Aged 10 ¾ years old, Princess Victoria composed a story. This delightful children’s tale, written by the future Queen, survives in its own little red ‘Composition’ notebook in the Royal Archives. To understand how it was made and the full significance of it, we need only look at the age of the princess when she wrote it. I surmise that if it was written at the age of ten and three-quarter years, it must therefore have been committed to this little red book in around February 1830. She called it The Adventures of Alice Lascelles. In fact, it was a gift to her mother, the Duchess of Kent. We know this because of Victoria’s personal dedication: ‘To my dear Mamma, this my first attempt at composition is affectionately and dutifully inscribed by her affectionate daughter, Victoria’. This has all of Victoria’s later dramatic flourish, but also correctly, hints at formality. The Duchess of Kent, who idolised her daughter, whatever the difficult nature of the relationship, would clearly have treasured this gift, as she treasured up numerous objects in connection with Victoria’s childhood, found later among her personal effects, after her death in March 1861.
Importantly, it was the following month that the now much-quoted episode in the young Victoria’s life occurred, when she learned the staggering revelation of her future royal destiny. This took place on 11 March 1830, when as part of a history lesson at Kensington Palace, her devoted governess, Baroness Lehzen laid before her Howlett’s Tables of the Kings and Queens of England. This time however, there was a difference. An extra page had been slipped into this noble volume, in addition to this venerable royal chronology. Quick to notice this detail, Princess Victoria exclaimed: ‘I never saw that before’. After the names of her uncles, King George IV and the Duke of Clarence was another name – her own. Then came the thunderbolt of this knowledge, in all its terrible truth. Princess Victoria simply said: ‘I am nearer the throne than I thought’ and promptly burst into tears.
To make this realisation all the rawer in its freshness, King George IV would die on 26 June 1830 at Windsor. This of course meant that her uncle, the Duke of Clarence – now William IV – was King and she heiress presumptive. It was no longer the same situation as at her birth, when the Duke of Clarence still seemed to have open to him the possibility of siring the next royal heir, after his marriage to Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen in 1818. Sadly, Adelaide’s children had died and she wrote in the dignity of her grief to Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent: ‘My children are dead, but yours lives and She is mine too.’ (cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 30). Later, Queen Victoria read an account of this incident at her history lesson in the diary of the Duchess of Kent and it was confirmed by Prince Albert: ‘The Queen perfectly recollects this circumstance and says the discovery made her very unhappy’. (cit., Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, pp. 34-35).
The writing of her children’s story then, perhaps marks one stage in the closure of that childhood which she later chose to remember as having been so unhappy. With poignancy, we suppose that in February 1830, she was still surrounding herself with those silent attendants of her youth, the wooden dolls numbering well over one hundred, made with the help of Baroness Lehzen and representing historical figures as well as friends and staff at Kensington Palace, but more usually, figures from the opera and ballet. (Deirdre Murphy, The Young Victoria, 112). Victoria was obsessed with these dolls and although they have become iconic images of her isolated Kensington childhood, they are too of course, also colourful representations in miniature of her growing interests and the world of her imagination, especially her love of theatre and fashion. By March 1830, she knew one day she would be Queen.
Significant I think, is the book that survives in the Royal Collection, of Victoria’s paper dolls, mostly drawn and painted by Baroness Lehzen, but including one, Lady Maria, who was painted by Princess Victoria herself. This book dates from around 1830, (Ibid, 112) the year that she wrote down her story, so the images go together. A most appropriate choice was to include images of Princess Victoria’s paper dolls in the enchanting book that was published in recent years by the Royal Collection Trust, reproducing the story. These wooden dolls – numbering eventually one hundred and thirty two – whilst underlining her as a central figure, become I think, something of an extraordinary analogy of the vast family that she as matriarch would preside over, as the doyenne of Europe’s royalty. As a child, all these dolls were something of substitute friends for the young princess, whilst otherwise, she had contact with (mostly) adults. She once said to a child who wanted to play with her toys, bordering on the priggish: ‘You must not touch those, they are mine. And I may call you Jane but you must not call me Victoria’. (cit., Hibbert, 29).
I wonder first, why Princess Victoria chose the name of Alice Lascelles, as her principle protagonist. Victoria did not know personally any Lascelles at this point, although I have managed to discover through research that she met members of the Lascelles family on her visit to Chatsworth as part of one of her early royal progresses, in October 1832 – the year she began her great journal. This was the Rt. Hon. William S. S. Lascelles, M. P and his wife, Lady Caroline Lascelles; later, William Lascelles, a British Whig, became Comptroller of the Household for Queen Victoria, serving from 1847 until 1851.
The writing of her story antedates all this of course, so we cannot know for certain where the choice of name came from. Interestingly, her great-granddaughter, Mary the Princess Royal, only daughter of George V and Queen Mary, married Viscount Lascelles, later 6th Earl of Harewood in 1922. Queen Victoria’s own second daughter of course, would be called Princess Alice. Curiously, the future Queen Victoria spells her character’s name as Laselles and not Lascelles and so as such, it is reproduced.
Important is the fact that Princess Victoria does not appear to have written her story as part of an education exercise, but rather as a private creative pursuit in composition and gift for her mother. Her education was first supervised by the Revd George Davys, an Evangelical clergyman and fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, who was appointed Principal Master to the princess in 1823 and later became Bishop of Peterborough. Perhaps Victoria wrote the story on a rainy indoor day at Kensington Palace, with Lehzen in the corner of the room, who memorably ‘never… once left her’ and chewed her beloved caraway seeds. Reconstructing the strictures of what became known as the Kensington System, this children’s story presumably emerged from that same palace, from inside the head of Princess Victoria at this particular point in time. This was the same palace on whose yellow carpet she had crawled as her first memory and where her ‘friends’ included the famous Kensington Palace black beetles.
A fitting gift for a future Queen whose output of words would be so enormous, Princess Victoria had received a writing desk as a present from the ‘Mephistopheles’ of her childhood, Sir John Conroy, in 1823, with a personalised writing set. (Murphy, 77). Her children’s story would not appear to be based around one of her dolls.
Queen Victoria’s legendary dolls’ house survives in the Royal Collection, a simple and austere design for a royal child, possibly reflecting the solemn nature of her Kensington childhood. The dolls’ house was also of course, an exercise in social education and development. We need to remember that Princess Victoria had learned her correct deportment through the prickly presence of a sprig of holly pinned to the front of her dress, to keep her chin upright.
The children’s story itself offers possible fascinating insights into Princess Victoria’s imagination at this time, admittedly though, with the proper restraint we should exercise in reading autobiography into any work of fiction. What is certain, is that Alice Laselles’s life does contain several striking features that could suggest parallels with circumstances in Princess Victoria’s life. Alice’s father has remarried; Victoria’s own mother, the Duchess of Kent, had remarried. The child of this marriage with the Duke of Kent was of course, herself.
The story is set at Miss Duncombe’s school for girls and centres around why a cat was placed inside Miss Duncombe’s kitchen, bearing a red ribbon around its neck with Alice’s name on it. Alice proves to have been wrongly accused and later goes on to excel at her lessons. This certainly was the case in Victoria’s childhood, who was examined in March 1830 – probably a month after the story was composed. She was examined at the order of the Duchess of Kent by two invigilators, Charles Blomfield, the Bishop of London, and John Kaye, the Bishop of Lincoln, who reported that in particular that ‘we cannot help observing that the pencil drawings of the Princess are executed with the freedom and correctness of an older child’. (cit., Hibbert, 19).
Perhaps Miss Duncombe’s boarding school was a symbol of the Conroyan restraint of Kensington Palace; in fact, Princess Victoria called the children’s story simply The School to start with, but then decided to make it into a tale of the twelve-year-old Alice’s adventures. Perhaps interesting also, is the fact that Alice is not Victoria’s own age, but older, a telling fact being of course, that Victoria was surrounded by mostly adults in what she called her ‘rather melancholy’ childhood (cit., Ibid, 19). Victoria continued to go to the ballet and theatre whilst at Kensington Palace, so had her own ‘adventures’ outside the ‘school’.
When Alice finds she is to be sent to boarding school, she exclaims in Victoria’s words: ‘Oh do not send me away dear Pappa…don’t send me away, O let me stay with you’. Alice then bursts into tears and throws her arms around the neck of her father. Movingly, we must remember of course, that Victoria’s own father, the Duke of Kent, had died before she was quite one years old in 1820 and throughout Victoria’s later life, there are numerous ‘father figures’, including her beloved uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, and of course, Prince Albert.
The other characters in Princess Victoria’s story include Barbara, a girl from London who is the daughter of a rich banker and a French orphaned girl, Ernestine. The word ‘orphan’ occurs on several occasions in Victoria’s later life, as the result of deep bereavement, but of course, this story was composed long before these events.
Touchingly of course, the children’s story is – by Victoria’s own admission – her first composition. Its importance therefore cannot be overestimated in the royal life of an individual whose letter-writing was legendary, who published her Highland journals (despite protests from the Royal Family) and of course, kept her extraordinary journal from the age of thirteen until two weeks before her death in 1901. The author Giles St Aubyn estimated that she wrote about 2,500 words per day as Queen and that this probably meant some sixty million words over the course of her reign. (Hibbert, XV).
This children’s story should therefore be appreciated as a work not only of the Queen’s childhood, but the first in a long lifetime of her royal writings.