Letters To Vicky by Andrew Roberts (Editor)

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Letters To Vicky by Andrew Roberts (Editor)

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A magnificently-bound and presented single-volume selection of the six volumes of letters between mother and daughter, originally published between 1964 and 1990.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 784 Date: July 2011
Publisher: Folio Society

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The correspondence between Queen Victoria and her eldest daughter 'Vicky', later German Empress, began just after the latter's wedding in 1858. Over the next four decades, apart from the few occasions when they visited and stayed with each other, they exchanged letters about twice a week, until shortly before the Queen's death in January 1901. One estimate suggests there may have been up to 8,000 altogether. By that time Vicky was in the throes of terminal cancer and followed a few months later. Some of these, preserved in English and German archives, were published in six volumes between 1964 and 1990, but have been unavailable for some years. This magnificent volume presents a selection, together with an introduction and brief biography.

Vicky's marriage, to Prince Frederick William ('Fritz') of Prussia had been partly a love match, partly an arranged affair by her father Prince Albert, who foresaw an enlightened united Germany under the rule of Fritz as a far more liberal Emperor than his reactionary father William would ever be. But the best laid plans can come to nothing, and so it was in this case. Albert's hopes of being an unofficial adviser to them both for many years were shattered by his early death from typhoid fever in 1861, and when the ultra-conservative Bismarck took over the reins of government in Prussia, the Crown Prince and Princess (as Vicky and Fritz now were) found themselves very much at odds with the political environment. By the time Emperor William died in 1888, aged 90, Fritz was stricken with cancer of the larynx and died after a reign of three months, leaving the throne to their eldest son William II ('Kaiser Bill'), a disciple of Bismarck who had been diametrically opposed to his parents in almost every way possible. Albert's vision of a peacefully united liberal Europe, led jointly by Britain and Germany, was not to be. Instead, the unstable William II's sabre-rattling was to be one of the causes of the First World War.

Vicky is therefore regarded as one of the saddest figures in 19th century history, and these letters go a long way towards showing why. The content includes personal relationships within their families in England and Germany, and the views of mother and daughter on contemporary political and historical events. We read of the enormous sense of loss to them both in the death of Albert. Why may the earth not swallow us up? the Queen wrote plaintively in December 1861. It was but one of several bereavements, often well before their time, which struck at the hearts of both women. Vicky had the tragedies of losing two younger sons in infancy, one to meningitis at 21 months, another to diphtheria at 11. Oh! How great and how bitter this agony is words cannot say! she wrote on the death of the latter, adding how hurt she was that on the evening of his funeral, Bismarck chose to give a grand parliamentary soirée in Berlin. Yet even that was exceeded by the slow, lingering fatal illness of Fritz - a double, dreadful grief, a misfortune untold and to the world at large in the Queen's words. Mother and daughter had both been widowed in their forties.

Yet amidst the sadness and the griefs which they suffered together and individually, there are some lively, cheerful exchanges. When time allowed, they read for relaxation, and often compared views on writers and novels. There is gentle humour here and there, as when the Queen is moved to comment that you are a good deal taller than me, and I am not a dwarf. Later the Queen rebuked her daughter for not saying a word about 'her Highland book', compiled from her diaries and journals. Vicky tactfully reminded her how much she had praised it, how she and Fritz would be glad to receive a copy each, and how the Queen had given them copies on their recent visit to Britain. The Queen made no secret of how bored she was by the regular birth of her grandchildren, and one (not one of Vicky's children, fortunately) was deemed a very uninteresting thing – for it seems to me to go on like the rabbits in Windsor Park!

Tact was not always the Queen's strong point. When Vicky was pregnant for the first time, she informed her parents of the impending happy event, only to be told that it was horrid news [which] upset us dreadfully. The more so as I feel certain almost it will all end in nothing. Ironically it culminated in a delivery in which at one point the German doctors almost gave up mother and baby son for dead. And how different would the history of the world have been if the infant with a badly wrenched arm had been stillborn, and did not grow up to become Kaiser Bill?

It is tempting for any reviewer to quote at great length from these mother and daughter words of wisdom, their reactions to the various European wars of the era, their expressions of horror at the assassinations of the Tsar of Russia and the Empress of Austria, and their views on the pleasure-loving but unfailingly kind and affectionate 'Bertie', Prince of Wales and later King Edward VII, to name but a few topics. The earlier editions of these letters have always been praised as among the very best and most readable collections of royal correspondence, and rightly so. Roberts and the publishers deserve to be congratulated on the production of this title.

The appearance of the book is splendid, bound in a beautifully designed red and gold heraldic design on dark blue cloth, and presented in a slipcase. I was pleased to see that the fonts and typefaces used for the earliest of the original volumes have been used again. There are fold-out genealogical tables at the back, a seven-page chronology at the front, and three sections of plates, in colour, sepia and black and white.

Our thanks to the Folio Society for sending a review copy to Bookbag and from whom the book may be purchased.

For further relevant reading, may we recommend Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant by Shrabani Basu, the tale of her notorious Indian servant; or The Queen's Knight by Martyn Downer, a biography of the governor to her third son Arthur, later Duke of Connaught.

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Buy Letters To Vicky by Andrew Roberts (Editor) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Letters To Vicky by Andrew Roberts (Editor) at Amazon.com.


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