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Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household

Downton Abbey has given us all an appetite for life below stairs.

The ultimate behind-the-scenes look would be those servants in service to a monarch amiright?

That’s what I thought I was getting with Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household.

I imagined Kate Hubbard giving us access to the maids and butlers and valets, in thrall to the longest serving Monarch in British history. That there would be Carsons and Daisys and Mrs Patmores. That we’d find out all the gossip about the august royal personages from those tasked with looking after their more basic and bodily needs.

Alas, like when I picked up a book supposedly about regular people during the Tudor period, Serving Victoria was more concerned with those in more senior positions within the household: ladies-in-waiting, personal secretaries, ladies-of-the-bedchamber, physicians and deacons. Basically the lives of the paid companions of Queen Victoria only insofar as they affected Queen Victoria.

serving victoria

It’s not that it wasn’t an interesting read. It was. Well-researched and executed it was an extremely interesting book, full of little tidbits about a bunch of different Royalties. It just wasn’t what I expected. But again, these are the lives that are documented aren’t they? The folks with the level of education needed to serve the Queen in their individual capacities, those that were able to read and write. The below stairs servants likely didn’t leave anywhere near their level of record behind to make research possible.

The early years, when we get to know the nursery governess were good. Sarah Lyttleton provided insight into the psyches of and treatment of the royal children from the start. The Princess Royal was very much her father’s daughter, brilliant and precocious and bored until the found her a tutor that was better able to challenge her. But the poor Prince of Wales was from the start always thought to be lacking in judgment and intelligence, early opinions that really set him on a course of assuming he’d disappoint before he ever got started.

Having read a variety of books about Queen Victoria and her various relations, I get a sense that depending on when and how you knew her, she was very different to different people. There were very few that she trusted enough to be her full self, and especially after the death of Prince Albert she clung to those that she felt capable of relaxing with and talking to almost as an equal. In her early years she was easily amused and liked to play silly games and gossip, although once she married she tended to defer to her husband in most things. After he died, she spent a lot of time marking anniversaries of the deaths of everyone around her. And since she outlived a lot of her children and contemporaries, this really took over her life.

The people that served her found it exhausting. I’d never really thought about how tiring it must have been to have to hang out with a Monarch and spend a lot of your time waiting for her to decide what you were going to do that day. She hated when her ladies-in-waiting had the nerve to get married but woe to the men in her life if they should decide to get married. Her doctor had served her for over 20 years and was nearing 50 when he decided to get married and she wouldn’t allow it to go ahead for months.

If nothing else, seeing the life of Queen Victoria through the eyes of those that waited on her is a new way of seeing that epoch of history. It’s a massive amount of time and things changed so much that it may surprise you to hear that it’s only 364 pages long. Hubbard has done an admirable job of boiling down the lives of these faithful folks to only the most salient details.

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A List of Biographies You Should Read

Last month I posted about a biography of Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold, noting that it had closed a gap that I had in my knowledge of English Royals. Soon thereafter I read Ambition and Desire, a biography of Josephine Bonaparte and told you that it was one of the most perfect biographies that I had ever read.

Both posts garnered a number of comments asking me for recommendations of this sort. There seems to be an idea out there that reading biographies is slow, that most biographies are boring.

I would disagree. Wholeheartedly. Since it’s the holiday season and you may be looking for titles for the biography lover on your list, or you are looking for books to add to your own list, I offer you a list of some of my very favourite biographies.

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about biographies that I loved about famous women. I still stand by those so there’s no need to rehash them here.

For those looking for an unusual Royal, I would recommend Lucinda Hawksley’s The Mystery of Princess Louise. One of Queen Victoria’s daughters, she was the first to receive an education away from palace tutors, travelled all over the world and made friends in unlikely places through her work as a sculptor. She agitated for women’s rights, became the first royal to marry a “commoner” and may have had an illegitimate child. Princess Louise was ahead of her time in many many ways and Hawksley’s adept handling of the story makes for an entertaining read.

If you are looking to cover a gaggle of royals in one go, try Flora Fraser’s Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III. Their brothers and their niece, one Princess Victoria that was, have long overshadowed them but Fraser brings Charlotte, Augusta, Elizabeth, Mary, Sophia and Amelia back out of the shadows. Born at at time when daughters were only as good as the princes you could marry them to, these women suffered because of their father’s madness. None of them married young, living fairly sheltered lives under their parents. Which doesn’t sound like a very interesting read but it is. It’s more of a personal story of the life of these women at court, at a time when their brothers were the only children worth anything. I took this book out of the library when I read it and I’ve always regretted not owning a copy.

If living under the strict rules that govern a King’s court, isn’t your jam, perhaps you will enjoy Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia by James Fox more. It’s the story of the beautiful Langhorne sisters, who were the creme de la creme of society from the end of the Civil War through WWII. Lizzie, Irene, Nancy, Phyllis and Nora were born to a Virginian family who’s fortunes were destroyed by the Civil War and ended up making their way across two continents, leaving fame, husbands and massive fortunes in their wake. One married Waldorf Astor and became Britain’s first female MP; another was the model for the Gibson Girl. Their lives spanned an incredible time in history and they were in the middle of it all.

Maybe a fashion biography is more your thing. If so, I would recommend Axel Madsen’s Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. I have very fond memories of reading this in the sunshine at my in-laws’. Coco Chanel did things her own way. She marketed herself as an orphan but actually she was raised by her aunt with her sister. At a young age she went to the big city to make her fortune, but it wasn’t until she got a capital infusion from a wealthy young man that she was able to become the Chanel that we are familiar with today. Chanel created her own legend but Madsen is able to show you what really happened.

I don’t usually read biographies about men but there are, of course, exceptions to prove the rule. Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock was one of the exceptions. I adored Dahl’s books as a kid (Matilda was my favourite but I remember being blown away by Boy when I realized it was more than just a story, these things had really happened to him) but I never knew much about him. Sturrock told me everything and it’s not always a pretty picture. The man responsible for some of your favourite childhood tales hated that he found success writing for children – he always felt his adult work to be superior. In his lifetime he was called a racist, a misogynist and an anti-Semite. His romances were numerous, his marriage was turbulent, he was a pilot in the RAF and worked in intelligence. In short, he was everything you never could have expected from the mind that brought you Willy Wonka.

If stars of the silver screen are what you’re after, I’d recommend J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Elizabeth or Marilyn (he’s also written a book each about the Kennedys and the Hiltons – I haven’t read them but I want to!). Both are exquisitely rendered portraits of some the most famous women in the world. I also loved Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing by Lee Server. Ava Gardner was something else. I remember reading this, knowing very little going in, and coming away feeling like I knew her. She was irreverent, sexy and didn’t suffer fools gladly. Delightful.

I have a number of biography type books that are on my own Christmas list this year. A.N. Wilson’s Victoria: A Life; The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport; In Triumph’s Wake: Royal Mothers, Tragic Daughters and the Price They Paid for Glory by Julia P. Gelardi; and Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by Rhonda K. Garelick. There’s also a book about the servants of Queen Victoria that I need to get my hands on!

OK that went on a lot longer than I meant for it to! If you read all the way to here, thanks for sticking it out. Now, what’s your favourite biography?

 

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The Mystery of Princess Louise

Once I made my way through Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, I thought it was probably a good idea to remind myself how far women have actually come.

Perusing my shelves, I decided to read Lucinda Hawskley’s The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter.

Promising title right?

If you watched The Young Victoria with Emily Blunt (I did. Loved it) you’d be forgiven for thinking that Queen Victoria was a loving, open-hearted woman who adored her family because you would be wrong. Queen Victoria adored her husband and resented anything (her children) that took her time away from him. She detested the business of actually having children and begrudged those of her children who wished to have their own lives (the nerve!).

princesslou

Princess Louise was the 6th of her children, after Victoria, Albert (Edward VII), Alice, Alfred and Helena, before Arthur, Leopold and Beatrice (when you win Trivial Pursuit because you read this, you can thank me). I will admit to being personally delighted with this book right away – Princess Louise and I share a birthday and that has never happened with any biography I’ve read before. Her mother thought she was stubborn and rebellious, although she would admit that she was quite good looking. Louise was close to her brothers Albert, Arthur and Leopold but would spend a lifetime at loggerheads with one sister or another, usually coddled baby Beatrice.

Lucinda Hawksley (a great-great-great-great granddaughter of Charles Dickens) became interested in Princess Louise after researching biographies of notable Victorian artists (like Kate Perugini, a daughter of Dickens’) and seeing her name everywhere. When she went to look into her life further, she found that a lot of the documents relating to her were locked up in the Royal Archives without access.

Bucking trends would become a lifelong habit of Princess Louise’s. She became the first royal daughter to be educated at a public school. She became a sculptor of some talent, even getting her mother to agree to setting aside studio space for her. She was very active in the artistic community of the day and was a supporter of the suffrage movement as well. These activities, especially any to do with Women’s Rights, became complicated by her mother’s total disagreement with the cause – for Queen Victoria, a woman’s place was in the home.

It would appear that before Louise married she became involved with a tutor of her brother’s and may have had an illegitimate child. According to Hawksley, this child grew up aware that she was his mother and the ties between the adoptive family and the Royal family were inexplicable otherwise.

Louise refused to marry a foreign prince, making her the first British princess to marry a “commoner” (he was a Duke) since the 1500s. She endeared herself to the British people but her family thought she was marrying down, bringing common blood into the royal family. She travelled all over the world with her husband, especially North America after he (the Marquess of Lorne, later Duke of Argyll) was appointed the Governor-General of Canada. Rumours of his homosexuality have plagued the couple for generations.

Living in Canada, I was delighted with the Canadian connections to Louise. Canadians wanted to name a Western territory after her, so she suggested they use her middle name, Alberta. After she had left, Lake Louise was also named in her honour.

Princess Louise lived a good long time – she died in 1939 at the age of 91.

Hawksley’s biography of Princess Louise is a thoughtful well researched (especially considering all of the roadblocks she encountered) account of one of the most interesting princesses of her day. Because of the secrecy surrounding so much of her life, Princess Louise has dropped off as a notable person of her day but Hawksley’s work should go a long way to bringing her back to the fore where she belongs.

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The Pigeon Pie Mystery

I have read a lot of different variations on the crime fiction theme this year. This year was supposed to be the year that I revisited my love for the classics and made an effort to add more non-fiction to the mix but it has turned out to be the year when I fully indulged my love of crime fiction.

I have read crime fiction by Scandinavian authors, their popularity boosted by the success of Stieg Larsson, their fan base growing because their own series’ are so depraved and diabolical. I have been introduced to the brilliance of Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin, hurrying along the streets of Edinburgh along Rebus and Fox, getting a first-hand account of the underbelly of this most inviting tourist city. And of course, of course, I’ve made sure to spend time with that scion of crime fiction, the Queen herself, Agatha Christie.

It’s no wonder then, that I was drawn to Julia Stuart’s The Pigeon Pie Mystery. This one promised a host of wacky characters and a Victorian-era murder. Aside from Sherlock Holmes, I haven’t read too many murder mysteries that take place during the Victorian era.

pigeon

So Princess Alexandrina, nicknamed Mink, is the daughter of the Maharaja. She is British-born, unmarried and used to being excessively wealthy. When her father dies under fairly scandalous circumstances, it doesn’t take long for her to find out that she is in fact penniless. The government keeps writing to her, telling her she has to sell her home and she has no idea what she will do, having seen nothing of her intended, Mr. Cavendish, since the death of her father. Queen Victoria herself comes to the rescue, offering Mink a grace-and-favour apartment at Hampton Court Palace.

Having literally no other options, Mink and her maid, Pooki, make the move. Hampton Court Palace is filled with all kinds of bizarre residents and staff from the Countess who refuses to pay for anything to the housekeeper, Mrs. Boots who is convinced that she is going crazy as she keeps seeing a monkey in red velvet trousers all over the place.

Mink and Pooki are settling in nicely and are invited to an Easter residents’ picnic. Pooki makes a few Pigeon Pies for the picnic, one especially for General Bagshot as he can’t have eggs. But after eating the pie, the General starts to feel unwell and hours later he’s dead.

That’s a lot of set up right? That’s kind of how I felt reading it. It took a really long time for the murder to even take place and then I felt like there was a lot of screwing around as Mink tries to find out who was responsible to save Pooki from a hanging. I enjoyed the bizarre English characters but I had a hard time keeping them all straight as they flitted in and out of the narrative. In the end there’s even a love story but I found that it was completely secondary to the mystery and completely unnecessary. Another one of those books where the ending seems to be wrapped up too quickly, after you’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on the foundation of it all.

I’m not sure that all of this was enough to put me off Stuart’s work in the future. I know that she has at least two other books out there and I’m curious if this was a one-off for me. But if I’ve learned anything from all this crime reading, it’s that poison really is a woman’s weapon.

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Famous Women

I’ve finally cracked Catherine the Great: Portait of a Woman and, 150 pages in, it is living up to every single expectation. It is terrific and well written and wonderful and educational and there are pictures! Who doesn’t love shiny pictures?

Exactly.

Anyway starting this book got me reflecting on all the other bios of awesome women that I have read. I have a weakness for bios about fantastic ahead-of-their-time women, as any quick perusal of my bookshelves will tell you. I have an especial weakness for royal women. And we’re not even talking about my girl crush on the new Duchess of Cambridge here (although if you have a few hours and you live near me, maybe you want to watch the Royal Wedding again? I have it on DVD. Apparently I feel like watching it 8 times over the wedding weekend wasn’t enough).

I digress.

I’ve put together a modest collection of my very favourite bios of awesome women in the hopes that at least one will strike a note with you. Because women are awesome and sometimes it behooves us to remember that.

The Reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann was a souvenir book I picked up over my weekend in Vienna. I kept seeing pictures of this woman in an incredible gown with diamond stars in her hair and I needed to know more. So when I saw that same picture on the cover of this book – I had to have it. The Reluctant Empress is Empress Elisabeth of Austria who was incredibly beautiful and mysterious and really did not like being the Empress. She wanted to be free and struggled against the rigid formalities of the Austrian court. It was a wonderful, slightly heartbreaking, thoroughly modern read and I loved it.

Another woman struggling against the expectations and conformities of life in the spotlight was Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire. Amanda Foreman’s sympathetic and meticulously researched book about this ancestor of Princess Diana will leave you wanting more. I’m not ashamed to say that I picked this book up after seeing previews for the movie The Duchess with Keira Knightley. The movie is good, the book is better. Even Keira Knightley fails to do justice to this woman who was ahead of her time politically, romantically, even fashionably, and ended up paying a very high price for it all.

If you want to talk about high prices women have paid in history, Marie-Antoinette probably comes to mind, seeing as she lost her life for living a frivolous life at court while the French people starved in the streets. Still, Antonia Fraser’s biography paints a more sympathetic and realistic portrait of the woman who has been wrongly accused of uttering “Let them eat cake.” She was married young to a boy who ignored her for the first years of their marriage and was reviled by the people for the rest of her time. Fraser’s account takes you back through the golden days of Versailles, right through to the ignominious end of the French monarchy.

What’s better than the biography of one royal woman? Julia P. Gelardi’s book that covers five of them. Born to Rule: Five Reigning Consorts, Granddaughters of Queen Victoria ably covers the incredible lives of the 5 granddaughters of Queen Victoria who each became Queens in their own right. Alexandra who married the Russian Tsar and met her tragic end in squalor, her body riddled with bullets; Marie, the beautiful flamboyant Queen of Romania who was the mother of 2 more Balkan Queens; Victoria Eugenie who was almost bombed on the parade route on her wedding day, having married the heir to the Spanish throne, passing on the haemophilia gene that so tormented her grandmother and cousin, Alexandra; Maud, who in becoming independent Norway’s Queen, spent the rest of her days pining for England; and Sophie, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s sister, daughter of an emperor and the mother of three kings and a queen who ended her life in exile. I mean come on,  you can’t make up more incredible lives than that!

My last choice is not a royal woman, but one who had a huge influence on my own young life: L.M. Montgomery. I suspect that she had a pretty important impact on Mary Henley Rubio’s life as well which is probably at least part of the reason for the exquisite Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings. Here’s what I knew about L.M. Montgomery before: she was the brilliant author of the Anne of Green Gables series which I will love for always. After finishing this book, I know that she loved the island she made famous, but hated that her work destroyed the world she loved; that she struggled with mental illness in a marriage based on convenience rather than love or respect; and that having so brilliantly captured childhood in the form of her most enduring heroine, she had nothing but trouble trying to connect with her own young sons.

I could go on but I won’t. This time. If you have another book about a famous woman you think I would love, leave it in the comments!