The Last Princess: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria's Youngest Daughter by Matthew Dennison
|The Last Princess: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria's Youngest Daughter by Matthew Dennison|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: A biography of the princess who was widowed early and spent much of her adult life as companion and secretary to her ever-demanding mother.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 336||Date: January 2008|
Such was Queen Victoria's personality and, it must be said, iron control of her children, that all nine inevitably spent much of their adult lives in her shadow. Of none was this more true than Beatrice.
Born in 1857, Beatrice was only four when she lost her father, the Prince Consort. The bereaved Queen found her daughter a perpetual comfort, and the little girl's amusing, childlike sayings provided much amusement to the woman who, in that immortal (and not altogether accurate) phrase, 'was not amused'. A perpetual bridesmaid at the weddings of her brothers and sisters, Beatrice almost resigned herself doggedly to a spinster's life, supporting her mother as an unofficial constant companion and personal private secretary. This state of mind was much approved of, if not actively instigated, by the selfish mother herself.
At the age of 27 the apparent lifelong spinster fell in love with Prince Henry of Battenberg. The Queen was astonished that her 'baby' should even contemplate marriage, and for a while they were barely on speaking terms as written messages were passed across the table at meals. Happily Beatrice got her way, thanks partly to the persuasion of her siblings who tactfully told their Mama that their sister deserved the same chance of happiness that they had all been given, and married in 1885. But the Queen insisted that they must spend their married life with her, Henry soon became bored (and a little too friendly with his sister-in-law, the unhappily-married Louise, Marchioness of Lorne), volunteered for active service in Africa, and died of malaria before he could return home.
Early widowhood was not the least of her tragedies. Of her four children, the eldest son was healthy enough, but the two younger princes were haemophiliacs and died in early adulthood (one on active service in the Great War), while the daughter was a carrier of haemophilia and married King Alfonso XIII of Spain – with disastrous results for the Spanish royal family.
Though overwhelmed by the death of her mother, thankfully she found some outlet for her talents later in life. She was a good musician (piano, organ and harmonium) and painter, and published two books of translation from the German. More ominously, as her mother's unofficial literary executor, she spent the best part of thirty years 'editing' the Queen's diaries, omitting any passages she considered unsuitable for other readers as she copied a bowdlerised version into a series of notebooks, destroying the originals as she went.
To some extent this is not merely the story of Beatrice, but also of Queen Victoria and the mother-daughter relationship. That the princess never really seems to emerge as a personality in her own right is hardly her fault, or that of the author. Had she not lost her husband before losing her mother, it might have been different. Dennison also perceptively paints a picture of a woman who was a curiously unfeeling mother towards her own children, not only during the Queen's lifetime (when she always put the Queen first – as if she ever dared otherwise), but even afterwards.
Beatrice lacked the lively personality and interesting life which makes this book an arguably less interesting read than a biography of one or other of her elder sisters, for example Victoria, Princess Royal, who as Empress Frederick had the misfortune to become the mother of 'Kaiser Bill', or the sharp-tongued Louise, Duchess of Argyll. (I suspect a little more might have been said in these pages about the relations between Louise and Beatrice). Nevertheless the author has given us a very faithful portrait of one of the less colourful royals.
Further reading: If you enjoyed this title, why not also try Katherine Swynford by Alison Weir.
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