Since neither the queen nor her new husband had the first idea how pregnancy might be avoided, only weeks after her wedding the amazed Victoria found herself, not particularly happily, with child. The expectant mother suppressed her horror of what she called the "shadow side" of marriage and resolved to look upon the approaching event with something like equanimity. Both parents were determined to give their kingdom a male heir, such production representing the most fundamental duty of sovereign mother and consort father. Thus it happened that in the early hours of November 21, 1840, a rainy day Victoria remembered most clearly for the smoking chimneys outside her bedroom windows, the young queen's labor pains began, a week or two earlier than her doctors had predicted.
Because of the low state of medicine in the early nineteenth century, childbirth was still a largely primitive undertaking. Though royal deliveries were conducted with a degree of care far exceeding that received by most of her kingdom's mothers, the effort had, in truth, killed the queen's aunt, a tragedy most responsible for putting Victoria on the throne. This unique position she now. filled with a prideful mix of noblesse oblige and the assuredness that it had been God's own plan. Indeed, it did appear that divine facilitation had led some three and a half years earlier to the accession of the eighteen-year-old princess to Britain's throne.
To understand how Victoria became queen of England, it is necessary to look back a few decades, to the reign of her grandfather, King George III, and his queen, Charlotte. George, the prince of Wales, the couple's eldest child, had to the surprise of many fulfilled his dynastic duty by contracting for a lawful marriage, relatively late in life--he was already in his thirties when he went to the altar. Others, however, accurately foresaw the failure of that enterprise, since his bride-to-be was a woman whose tastes differed in almost every particular from those of her reluctant fiance.
To complicate the situation, the royal groom had already been married--although his first marriage, to the Roman Catholic widow Maria Fitzherbert, was officially kept secret: marriage between any heir to the British throne and a Catholic was impermissible under the law as it then stood, and to this day continues so. Because of its illegality, George's marriage to Mrs. Fitzherbert had been contracted in an essentially morganatic state (though Britain didn't and still legally doesn't recognize this either), which meant that his wife could not assume rank as princess of Wales, nor could any children of that union have inherited rank, titles, or rights to the throne from their father. Though on becoming king George could have made Mrs. Fitzherbert his queen--she was already widely called "Princess Fitz"--such an act would have brought disapprobation from every European court, as well as grave constitutional questions as to the legitimacy of Britain's crown, a matter taken by royalty of the early nineteenth century with massive seriousness, and therefore not a course likely to have been followed by a fourth King George.
Mrs. Fitzherbert's star began to be overshadowed in the mid-1790s when George took a sudden passion for new lovers, first Lady Jersey, later Lady Hertford. It was actually debts incurred during his illegal marriage that most directly prompted the prince to contract an approved marriage as a means of regularizing his purse. George abruptly divorced Mrs. Fitzherbert, even though he swore he still loved her. He surely was mollified, however, by Parliament's promise that in return for making a dynastically valid union, it would pay off his vast debts and generously increase his state allowance.
In 1796, George asked Lady Jersey, his hitherto standby mistress, to see what she might be able to find him by way of a suitably Protestant princess. It is perhaps understandable that she did not wish to recommend anyone who would diminish her own standing with the prince. In view of the results--Lady Jersey's intervention proved catastrophic--George would have been better off asking the help of a less personally interested intermediary.
What she came up with turned out to be one of Europe's least appealing princesses. Caroline of Brunswick was royal--in fact, George's first cousin (her mother was the sister of his father)--but that about covered her commendable qualities, aside from the prospective groom's belief the connection would please her uncle, his father. On the negative side, Caroline's speech was uncouth, her appearance astoundingly unregal, her bodily hygiene verging on the barbaric. George's cultured tastes clearly stood diametrically opposed to the princess's general lowness. The courtier Lord Malmesbury was nonetheless dispatched to Germany to inspect and negotiate. When in 1795 Caroline arrived in England and George first saw what his ill-luck had brought him, he immediately called out to his valet for a brandy.
Remaining insensibly drunk even on his wedding night, the prince nonetheless performed conjugally, the result being a daughter whom he named Charlotte, after his own mother. The infant was destined to be--given the father's lack of regard for its mother--George's only heir. Caroline was, unsurprisingly, discarded almost immediately after Charlotte's conception, never again to spend a night with her husband, nor even to pass many more days under his roof. George would soon formally separate from a woman chiefly distinguished for being one of the most ill-used princesses in British history.
Eighteen years later, Princess Charlotte, by then a young woman, was herself ready to mate. Understandably, she was leery of marriage, having seen her own childhood ruined by the aftermath of her parents' ill-assorted union. Though she was loyal to her father, Charlotte was nonetheless perfectly sensible to the prince of Wales's many and varied shortcomings--she once confided that "my mother was bad, but she would not have been so bad if my father had not been much worse still." But now grown, the all-but-certain heiress to the kingdom in which George was serving as regent for his mentally incapacitated father had all Europe from which to choose a husband.
Leopold of Coburg was the eventual winner of Charlotte's hand and of future status as consort to a British monarch. Likely the handsomest prince in Europe, Leopold already boasted a distinguished career as a major general in the Russian Army during the Napoleonic Wars, and--what gave him his eligibility to marry Charlotte--he was the younger son of the reigning duke of an insignificant if picturesque German duchy. Coburg claimed little more than sixty thousand subjects and was almost entirely unremarked upon in Europe's affairs except for the extraordinary good looks borne by a high proportion of the sons of its reigning house; even the great Napoleon himself once called Leopold the "handsomest young man I ever saw at the Tuileries."
Of ponderous personality, and apt to measure every word with razor-edged precision, Leopold's somber character stood in notable contrast to Charlotte's; the princess, though dignified and imperious, was outspoken and romantic, possessed of impulsive spirits and a generous heart. As for Leopold, he was cautiously quiet, not noticeably passionate, and had too little money to be generous. But in May 1816 the couple married, and the still-gangly princess almost immediately became pregnant. She miscarried this first child, but quickly conceived again. On November 3, 1817, three weeks overdue in her second pregnancy, Charlotte's waters broke and her doctors put her to bed.
Had those doctors been less timid in their ministrations, the subsequent history of the world might have been greatly altered. But dealing with royal births tended to make even otherwise-aggressive physicians think twice before applying necessary measures. Sir Richard Croft, Charlotte's obstetrician, examined the princess--without, of course, the slightest effort to employ sanitary methods, the medical implications of asepsis not then being understood. Judging that birth was near, the doctor called in the great officers of state to observe the event--a ritual long required at royal accouchements to ensure that no substitute baby was inserted into the royal line. But Croft and the witnesses were to be disappointed: the child refused to be born.
Following a full day of labor, Charlotte's pains lessened in their intensity; but though her cervix had dilated, she grew too weak to provide the final effort needed to push her baby into the doctors' waiting arms. The princess had been bled several times during her pregnancy in the accepted maternity treatment of the age (the reasoning being this would "prevent hemorrhage or the child growing too large") and had thus by the time of her labor been rendered dangerously anemic. After another twenty-four hours during which she still failed to expel the child (her doctors were unwilling to apply forceps, though a pair was standing by and the technique had been in use for over a century), it became obvious that a medical disaster was occurring. Finally, at the end of a total of fifty hours of labor, the all-but-expended princess managed to deliver a son--stillborn. Though her attendants frenziedly attempted every known remedy to bring breath into the child, it had evidently been dead for hours.
Valiant but tragically overdue efforts were now hurriedly put into play to save the life of the mother. Charlotte's loss of blood over the two days had been substantial, and a clumsy manual removal of the placenta only depleted her little remaining strength. The princess was in the end overcome by the combined effects of anemia, a likely pulmonary embolism, and perhaps even a porphyria attack (the disease having long manifested itself as madness in her grandfather, King George III). She succumbed at 2:30 A.M. on November 6, 1817, and with her died the Hanoverian succession.
With the recent and frightening shadow of the French Revolution's menace to the governing precepts of society, few Britons could envision a secure state without a monarch to lend it legitimacy. In consequence, the quest to produce a legal heir to King George's creaking throne represented serious business.
The eventual victor in the sweepstakes would be determined by the mathematical rules that governed (and still govern) succession to the British throne. The United Kingdom had never been subject to the so-called Salic succession, the disbarring of female succession to the throne that was the customary practice in the German and most of the Catholic states. Inheritance of the throne went to the sons of the sovereign in the order of their birth, followed by daughters in their birth order. Legitimate children of each heir succeeded, according to the same rules, directly after their royal parent, noting most importantly that the daughters of the higher heir preceded any child of his (or her) younger siblings. Thus, for example, a daughter by the older brother Kent would precede both the younger brother Cumberland and any of his children, even sons.
All of the prince of Wales's sisters were childless, and menopause had removed them from future childbearing. Some of his brothers had to date sired children, but all such offspring were, without exception, illegitimate, and thus ineligible to accede to the throne. Still, the stakes were high: several were anxious to receive the prospective parliamentary allowance of 25,000 [pounds sterling]--then a vast amount in terms of its purchasing power--that all of King George's sons would receive upon making proper dynastic marriages; with the gambling and high-living debts that were the hallmark and shame of the Hanoverian princes, these aging and largely spent men found themselves in the unseemly position of being run to ground by creditors, and the allowance would go far in ameliorating this annoyance. Thus several of Charlotte's uncles (George himself had apparently given up any thought of remarriage and the production of an heir), all of whom were well into the time of life when most men were greeting not new children but new grandchildren, undertook to perform their dynastic duty by making a run at the inheritance sweepstakes. Unfortunately, they were to many of their nation little more than scoundrels; Shelley characterized them, with biting pith, as "the dregs of their dull race."
Listed by their order of succession rights following George, the prince of Wales, the surviving uncles at the time of Charlotte's death were the dukes of York, Clarence, Kent, Cumberland, Sussex, and Cambridge. The eldest, York, was already married, but the union was childless and looked to stay that way; his wife, even if not yet barren, found her menagerie of monkeys and dogs far more congenial company than she did her racing-obsessed husband. Sussex, of literary inclinations, lived with a nonroyal lady with whom he was very much in love; he refused to put her aside, and thus for all practical purposes excluded himself from the succession. (Years later, Queen Victoria would allow the couple to marry legally, dynastically speaking.) Cambridge, who affected a blond wig and lived in Hanover, in 1818 married legally, again dynastically speaking, but as the youngest son, his odds of either succeeding to the throne or siring the successor to it were held to be imposingly long. Thus it was Clarence, Kent, and Cumberland who joined the fray in earnest.
Passing by Clarence and Kent for a moment, Cumberland, whose facial scars combined unpleasantly with a distorted eye, was not only a national bogeyman whose name was invoked by British mothers to keep their children in line, but was also reputed (admittedly gossip rather than fact) to have murdered his manservant and committed incest with his sister, Sophia. In 1815, Cumberland married a divorced German princess, herself a reputed murderess, who was never welcomed into her husband's family.
Of the three, Clarence stood closest to the throne, preceded only by Wales and York. Though by all accounts genuinely in love with his longtime mistress, Clarence quietly but firmly put the kindly mother of his houseful of ten strapping bastards out the back door. Queen Charlotte quickly chose an eligible German for him, one Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, a woman many years younger but evidently willing to marry a plausible heir to the British crown.
Kent, too, had kept a mistress--one of twenty-seven-years' standing. His companionship with this Madame St. Laurent was reputed as happy, though it was childless. A complex individual, ignored in childhood by a mother absorbed with an almost lunatic progression of birthings, Kent grew into a man capable of ferocious cruelty (to military underlings) and loving kindness (especially to Madame St. Laurent).
Like his brother Clarence, Kent too dismissed his true love for the sake of his dynastic duty. His choice for a bride was the thirty-two-year-old widowed Princess Victoire of Leiningen, who had been born a princess of Saxe-Coburg, had been married to the prince of Leiningen, and was sister to the bereft Prince Leopold. Kent and Victoire were married in May 1818, in Coburg, and again in the rites of the Church of England, at Kew, two months later. The latter rite was a double wedding: Clarence took his Adelaide to wife alongside his younger brother. The prince regent gave both brides away. The chief celebrant was the aged Queen Charlotte, her husband locked away, blind and insane, in the stone bosom of Windsor Castle's venerable walls.
As it happened, four of the royal wives brought forth children at nearly the same time, 1819 witnessing a kind of group confinement. In March, both Clarence and Cambridge became fathers, Clarence for the first time legitimately; sadly, neither his daughter nor her sister born two years later long survived. Cambridge's new son, George, was healthy, but a long way down the line. Cumberland's duchess then gave birth in late May to a son who, but for the arrival of a cousin, would have become the eventual ruler not only of Hanover but of the United Kingdom as well.
Little Cumberland's usurper to such power was a fine and lusty daughter born to Kent and Victoire on May 24, 1819. The glittering destiny for this little girl--named Victoria after her mother--was, however, by no means clear at this point, since any number of future Clarence cousins, or a brother of her own, or even, God forbid, a product of George IV's fagged-out loins would have displaced her. But, to her good fortune, it wouldn't be long before any rivals were either eliminated or made redundant.
The removal of the first block in Victoria's path to the throne came a few months after her birth, when in January 1820 the infant princess's father died, and thus the possibility of being preceded by a younger brother vanished. Six days after Kent expired, the death of her grandfather, King George III, put her rakehell uncle Wales, the prince regent, on the throne as King George IV. Her future grew stronger yet as Uncle York died in 1827. The king himself died in 1830, succeeded to the throne by Clarence as William IV; but by this time the new Queen Adelaide was exceedingly unlikely to produce any more children.
Finally, in the spring of 1837, William IV, the only person between Victoria and the throne, was dying. William had been not exactly a bad king, only a stupid and uninspiring one, who did little if anything to repair the damage to the crown's reputation wrought by his immediate predecessors. The British people now realized that the dynasty was on the verge of taking a crucial turn with the accession of a chaste and well-liked princess, one who would become the first sovereign queen since Anne Stuart had died more than twelve decades earlier. Under the late Hanoverians, the monarchy's repute had sunk to its lowest ebb in the nation's modern history, and the vision of the young and promising Princess Victoria inheriting the throne was one all Britain held most earnestly to its collective heart.
The sole snag in this happy scenario was Victoria's mother's "adviser," the widely detested Sir John Conroy, the man to whom the duchess had entrusted the administration of her household as well as the education of her daughter. Conroy was, moreover, popularly thought to be Victoire's lover, and would thus likely control Victoria until she turned eighteen. And depending on Victoria's wishes or degree of ambition, his influence could persist for a good deal longer.
As for the dying King William, his fondest hope was that his niece would grow up safely before he left the world; at eighteen, according to the constitution, a monarch could rule by herself, without the supplementary regent required for a minor on the throne. Since the duchess of Kent had been named regent-designate for her minor daughter, and William hated Victoire, and Conroy would be the power behind the duchess, and William hated him more, the sick king determined, steeled himself, to last through May 1837, the month of his niece's coming of age. Meanwhile, Victoria's tutor embroiled Victoire in unseemly quarrels with the king, apparently in an effort to isolate the princess and thus keep her out of the monarch's reach and interference.
As it happened, the girl at the center of these collective ambitions despised Conroy as much as did her uncle William. Observing what she construed to be her mother's unseemly dependence on Conroy hardened the heiress presumptive, adding to her long-festering detestation of a man she regarded as a worthless and treacherous interloper who had been raised far too high by her mother.
William would indeed live just long enough to see Victoria turn eighteen. From the moment of her accession only days after her milestone birthday, the new queen unequivocally demonstrated that she intended to be her own mistress, brooking absolutely no interference from her now-irrelevant mother. Having never been allowed to pass a night away from her mother, on the day she became queen she icily informed the unnerved Victoire that from now on she would sleep alone, in her own bedroom. Moreover, Victoria made it clear that Sir John Conroy would not be allowed to contribute so much as a word about how she would conduct herself as Britain's sovereign.
Upon her accession to the throne, Uncle Leopold of Coburg entered Victoria's life as a major force, completely replacing Victoire's maternal influence. After Princess Charlotte's death in 1817, the mourning but suddenly redundant Leopold had decided to remain in England, partly to ward off any political threat to the allowance Parliament had awarded him on his marriage to Charlotte. He made his home at Claremont House, in Surrey, where he had once lived with Charlotte. There the Coburg prince acted as an important financial supporter to his sister, Victoire, while in the meantime serving as a surrogate father to Princess Victoria. In later years, Claremont House and the security it had afforded in those parlous times would represent the locus of many of Queen Victoria's most pleasant childhood memories. But in 1831, Leopold had been chosen by the newly independent Belgians to reign as their new king, unhappily leaving Victoria in her last six years as a princess solely in the hands of the duchess of Kent's ambition and Conroy's avarice.
Although Victoria as queen quickly made it clear to Leopold that she would not be governed in her political duties by his advice, counsel he offered on a frequent basis via the Brussels-to-London post, she would eventually give in to his matchmaking. His greatest ambition was to marry off his English niece, a regnant queen, to his nephew, the near-penniless younger son of his brother, the reigning sovereign in Coburg. It seemed to Leopold that the young man in question, named Albert, had no good reason not to go to England and forge Coburg influence at the elbow of the ruler of the richest and most powerful nation in the world.
Victoria first met her first cousin when he came to England still in his teens to be looked over as future consort material; Albert had for some time been aware that his uncle Leopold savored the notion of his niece and nephew reigning together under his tutelage. But this initial visit produced no sparks, Victoria being far too enthralled with the power and independence that had so recently fallen to her like a perfectly ripened peach. In fact, the young queen at first concluded that she might not even marry at all, ever, fearful that in so doing she would see the exhilarating wonders of her sovereignty threatened. Further, the specter of marriage raised not-quite-savory considerations of bodily functions, a topic that had always rather nauseated her. Soon enough, though, she began to tire of the elderly company that represented the coterie around which her duties turned, finding that she had "no scope," as she put it in her diary, for her "very violent feelings of affection."
Two years later, when a more mature Prince Albert came again to visit the young queen, serendipity and hormones took over, and Victoria fell passionately in love with her now "embellished" (her phrase) cousin, truly one of the handsomest possessors of a royal title in Europe: tall, blue-eyed, a face enticingly framed by light brown hair and "delicate mustachios," slim legs shown off by tight breeches that served as a dramatic counterweight to his broad shoulders and slender waist--all in all, a vision that sent the tiny monarch reeling. It was she who formally proposed marriage--the gender reversal required since she outranked her cousin--and on February 10, 1840, the couple was married in St. George's Chapel, Windsor.
Uncle Leopold had expected a peerage for Albert, but Prime Minister Lord Melbourne regretfully informed his sovereign that Parliament wouldn't take willingly to the proposal of an alien becoming a member of the House of Lords. The question was suspended pending a supposedly more propitious time, but it was never seriously raised again. Victoria herself thought the title of "King-Consort" would be perfect for Albert, but that too was discarded as "un-English." Her husband thus remained plain "Prince Albert," and would wait eighteen years to be honored by his wife with the titular dignity of "Prince Consort."
With her marriage, the girlish virgin queen who had stayed up all night dancing every dance transferred all of her passion to her husband. For twenty years, until the end of his life--and then for forty more until the end of her own--Victoria's obsession with Albert would fill her heart to a point where all else would vie, often unsuccessfully, for what very little space remained.
Late on the evening of November 20, 1840, ten months after her wedding, the twenty-one-year-old queen went into labor. Victoria was only a bit older than her aunt, Princess Charlotte, had been during confinement. Her child, assuming it wasn't stillborn, would be the first direct heir born to a reigning British monarch in almost eight decades. She of course had no way of knowing whether the child would be the fervently hoped-for male--a matter of considerably dynastic moment.
Just after noon the next day, November 21, when the unanesthetized delivery finally produced an apparently perfect infant (when asked if she wanted a sedative, the queen bravely claimed she could "bear pain as well as other people"), Victoria's physician Dr. Charles Locock famously declared to his exhausted sovereign, "Oh, Madam, it is a princess." Quick to show a deep understanding of where her monarchial duty stood, Victoria piped the immortal reply in a high and girlish voice: "Never mind, the next will be a prince." Nonetheless, for safely interposing an heir between Victoria and Uncle Cumberland (by now sixty-nine years old and king of Hanover), Locock was paid 1,000 [pounds sterling], a princely sum in 1840.
In spite of the infant's less than desirable sex, husband and wife both appreciated Victoria's good fortune in getting through what was at the time an exceedingly dangerous enterprise for any woman. And both were equally pleased in the knowledge that the queen could, indisputably, produce healthy babies and navigate the process with relatively minor trauma. Little doubt existed in either's mind that the next would be the boy who should rightly occupy the throne after his mother. That cleared up, Victoria and Albert got down to simply enjoying the fact of a healthy new baby in the palace.
Referred to, with regal brevity, as "the Child" until its christening, during which ceremony Albert declared it had "behaved with great propriety, and like a Christian," the tiny princess was given the name Victoria, after her mother, and, unavoidably, after her mother's mother, with whom the queen was now barely civil. The little princess soon became known in the family as "Vicky," or, most familiarly, "Pussy"; two months after her birth she officially became the "Princess Royal." The title, a dignity bestowed by the monarch at his or her personal preference, had first been employed by King Charles I for his daughter some two centuries earlier. It signified the sovereign's eldest female issue, though in reality it added nothing in constitutional terms to the bearer's stature.
Faced with the probability that their daughter's adult life would most likely be passed as ornament and breeder in some Continental court, the parents--particularly Albert--set about deciding how to capitalize on these circumstances, which is to say how this princess might best further her father's deeply held liberal political ideals. But while this future bearer of the Albertine vision remained an infant, Albert simply reveled in the joys of a father who truly and unabashedly loved his child.
His hopes for this child had their roots in Albert's own earliest days growing up in Coburg. The duchy was small and, in the larger scheme of European affairs, insignificant, and thus its royal family was removed from both the pleasures and the dangers of international affairs. Only Prince Leopold's union with Princess Charlotte of Wales had brought excitement and fame to Coburg, before Leopold's sister again brought a connection with the British royal family through her own marriage to the duke of Kent. Perhaps as a result of its isolation from larger neighbors and issues, some of the ducal family--virtually the only populace resembling "society" that Coburg possessed--desired a more liberated community, one less constrained by the conservative precepts that had for centuries formed the outlook of the larger and more powerful European courts. Young Prince Albert especially grew up conjuring a broad-minded vision of the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed, his model being the state of social affairs as they were developing in parliamentary Britain.
An early trauma in Albert's life was the disappearance of his mother, a family tragedy that occurred when he was four. Duchess Louise, unable any longer to suffer alone her aged husband's gross infidelities, sought comfort in the arms and sympathies of a young officer in Coburg's army. Though she deeply loved her two young sons (Albert's brother Ernest was a year older), the pressures of an empty and ill-matched marriage overcame her wedding vows, and Louise ran away with the officer. Duke Ernest divorced his wife in absentia, and neither Albert nor his brother ever saw their mother again. She would die eight years later, in 1831. The duke remarried. Both boys formed a happy relationship with their new stepmother (Princess Marie of Wurtemberg, who also happened to be their cousin), yet Albert would never cease to cherish his mother's memory, romanticizing her escape if at the same time deploring her injury to a royal "system" that was meant to keep the thrones of Europe on sturdy foundations.
Musically talented--a gift two of his own daughters would inherit--and a scholar from his youth, Albert possessed an intelligence more ordered and far better grounded than that of his future wife. From earliest schooldays he willed himself to soak up as much as he could of the scholarly disciplines: ancient and modern history, English, mathematics, French, Latin composition, the natural sciences, music--all of which was interspersed with "bodily exercises... and amusement." His learning revolved around an unvaried schedule, from 6:00 A.M. until 8:00 P.M. his day a blueprint of orderly and substantive study. Unfortunately, a habit of early retiring became so thoroughly a part of this routine that for the rest of his life he greatly disliked the late hours that were the norm of European court life.
As the British queen's consort, Albert became irrevocably tied to his adopted country's liberal government--albeit a liberalism that was still a very long way from late twentieth-century notions of what constitutes enlightened government--and he began planning in earnest how his future children might realize his ideal, wherein parliamentary government was presided over by constitutional, nonreactionary, fair-minded monarchs who would as a cardinal virtue of their station remain above party politics. The prince knew that for any boys born to him and Victoria, their destinies most likely would be tied to Britain, the eldest as heir, the younger sons in high positions in the army and navy. But daughters, he recognized, could be instruments for spreading British enlightenment to the Continental courts in which they would almost certainly marry.
The queen maintained a certain distance from her firstborn, in the manner of mothers of her class. But despite any disappointment Albert may have initially felt at being presented with a girl child, he unequivocally took Vicky into the center of his heart. It was a rapture that would last the rest of his lifetime, and one reciprocated for every day of his daughter's own lifetime as well. The depth of the prince's adoration for his firstborn would not be repeated with any of the eight children who came after Vicky, a girl who started out and always remained truly extraordinary, her amazing future capabilities by all accounts apparent to her enchanted father from her earliest days.
The degree of Albert's involvement with his children first became evident in the prince's early criticism of the nursery routine to which Vicky was subjected. Few upper-class wives in nineteenth-century Britain provided their offspring with what we now fatuously refer to as "quality" time, and the proposition that a regnant queen would or could sublimate her substantive official duties to the mundane requirements of child care would never have been considered by Victoria. She saw her new baby twice a day--at bath time and in her own dressing room while she changed for dinner--as well as at a smattering of family gatherings. The monarch took pride in her first infant and having produced her, but was far too busy to give herself over to actually rearing Vicky.
Both parents actively attempted to instill a sense of cultivated breeding in their children, not least to guide their treatment toward those not of their own rank, particularly servants, of whom a galaxy invariably cosseted the family from the impositions of ordinary life. Victoria and Albert wanted as well to ensure that their offspring would understand why their exalted positions existed at all in the order of society. They were prohibited from the casual friendships children normally form with other children, Albert's justification being that such relations could all too easily ricochet with importunings on their intimacy. Victoria always thought and wrote of herself as being "above" matters of rank; but in fact, nothing is further from an accurate interpretation of her deepest held views. In the first place, the sovereign understood precious little of the lives of her humblest subjects. Furthermore, she considered the poor virtually another race from her own. She and Albert expended vast amounts of energy in physically separating themselves from common mortals, and in her widowhood such separation would become a four-decade-long obsession. Such thinking must inexorably have permeated her children's consciousnesses, keeping them essentially ignorant of the real workings of ordinary humankind over so many of whom their mother reigned.
Albert cleaved not nearly so tightly to Victoria as she to him. Though he was throughout their married life unquestionably in love with Victoria--never did any of the sexual opportunities at court cause him to step down from the plane of perfect marital fidelity, not so much as even to engage in a flirtation--he was able to find the emotional room for his children that always eluded his wife. It seemed to many who observed the family that Victoria's happiness in her children was more for the joy they brought Albert than for any deep attachment of her own. The sovereign's own deepest ties to her offspring were for whatever help they could bring to assuaging the broad and endless demands that came with her unique position.
The queen's imperfections as a mother--real though perhaps unfairly magnified because of her enormous role in history--were not returned in bitterness or in any lack of love on the part of her children. But they would be manifested by what happened in her offsprings' own lives as a result of Queen Victoria's too-often malign influence.
For the less busy Albert, Vicky's care was another matter. Politically speaking, he was not much more than an ornament in the earliest days of his marriage; his wife flatly refused his offers to help with any of her real work, instead delegating to him such inconsequentialities as blotting the signature she applied to state papers. The queen calculated, tersely but in the realistic way in which she often judged such things, that "Albert is in my house and not I in his." Though during her first pregnancy the queen began to discover how useful Albert could be to her, his days still held many empty hours, and he thus found time, and was so inclined, to attend lovingly to his daughter, even in her nursery. But his presence there itself created problems, when the women charged with overseeing nursery procedures outspokenly resented what they characterized as the prince's "interference" in their previously unchallenged domain.
Albert's particular nemesis in his domestic life was the queen's own former governess, Baroness Louise Lehzen, who as Victoria's intimate was general factotum and de facto, if not titular, head of the royal home. For many years, this formidable German lady had stood between Victoria and the political tug-of-war to which the duchess of Kent and Conroy had subjected her adolescent charge. Kept by the duchess from any unsupervised contact with the outside world, Victoria clung to the loving and sympathetic Lehzen with a touching ferocity. After her accession to the throne, neither Victoria nor Lehzen relaxed the closeness of their relationship, which in the early days of the queen's marriage meant that Albert often came out on the short end of his wife's considerations.
Before her daughter's birth, the only duties Victoria had officially assigned to Albert amounted to little more than titular supervision over the private domestic arrangements of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, the couple's two homes. But the prince's authority was often thwarted by resentful functionaries, the palace and castle having for centuries represented the uncontested fiefdoms of a vast panoply of chamberlains, officials, stewards, high servants, and free-floating hangers-on.
With Albert's ascendancy over the monarchy's domestic affairs, which would shortly spell the end of Lehzen's regime, the nursery and its precious cargo was elevated into what became virtually a department of state. To oversee all those responsible for the care of his babies, Albert wrote detailed job descriptions for each staff position, including the various nurses, nurserymaids, assistant nurserymaids, and wet nurses (Queen Victoria most emphatically did not breast-feed her babies). The extraordinarily stringent security arrangements that the prince devised would soon mean the introduction of convoluted hallways, secret passages, manned guardrooms blocking access to the nursery, and elaborate locks--the master keys kept, with delicious exclusivity, by Albert himself. The most fundamental rule governing this new, military structure was that the infant princess royal and her future siblings must never, under any circumstances, be left alone--an irony in that the queen herself had so resented that status as a child. And as a reminder that court etiquette held sway here as much as it did in the palace's public rooms, the rules specified that the wet nurse must remain standing while feeding any royal child, obviously in recognition of the infant's exalted station.
It was during her first pregnancy and postnatal recovery that the queen initially suspected Albert's potential talent for dealing with her official business. Her condition caused her to feel unwell at this time and thus often indisposed to attend to concerns of state, so Victoria hesitatingly began to ask Albert to write memos and minutes to the relevant ministers. "The Prince's observations," as Prime Minister Lord Melbourne came to characterize Albert's efforts, soon earned the respect of the men who managed Britain's complex enterprises.
The queen, too, came deeply to appreciate Albert's abilities, his stock soaring when she grasped that he could with growing effect put forward her positions and prejudices with the ministers to whom she daily gave audiences. Victoria's premarital fondness for and dependence on her first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, had been thought a dangerous thing, leading to serious difficulties between the sovereign and Melbourne's successor when Melbourne lost office. It was Albert who diplomatically, and with unarguable logic, taught his wife that the breaking of ties to any minister had to be faced to prevent constitutional injury to the monarchy. In keeping with the passionate nature of her personality, Victoria soon thereafter came under the almost complete tutelage of her prince. One official would write of Albert as "in fact, tho' not in name, Her Majesty's Private Secretary." Another minister went further, stating that the queen had turned Albert into a virtual "King-Consort," which had, ironically, been the title she suggested for him when the marriage negotiations first got underway.
As the queen was not a woman to cast her passions over wide waters, so Lehzen fell once Albert sought to implement his nursery controls. The baroness, accepting her defeat and unwilling to assume a lesser position in court, returned in 1842 to her native Hanover. The queen was saddened by the loss, but showed little real distress. Albert was, of course, elated at his rival's departure. He wrote of Lehzen as "a crazy, common, stupid intriguer," adding that "all the disagreeableness I suffer comes from one and the same person and that is precisely the person whom Victoria chooses for her friend and confidante." With Lehzen's retreat Albert lost his major domestic adversary, and was in an unopposed position to exercise control over the nursery staff. And his wife found the prize she would come to treasure more than anything else in the world: her own and Albert's near self-sufficiency from intellectual or emotional dependence on anyone else in the world.
A year after Vicky's birth, the already precocious tot found herself joined by another baby in the nursery. This time it was a boy--the heir apparent to the throne, christened Albert Edward, and for the next seven decades to be known as "Bertie" by his family. The royal couple and most of their subjects rejoiced in the knowledge that the nation's sovereignty would revert to a king and the "natural" order of things would thereby someday be restored. In 1841, no one could have guessed just how long that was going to take, nor how totally both Britain and the world would become accustomed to the idea of Queen Victoria representing the "natural" order of things.
However Queen Victoria's political life is judged--and if in the assessment there is much for her detractors to deplore, there is also much for her admirers to praise--her conduct as a mother started out as wanting and ended up as a tragic record of lost opportunities, unforgivable interference, and self-centered demands--especially that her own interests and needs invariably be placed before those of her children. These deficiencies were almost impossible for her children to ignore or challenge because of the all but unassailable position their mother held as the head of a larger family that would by the end of her reign encompass a quarter of the earth's people.
Victoria didn't dislike children, as the low points of her relationships with her own might suggest. It was more a case of not actively liking them. The permutations of her own personality, and her unshakable appreciation of the position she held, kept her from loosening her dignity enough to give them, especially the older ones, the kind of natural affection children thrive on. Her eldest daughter would claim always to remember the "unclouded happiness" of her youth; but the sources of the shortcomings that would mar Vicky's adult life began during her earliest years, and many of these problems were maternal in genesis. A year after the princess royal's birth, Victoria wrote to her uncle Leopold that Vicky was "quite a dear little companion...[but] is sadly backward." Perhaps the queen's comments simply reflected her inability to understand, or empathize with, a child--any child. Perhaps they sprang from a possessive love for Albert that would tolerate little interference from any other quarter. Possibly they were an early sign of awareness that Victoria could see the dark places in her daughter's personality. Understanding what led the queen to this appraisal of a little girl almost universally admired for her lively intelligence lies at the heart of understanding the course of Vicky's calamitous life.
Early on, it seemed that Albert's infatuation with Vicky was such that Victoria's presence was neither particularly needed nor wanted in his molding of a perfect daughter. He was to sculpt in his daughter an unwavering confidence in herself, from her earliest days. As all those around her--courtiers, nursemaids, relatives, visitors to whom she was shown off by her proud parents--fawned over the young princess royal, this sense of superiority, or, perhaps more precisely, the inability to believe she could be wrong, was inexorably buttressed. From those earliest years, the little girl stored up constant approbation, in reserve for the day when she would turn it disastrously loose in her adult life.
Soon after Bertie's birth, Albert's chief political, moral, and personal adviser and fellow Coburger, Baron Stockmar, a man as convinced of his own rightness as he was that the sun would rise each morning, devised at his master's behest an educational plan for the eighteen-month-old Vicky and her newborn brother. Designed along lines that he knew would gratify his royal employer, Stockmar's forty-six-page memorandum informed the queen and the prince that, as difficult as it would be adequately to educate two children of such exalted station and futures, "a dereliction of their most sacred Duties" would be the result if they did not try. Since Stockmar himself understood this would be a near-impossible task for parents so young, he volunteered that it would be his pleasure to take on the hard work involved in this mission. Victoria and Albert speedily assented. In Stockmar's undertaking to "strengthen the good [and] subdue...the evil dispositions of our Nature," Vicky would come through relatively psychologically intact. Her brother Bertie would not be so fortunate. (Continues...)