Like a lot of Americans, I have always had an inexplicable fascination with royalty, and of course there is something incredibly romantic about Queen Victoria becoming queen of England with precious little preparation at a very young age. When you add all her children and her being widowed fairly young, it makes for a great story, but I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that my fascination has been misplaced.
In Serving Victoria — Life in the Royal Household, Kate Hubbard does an admirable job of demystifying the household of Queen Victoria through the letters and diaries of her ladies in waiting and other retainers . In these first person accounts, Victoria and her family generally come across as incredibly boring, not particularly bright and irrationally obsessed with etiquette and other minutiae. Victoria and Albert were understandably anxious to maintain a prim and proper household, given their scandalous forebears, but surely there was no cause for the deadly dull regime of petty and belittling rules they created.
In a time when women were precluded from most legal ways of earning a living, serving Victoria did offer a decent salary to gentlewomen in somewhat distressed circumstances, and it was surprising how often the need to earn a little income drew women to these positions. One hired, they encountered an existence devoid of royal mystique. Instead, they endured tedious meals in boring company, frigid living quarters and essentially no free time.
As Queen of England, Victoria assumed she was entitled to have everything exactly as she liked, and if this caused hardship to her retainers, well she really didn’t stoop to notice that. In the diaries and letters, Victoria generally came across as a petty tyrant, who wasn’t particularly bright. She was forever sending third parties to complain about some minor lapse of etiquette, and yet bitterly resented undertaking her own official responsibilities.
The diaries and letters of her retainers show that they were frequently bored, often annoyed and almost always unappreciated by Victoria. Many of these writers appear to have been reasonably intelligent and were often able to see the humor in their situations, so it is hard to fathom why some of them stayed on so long. None of them voiced much concern about Victoria spending all kinds of money on herself and her residences at a time when there was so much hunger and poverty amongst her subjects. In fact, these writers gave the impression that Victoria didn’t think about her impoverished subjects at all, other than to host annual drunken holiday parties for her staff and neighbors in Scotland. (Curiously, the book I am currently reading about Victoria’s second daughter Alice, Alice, the Enigma — a Biography of Queen Victoria’s Daugher by Alice Croft, gives the opposite impression and depicts Victoria as some sort of lady bountiful).
Ironically, Victoria’s relative lack of racial, ethnic and religious prejudice, generally drew scorn from these writers, who were particularly resentful of her Scots servant John Brown and the servants she imported from India. In this one area, Victoria does seem to have been ahead of her time.
I did enjoy the book, even as the tedium of Victoria’s court was described again and again. I did wish that at least one of these writers had told Victoria to shove it, just once. But that doesn’t seem to have event occurred to them. These people consistently came across as a placid crowd that accepted the status quo without question. Still, they were faithful recorders and their accounts are valuable.