Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household by Kate Hubbard

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Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household by Kate Hubbard

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A penetrating account of life at the court of Queen Victoria, seen mainly through the years of service of six ladies-in-waiting, her chaplain, her secretary and her personal physician
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 417 Date: July 2013
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099532231

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Biographies old and new of Queen Victoria, her husband and her children are plentiful enough. The vast majority of them are based to some extent on the diaries, memoirs and biographies of some of the most important figures who served her, and Kate Hubbard has put these as well as supplementary archive papers to good use in presenting a thoroughly engrossing account of the royal household throughout the Queen’s lengthy reign. I might almost say ‘lively’, though that could be an exaggeration. The court of Victoria may have been homely after a fashion, but for the most part it was hardly lively.

In this book the main heroes and heroines are six servants, namely Sarah, Lady Lyttelton; Charlotte, Lady Canning; and Mary Bulteel, all maids- and ladies-in-waiting; Henry Ponsonby, the Queen’s secretary and later the husband of Mary; Randall Davidson, her chaplain as well as Dean of Windsor and after her death Archbishop of Canterbury; and her physician James Reid. Several more frequently enter these pages, but ‘the big six’ are the bedrock of this narrative.

In one sense, the royal household ran smoothly for everybody, in that a strict routine was maintained and the servants deviated from this at their peril. Needless to say many of them found much of their existence on the job tedious beyond belief, particularly in the Queen’s latter years when she was set in her ways and deplored change of any kind. In another sense, there was nearly always something in the way of gossip, scandal or petty jealousies which could be relied on to produce excitement, unwelcome though it might be. During the early years there was much irritation with the methods of Prince Albert’s German staff who had accompanied him from Coburg, like him determined to increase efficiency, economy and cost-effectiveness, doing away with many of the slapdash ‘English’ ways and practices into which administration at Windsor Castle had slipped unchecked. After Albert’s death there was burning resentment at the rudeness of John Brown, the plain-speaking, hard-drinking Highland servant, and the behaviour of the arrogant, shifty ‘Munshi’, Abdul Karim, the Indian attendant with ideas evidently above his station.

Like the others Lady Lyttelton and Lady Canning regularly chafed at the dullness of Windsor, Buckingham Palace, Osborne and Balmoral, but both were blessed with the patience of saints. Being as fond of children as she was, the former found some compensation in her position as governess to the elder children when they were small. She survived to a peaceful retirement with her own family, while the latter, married to a notoriously unfaithful governor-general of India, found early release from a short and evidently unhappy life after an attack of fever.

It was significant that after the Prince Consort’s death male staff predominated in the life of Queen Victoria. The only child who had lost her father when she was only eight months old spent her life looking for and remaining attached to strong, commanding men to look up to and be guided by throughout her life. These men would generally stand up to her and tell her what she needed to hear, in a way that her maidservants and own children, always in awe of her, never dared to. The fearless Reid and Davidson knew instinctively how far they could go with her. When most of the household were close to open rebellion because of her obstinate defence of the Munshi, Reid told her to her face that he had been questioned about her sanity, and threatened to resign from the royal household. For one of the very few times in her life, she had to concede that she was in the wrong. Meanwhile the worldly-wise Ponsonby, an easy-going, liberal-minded man (in politics as well as personality) who like his wife had little time for pomp and stuffiness, treated his mistress with just the right balance of deference and humour. Nevertheless he paid the price after years of overwork, and was forced to retire after a stroke left him a complete invalid for the last few months of his life.

In the last few years there has been a gentle but noticeable trend of biographies of Queen Victoria and those close to her becoming less deferential. An admirable and wise personality though she was in many ways, it is apparent that she could be an unsympathetic employer as well as (though not strictly relevant to the book in question) a bad, even tyrannical mother. As Hubbard notes towards the end of this book, her ‘much-vaunted consideration for servants operated only so long as she was in no way inconvenienced herself’. In her last years when she was increasingly tired and ill, she would be ever more impatient of the needs of her staff to have occasional time off with their own families. Yet for all this, she was extremely tolerant of alcoholism among those who served her, though this was not extended to her own family and particularly not to her alcoholic second son Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. When cellarmen and others disgraced themselves, partly out of boredom and partly out of temptation, she would make excuses for them and suggest that they be moved to different positions in the household, preferably those where the temptations of the bottle were less accessible.

Kate Hubbard has written a very entertaining book. Life in the royal household could be repetitive and desperately dull, but this chronicle of a court which she describes as ‘an airless bell-jar’, noted for ‘the smallest possible talk’, is anything but.

If this book appeals then you might enjoy the reviewer's own look at the subject:

Sons, Servants and Statesmen: The Men in Queen Victoria's Life by John Van der Kiste

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