the ‘Count Almaviva’ (Doll No. 25) and ‘Sir William Arnold’. (Ibid, 88-89). It is tempting that Princess Victoria provided for her dolls with gentlemen partners in this way so that her dolls themselves might not be ‘lonely’.

Far more than symbolising royal loneliness, these dolls in fact I think, represent conventional playthings for an aristocratic child such as Victoria was, although admittedly, an isolated one, which lends the idea of these dolls as substitute companions for the Princess, a special piquancy. Victoria herself seems not to have viewed them in conjunction with her ‘unhappy’ childhood, in contrast to their ‘Kensington friends’ [‘the black beetles’]. Instead, the dolls appear to have provided pleasure for the Princess and Lehzen during the many hours they spent together and perhaps, given the historical figures that some of the dolls were, they were also a subtle history lesson, given the future role of the Princess.

Lady Wharncliffe observed of the young Princess Victoria, that she was ‘fondest of all of her dolls’. (Quoted in Hibbert, 29). Mrs. Harriet Arbuthnot found Victoria ‘childish, playing with her dolls’. (Quoted in Ibid. 29).

Queen Victoria discussed dolls with her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne in her journal, but there is no reference to loneliness. In her journal for 1839, the Queen mentions an old box of her dolls at Buckingham Palace, which means that the dolls which she had packed away at Kensington in 1833 (Staniland, 88), had obviously followed her to Buckingham Palace, to which she had moved the monarchy’s main London address on her accession. The Buckingham Palace nurseries must surely have contained dolls; the Queen’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria of Battenberg described the nurseries at the Palace, remembering that there were: ‘strange sorts of bicycles, with saddles and adorned with horses’ heads and tails… the old royal nurseries were on the same floor...’ (Quoted in David Duff, Hessian Tapestry, 158).

The fact that the dolls all represent adults is perhaps in itself, telling. The point is well made by the author Kay Staniland in her book In Royal Fashion, who suggests that the dolls were part of an adult world of Victoria’s and thus presaged her own court. (Ibid, 88). Interestingly, there are no teenage dolls amongst Victoria’s copybook list, no contemporaries of her own age who we might expect to be her ‘friends’. One exception being the two ‘children’ dolls which Victoria gave to her doll ‘Count Almaviva’, who had ‘married’ her doll ‘Mlle Sylphide Taglioni’, a doll which had been made by Lehzen in 1832-33. As Princess Victoria noted ‘as Mlle Taglioni appeared in the ballet of La Sylphide…’ (Ibid, 88-89) referring to the celebrated Swedish-born ballerina Marie Taglioni, who Princess Victoria sketched and made numerous references to in her early journals, reminiscent of her juvenile theatre visits. (Ibid, 89). Taglioni’s father had choreographed La Sylphide for her in Paris in 1832, for his daughter to perform as a danseuse en pointe. Taglioni left the Ballet of Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1837, the same year as Victoria’s accession.

Because Princess Victoria had such little contact with contemporaries her own age, the fact that the dolls are adult demonstrates her teenage curiosity with the world outside her windows. Like the dolls’ house, the dolls themselves provide a miniature glimpse into Victoria’s own life. This remained the case on her accession, when as a young eighteen-year-old, she was surrounded by an adult court which came to Kensington, for her first Council Meeting. In happier terms, it is pleasant to imagine the lonely child at Kensington surrounded by her dolls, as a reverse symbol of the elderly Queen as royal mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, surrounded by hundreds of her descendants. Some twenty-nine of the dolls had been gifts, in addition to those which she had made with Lehzen. The Queen later wrote of her strangely ‘adult’ childhood, when her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice was two: ‘I have grown up all alone… accustomed to the society of adults (and never with youngest people)…’ (John Van der Kiste, Childhood at Court, 50; quoted in Matthew Dennison, The Last Princess, 10).

The Queen would later have a different experience with diminutive clothing, when it came to the dressing of her own children, for example.

The giving of dolls by the Queen and Prince Albert as personal gifts is something which continues sporadically though out the journal, so we see that the Queen considered it an appropriate present for the children in her family, just as she had considered it for herself. (Similarly, it also, of course, presaged royal motherhood – although we know from the Queen’s own reactions to her daughters’ pregnancies that these were conflicted, to say the least and foremost full of sympathy for the mother). Dolls were also, then as now, on top of the royal Christmas tree.

It is interesting to take a list of the names of the dolls – usually chosen by Princess Victoria – and see how they reflect their sources of inspiration. A doll she received as a gift – the most magnificent dressed of all of them – was given to her by Lady Catherine Jenkinson and called ‘Catherine, Countess of Claremont’. Allowing for royal alliteration, it is clear that the doll was called after the giver and made a Countess of Claremont, the beloved home in Esher which belonged to her uncle, Prince Leopold, future King of the Belgians. It is also reminiscent of future royal aliases, such as when Queen Victoria travelled abroad in the latter part of her reign ‘incognito’ as the ‘Countess of Balmoral’.

Perhaps significantly, Princess Victoria did not make a doll of Lehzen or of – herself. This could show that it was supposed to be a world which they could share together, another interesting comment that they may have felt themselves not part of the world they were trying to create. Princess Victoria played with these dolls,  made them, dressed them, sketched them and took them with her on her travels. They will surely continue to symbolise for us, Queen Victoria’s childhood.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018.

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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.