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Queen Victoria’s memoir

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, and this judgement was in the words of Victoria’s biographer, A. N. Wilson, ‘a fixed part of Queen Victoria’s personal mythology’ (A. N. Wilson, Victoria, A Life, 43). 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: ‘The King [George IV] paid great attention to my Sister,2 and some people fancied he might marry her!! She was very lovely then—about 18—and had charming manners, about which the King was extremely particular…’ (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, 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: ‘My earliest recollections are connected with Kensington Palace, where I can remember crawling on a yellow carpet spread out for that purpose—and being told that if I cried and was naughty my ‘Uncle Sussex’ would hear me and punish me, for which reason I always screamed when I saw him!’ (Quoted in 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: ‘I was brought up very simply—never had a room to myself till I was nearly grown up—always slept in my Mother’s room till I came to the Throne… We lived in a very simple, plain manner; breakfast was at half-past eight, luncheon at half-past one, dinner at seven—to which I came generally (when it was no regular large dinner party)—eating my bread and milk out of a small silver basin. Tea was only allowed as a great treat in later years…’ (Quoted in 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: ‘Claremont remains as the brightest epoch of my otherwise rather melancholy childhood … At Claremont… I sat and took my lessons in my Governess’s bedroom. I was not fond of learning as a little child—and baffled every attempt to teach me my letters up to 5 years old—when I consented to learn them by their being written down before me…’ (Quoted in Ibid, pp. 10-11).

There were memories of George III’s family: ‘I also remember going to see Aunt Augusta at Frogmore, where she lived always in the summer….’ (Ibid, 13) and also episodes in which her other Georgian uncles and aunts feature strongly: ‘I remember going to Carlton House, when George IV. lived there, as quite a little child before a dinner the King gave. The Duchess of Cambridge and my 2 cousins, George and Augusta, were there. My Aunt, the Queen of Württemberg (Princess Royal), came over, in the year ’26, I think, and I recollect perfectly well seeing her drive through 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: ‘In the year ’26 (I think) George IV. asked my Mother, my Sister and me down to Windsor for the first time… We went to Cumberland Lodge, the King living at the Royal Lodge. Aunt Gloucester was there at the same time. When we arrived at the Royal Lodge the King took me by the hand, saying: ‘Give me your little paw.’ He was large and gouty but with a wonderful dignity and charm of manner. He wore the wig which was so much worn in those days. Then he said he would give me something for me to wear, and that was his picture set in diamonds, which was worn by the Princesses as an order to a blue ribbon on the left shoulder. I was very proud of this,—and Lady Conyngham pinned it on my shoulder…’ (Quoted in Ibid, pp. 11-12).

There were outings and evenings in Windsor Great Park: ‘I… was driven about the Park and taken to Sandpit Gate where the King had a Menagerie—with wapitis, gazelles, chamois, etc., etc. Then we went (I think the next day) to Virginia Water, and met the King in his phaeton in which he was driving the Duchess of Gloucester,—and he said ‘Pop her in,’ and I was lifted in and placed between him and Aunt Gloucester, who held me round the waist. (Mamma was much frightened.) I was greatly pleased, and remember that I looked with great respect at the scarlet liveries, etc. (the Royal Family had crimson and green liveries and only the King scarlet and blue in those days)…’ (Quoted in Ibid, 12).

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.

The memoir ends curiously, with something of self-study in character: ‘I was naturally very passionate, but always most contrite afterwards… People will readily forget an insult or an injury when others own their fault, and express sorrow or regret at what they have done.’ (Quoted in Ibid, 14).

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.

©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.