Read The Last Princess Online

Authors: Matthew Dennison

Tags: #History, #Europe, #Great Britain, #Biography & Autobiography, #Royalty

The Last Princess (4 page)

BOOK: The Last Princess
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Beatrice brought about a transformation in the Prince Consort. Mary Bulteel, a maid of honour from 1853 to 1861, remembered the Prince as ‘without a spark of spontaneity… As for his sense of fun… I never could discover it… His… jokes were heavy and lumbering’;
19
while in a letter to her father written five weeks before Beatrice's birth, fellow maid of honour Eleanor Stanley indicated how seldom the Prince behaved in an openly affectionate way towards his children: ‘I came in for a charming ride yesterday… the Prince, like an affectionate father, taking charge of his eldest son and daughter in front, which it is rather a grievance among the younger branches of the family that he can very seldom be induced to do.’
20
But in i860 Prince Arthur's governor, Major Elphinstone, observed the Prince with his youngest daughter: ‘He commenced to play with the little Princess; took her on his knee, and I was much struck with the affectionate manner in which he played with the child.’
21
Early in the morning, before her mother was yet dressed and about, Beatrice visited the Prince in his dressing room. She watched him while he shaved, or fed his little caged bird, one of a long line of successors to that favourite German bullfinch that, after its death, was stuffed and given to the royal children for their natural history museum at Osborne's Swiss Cottage. One of these birds had been trained to
say
‘Guten Morgen’.
The Prince sang nursery rhymes to his daughter, in German and in English. He dandled her on his knee while he played the organ or piano, as he had her brothers and sisters before her – only Beatrice, by four years the youngest, did not have to share her father. The Prince was tired in mind and body, overworked and conscientious beyond the capacity of his middling constitution. He relished these precious minutes with his pretty youngest daughter, deriving simple happiness and even a measure of renewed strength from her straightforward pleasure in his company. The Queen noted Beatrice's effect on the Prince, and would remember it later.

These were the golden days, when a child's unfeigned joy could provide a fillip for her father's failing spirits. Soon, when sudden death had riven the Royal Family, only the disadvantages of being the youngest of nine children would be apparent, chief among them the extreme brevity for Beatrice of this enchanted childhood. For now hers was an enviable position.

In December 1846,
eminence grise
Baron Stockmar had drawn up a memorandum for the education of the three eldest royal children. It included a strict timetable that accounted for the whole of a child's waking day, apportioning hour-long sessions to English, French and German governesses. Confidently, it stated: ‘It is intended that these classes and these persons are to do for all the children now extant and possibly to come’
22
– as indeed, in some measure, they did. Except that by the time Beatrice was old enough for her education to be entrusted to governesses the urgency of cramming tiny, unformed minds with princely accomplishments and virtues – what the Queen referred to as late as 1858 as the ‘good education of our Children’
23
– was no longer the guiding principle of the royal parents. The Queen's warnings to the Crown Princess over the education of the latter's first child, made while Beatrice was still a toddler – ‘Too much constant watching leads to the very dangers hereafter which one wishes to avoid’
24
– echo the advice Melbourne had given the Queen twenty years earlier, which she had then summarily ignored: ‘Be not over solicitous about education. It may be able to do much, but it does not do so much as is expected from it.
It may mould and direct the character, but it rarely changes it.’
25
So Beatrice's days, though simple in externals – she slept in an iron bedstead and experienced the ‘quite poor living, only a bit of roast meat and perhaps a plain pudding’
26
that was the lot of all nine children – lacked the Spartan emotional character of the nursery and schoolroom experiences of her siblings, warmed by her parents’ interest and less often overshadowed by Teutonic exactings beyond the capacity of any but the most brilliant child. Possibly, in this late-flowering leniency, the Queen was subconsciously guided by that mistrust of ‘clever’ women that Mary Bulteel, after fifty years at court, would recognize as one of her chief characteristics, and that partly accounted for the Queen's jealousy of the Prince Consort's relationship with the Crown Princess, when she felt no pangs at his obvious doting on his tiny youngest daughter.

Unsurprisingly, Beatrice responded to her parents’ partiality – ‘She adores her Mama, kisses Her hand, is very grateful for the affection shewn her by her parents’
27
– and missed them when royal duty or the sporting calendar took them away from her. Beatrice was at Osborne without her parents for the Prince Consort's birthday in August i860. With the help of her governess, the royal children's ‘Lady Superintendent’ Lady Caroline Barrington, known as Lady ‘Car’, she composed a letter to the absent Prince conveying her birthday wishes and entreating, ‘I hope dear Mama will soon come back again from Balmoral, to dear baby, I will love her and kiss her, and dear Papa too.’
28
In her Journal for 18 September, Queen Victoria recorded the welcome Beatrice extended to the royal couple on their return, the Princess waiting ‘at the door with a nosegay, so delighted to see us again’.
29
This pretty reception may have been stage-managed by a clever courtier: chief among the Prince Consort's birthday presents from the Queen had been another portrait of Beatrice, this time by Scottish artist John Phillip (after his death acclaimed by the Queen as ‘our greatest painter’
30
), the three-year-old sitter wearing a party dress and extending towards the viewer a stiff bouquet of flowers.

In their treatment of Beatrice her parents may have recognized
that, in this particular family, to be born in 1857 was too late, that to be ninth and last child was to have missed out on so much. In 1859 Lady Car had arranged a musical performance to mark the Queen and Prince Consort's nineteenth wedding anniversary. She herself accompanied Princesses Helena and Louise on the piano, while Prince Arthur played a drum and five-year-old Prince Leopold a triangle. When the Prince Consort died in 1861, Beatrice had not yet reached an age for triangle-playing in public; her father would never hear his most musically gifted child at the piano or organ, instruments at which she excelled.

For most people, the quintessence of the childhood of Queen Victoria's family is the Swiss Cottage at Osborne House. But the children had laid the cottage's foundation stone in 1853 and officially accepted the house as their own on the Queen's birthday the next year. By the time William Leighton Leitch, watercolourist and tutor in painting to the Queen and her daughters, painted the cottage in 1855, its garden was already laid out with the series of plots, each containing fourteen beds, in which the royal children gardened using miniature tools and wheelbarrows painted with their names. In time, Beatrice too would have a plot of her own, but by then the family was halved, the Princess Royal, Prince of Wales and Princess Alice married, and Prince Alfred away at sea. The children who remained continued to enjoy the house – ‘I spent yesterday afternoon at the Swiss Cottage with the Babes,’ Lady Augusta Bruce wrote on 15 August 1859, ‘Prince Leopold in his little carriage with his arm round Baby, every moment bending down to
hug her.’
31
After her marriage, they baked cakes and pies for the new Crown Princess in Germany at the miniature range in the cottage kitchen, and sent them to her weekly by Queen's Messenger.

But time was running out for the little log-built house. Beatrice would never entertain her parents to dinner there in the yellow dining room with its bobbin-turned chairs, would never be taken swimming by her father off Osborne's sheltered beach, would never knowingly take part in the summer birthday parties when the Swiss Cottage was decked with flags. She would never chase her brothers and sisters along the nursery corridors of
Buckingham Palace on a makeshift pony fitted with a horse's head and tail; never accompany her parents over hill and moor at the family's new castle of Balmoral, or even venture abroad with them, as the Princess Royal and Prince of Wales had done in 1855, accompanying the Queen and Prince Albert to Paris for their dazzling state visit to Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie; would not be old enough to appreciate the lavish Germanized Christmases the royal family celebrated with genuinely regal magnificence. Although the Prince Consort, as in summers past, may have constructed for Beatrice a house of building blocks taller than he was, he never rehearsed her in an excerpt from Racine's
Athalie, Les Deux Petits Savoyards
or a
tableau vivant
inspired by the pastoral poems of Thomson, never chased butterflies with her or flew a kite with her – all activities that were part of the fabric of Beatrice's siblings’ holiday lives. The princess's life had overlapped with that of her great-aunt the Duchess of Gloucester for only a fortnight; there would not be for Beatrice the Berlin woolwork stool the Duchess had embroidered for eight older great-nieces and nephews. Beatrice would scarcely know her grandmother, the Duchess of Kent, a benign, indulgent presence now that she and Queen Victoria had put behind them past differences; she died when Beatrice was only three (forty years later, the Queen would claim, improbably, ‘I am glad to say that Beatrice even remembers her quite well’.
32
Nor was she a protege of Lady Lyttelton, who had retired in 1851 as Superintendent of the Queen's Children in charge of the royal nurseries; rather, Beatrice's world was coloured by the outlook of her successor, Lady Car.

At the Swiss Cottage, Emily Tennyson recorded, Beatrice played with the toy shop that remains on show to visitors today, and served tea to the Queen, busying herself among the ‘little tea caddies and tea and sugar and all sorts of good things’.
33
In the house built for a large family of children, hers were lonely hours of play. From the outset, the experiences of the last princess differed significantly from those of her predecessors. A victim of timing and circumstance, she paid a high price for the relaxing of parental attitudes towards discipline and learning.

Aged only two, Beatrice could know none of this, nor suspect the cataclysmic changes that threatened just around the corner. She was the cynosure of every eye. ‘She is delicious,’ Lady Augusta Bruce effused, ‘ – jabbers so fast and so plain, is full of wit and fun, and graceful as a fairy – meddles with everything, makes her remarks on all – quite exquisite.’
34
She was pert, confident and outspoken. Louisa Bowater, encountering the royal children in October 1861, described how they ‘played about and amused themselves by trying to make the dear little Princess Beatrice, who is evidently the pet of the family, say French words.’
35
Happily the centre of attention, Beatrice invariably obliged.

‘She is a most amusing little dot, all the more so for being generally a little naughty,’ wrote one of the Queen's ladies when Beatrice was three,
36
and one result of her parents’ indulgence, their tolerance of that naughtiness that so appealed to bystanders, was that Beatrice's relationship with them betrayed none of the awe and fear that so flavoured the family life of Victoria and Albert's older children. Admonishments stimulated not tears but cheery rejoinders. When the Prince Consort told her she was troublesome, Beatrice replied, ‘No, Baby's not, she's a little girl,’ while the Queen's mealtime correction, ‘Baby mustn't have that, it's not good for Baby,’ was greeted with, ‘But she likes it, my dear,’ in a voice imitating the Queen's own, as she helped herself to the forbidden dish.
37
At lunch she angered the Queen by wiping her fingers on her black velvet dress in place of a napkin. ‘It'll never be seen at night,’ the outraged three-year-old offered in exculpation. The Queen was not to be so easily won over, and summoned Mrs Thurston to remove the princess. ‘It was only for Her [the Queen] that I came downstairs,’ Beatrice told her captor. ‘Such base ingratitude.’
38
On a different occasion she exacted revenge by tying the Queen to her chair by her apron strings as she wrote. The Queen did not notice her daughter's handiwork until too late; afterwards a maid had to be called to release her.

The Queen and Prince Consort had tried to devote time to all their children; in Beatrice's case, their time together gave pleasure to the extent that mother and father involved their youngest
daughter in occasions from which, in other instances, extreme youth would have excluded her. In July i860 the Royal Family was at Osborne House for the summer, as had become their custom. The Queen went out on the Solent for tea with her ladies on board her yacht the
Fairy.
Tea time coincided with supper time for Princess Beatrice, who, with her nurse, was among the party. ‘Between whiles [she] enlivened us with little pieces of poetry,’ remembered maid of honour Eleanor Stanley. ‘“Twinkle, twinkle”, “Little Miss Muffet”, “Humpty-Dumpty” and several others, speaking remarkably plainly and nicely, but showing a considerable degree of character in her choice of the poems and her claiming of the rewards (biscuits) for repeating them.’
39
The Queen's response to her daughter's performance is not recorded, but it is safe to assume that there were no reprimands for greed or concerns over the frivolous nature of her chosen ‘poetry’, as might previously have been the case.

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