VICTORIA’S MOTHERLY MISSIVES
Letters to princess reveal pangs of royal parenthood
In letters to her firstborn — named after herself — Victoria the Queen wrote to Victoria the Princess Royal as only a mother could.
Protective, bossy, affectionate, possessive, rebuking, candid — no detail was too small for the queen to comment on in the thousands of letters she wrote to this daughter-turned-confidante. Even as she ruled a great empire, Queen Victoria ruled her children.
The princess (and future empress of Germany) was married January 25, 1858, at the tender age of 17 and left for the royal palace in Berlin with her husband, Prince Frederick William of Prussia, 26, the future (though short-ruling) German kaiser.
Within three months of marriage, the princess was expecting a child, Prince Frederick William Victor Albert, the future kaiser whose role in the First World War remains controversial. He lived until 1941.
Queen Victoria, already plagued by unremitting guilt over the “child marriage” was frantic at the princess’s early pregnancy and worried incessantly (she called it “fidgeting”) over her daughter’s health. And her posture. And the heat in her bedroom, thoughtlessly located over the palace kitchen. And her lack of exercise. And her tendency to be fat. And her inability to hide her feelings and irritations.
“I also send you some soothing tincture which will do you a great good; put a teaspoon of it into water, and hold it in your mouth when you have pain and it will allay it. I suffered also this way,” the queen wrote, observing that “some people lose one (tooth) every child they have, and you will require to have them carefully looked at.”
In the same letter, the queen advised: “Promise me one thing, dear; don’t stoop when you sit and write, it is very bad for you now, and later it will make you ill; remember how straight I always sit, which enables me to write without fatigue at all times.”
Roger Fulford culled excerpts from among 500,000 words the queen wrote to her daughter in a three-year period for his book
Dearest Child: Letters between Queen Victoria and the Princess Royal 1858-1861. Their correspondence eventually mounted to thousands of letters over four decades — many of them both historical and lively commentaries on world affairs, homey matters spiced with cutting or kind remarks on European royalty (many of whom were relatives).
Far from being delighted, mother and daughter were quite miserable during the early days of separation. Within a week of the wedding, the princess called it “that cruel moment which I had been dreading … was more painful than I had ever pictured it to myself. Yesterday … weighed down by grief, today though very melancholy I am able to think with more composure.”
However sympathetic, the queen cannot contain herself. “I must tell you that you numbered the pages of your letter wrong, and then I must scold you a little bit for not answering some questions; but above all for not telling me what you do.”
Two days later: “Oh! If I only knew what you were doing. … You must tell me all about your day — and where you breakfast etc. what a pity it is you have no garden in just to get a little daily exercise.
“What is your wardrobe maid called? I asked this before, my love.”
Soon after, the princess described her schedule — in detail ever too scant for her obsessively interested mother: Breakfast at 9 or 9:15 a.m., letter writing, chats with the family doctor, her male secretary who was a baron, and the chamberlain in charge of dinners or presentations. In the afternoon, visitors arrived with speeches and presents, which at day’s end became “very tiresome.” She ate no lunch.
Dinner was served at 5 p.m., followed by enjoyable social chats with family and friends, and the royal couple was in bed at 10:30 or 11 p.m. on the rare occasion of a free evening with no parties, operas or balls.
Queen Victoria’s advice ranged freely in her reply: “I think it hardly safe to go from 9 till 5 without any thing? I would advise never to do it if you felt faint or hungry — but take a biscuit or dry crust.”
And: “Keep yourself under restraint” with your new family and the court. “No familiarity — no loud laughing.”
The queen admitted to possessiveness: “a pang to see and feel my own child so much happier than she ever was before, with another.” But she cannot restrain a warning: despite the “real happiness and great blessedness in devoting oneself” to such a worthy hus- band, “still men are very selfish and the woman’s devotion is always one of submission which makes our poor sex so very unenviable. This you will feel hereafter.”
The queen is pleased her daughter loves her husband and has a “perfectly united marriage where there is perfect confidence — love and affection. You said that the happiest time for you was when you were alone with Fritz. You will now understand why I often grudged you children being always there, when I longed to be alone with dearest Papa (Prince Albert)!”
After a reproach over of receiving too few letters from her daughter — the queen usually wrote at least two a week to her daughter — the princess replied: “I am sorry you should have been so long without letters from me. I wrote to you three times last week … and thought they would arrive all right. Don’t be angry, dear Mama. It is very painful to think I have annoyed you or displeased you.”
Amid rumours that the princess was pregnant, the queen wrote: “I hope that you will be spared this trial for a year yet, as you are so very young and I know you would feel all the homesickness. If I had had a year of happy enjoyment with dear Papa to myself — how thankful I should have been!”
(The queen was three-and-a-half years older than her daughter when she married and became pregnant quickly. Or as she wrote: “I was in for it at once — and furious I was.”)
And never one to hold back, the queen continued: “I really hope you are not getting fat again? Do avoid eating soft, pappy things or drinking much — you know how that fattens.”
Upon receiving word the princess was expecting a child, Queen Victoria was less than rapturous, having given birth to nine children. The ninth, Princess Beatrice, came within two years of overlapping the birth of the Princess Royal’s first child.
“What you say of the pride of giving life to an immortal Soul is very fine, dear,” wrote the queen, “but I own I cannot enter into that; I think much more of our being like a cow or a dog at such moments; when our poor nature becomes so very animal and unecstatic (correct).”
And another warning a few days later: “I know your rather too great a passion for very little babies, and I wish to guard you against overdoing the thing or letting the child become your slave (you become the child’s slave) so you should forget your duties to your husband, your station and indeed your relations.”
A few weeks later, she shows a softer side.
“And though I hated the thought of having children and have no adoration for very little babies (particularly not in their baths till they are past 3 or 4 months , when they really become very lovely)” she tells her daughter “still I know what a fuss and piece of work was made with you.”
The princess, as a baby, was dressed in different outfits too often, was up too late at night. “I used to have you in my dressing room — while I dressed for dinner,” dancing on the nurse’s knee “till you got so lively that you did not sleep at night. All that was very foolish. Still I have been much more tender with the younger ones, though they are much less seen and much less fuss is made about them.”
On regal self-mastery, the queen advised: “Now, my dearest child, — I fear you exaggerate as you so often used to do, little momentary feelings of suffering and discomfort, which others who do not know your disposition put down as real suffering and indisposition and then think you are really ill — which you are not; now let me entreat you seriously not to do this, not to let your feelings of momentary irritation and discomfort be seen by others; don’t (as you so often did and do) let every little feeling be reading your face and seen in your manner.
“All this I say with the love and affection I bear you — as I know what you have to contend with and struggle against.”
For her part, on the anniversary of her first birthday away from home, the princess assured her mother: “I am far happier far than I ever expected to be.”