Authors: Matthew Dennison
Tags: #History, #Europe, #Great Britain, #Biography & Autobiography, #Royalty
Yet all the while the clouds of sorrow were massing. In an earlier age, the comet that the whole Royal Family, ‘from the Queen down to Princess Beatrice’,
watched from Osborne's Lower Terrace that same month would have been interpreted as a portent. That year the Crown Princess gave birth to a second child, a daughter Charlotte, making Beatrice an aunt twice over although she was only three (Charlotte's brother, Prince William of Prussia, was born in 1859). Writing to his daughter, the Prince Consort suggested the baby model herself on her aunt Beatrice, who excused herself from uncongenial tasks on the grounds that she had no time, she must write letters to her niece. The following Christmas the Prince Consort was dead and Beatrice, the model for her niece, had lost one of her own principal role models. The ramifications of that single happening would endure throughout Beatrice's life, shaping not only her childhood but her very personality, overlaying with black bombazine bright beginnings that had promised so much and given such pleasure to parents and child alike.
The painting the Queen commissioned from Scottish painter Joseph Noel Paton in February 1863 was from conception entitled appropriately
Its name expressed its purpose, as well as recalling Tennyson's poem of the same title, which so comforted the widowed Queen.
Despite numerous sittings and a visit by the Queen to Noel Paton at home, the painting was never completed. Unfinished, its composition is nevertheless clear. The Queen and six of her children are grouped around a bust of the Prince Consort by William Theed (another memorial commission on the Queen's part); but it is the Queen, rather than the Prince's marble effigy, who forms the focus of the painting. Downcast, the eyes of Princesses Alice and Helena rest upon her. The Queen in turn gazes at Princess Beatrice, one hand resting on her head. All dressed in black, Beatrice kneels at her mother's side. Only she looks towards her father. Her expression is rapt.
Grief-stricken widow and reverent daughter form a tableau they had enacted repeatedly since the Prince's death on 14 December 1861. The dual image would enter the popular iconography of the mourning monarchy and establish on canvas and camera the Queen's dependence in her sorrow on her golden-haired youngest daughter. Outside the embrace of their intimacy stand Alice, Helena, Louise, Arthur and Leopold, sketchy figures. Though it was Princess Alice whose support of the devastated Queen won plaudits in the immediate aftermath of her father's death, Beatrice would prove the Queen's long-term prop and stay. How fondly the Queen gazes upon her. But how firm is the hand that holds her where she kneels. In Beatrice's expression is
no hint of protest, only a suggestion of seriousness beyond her years. Even in a half-drawn picture, the role allotted by mother to daughter is clear. It would remain thus throughout the Queen's widowhood, forty black-bordered summers and winters of discontent.
The death of the Prince, it is claimed, set in motion a sequence of events macabre even by the standards of nineteenth-century mourning. The focus of that macabreness was Princess Beatrice, the doll-like child once singled out for her father's devotion, now a picture of submission at her mother's knee. The psychological effect on the infant princess would be profound and long-lasting. Consigned to memory were her pertness, her cheeky rejoinders and boundless energy; her role henceforth would be a passive one of listening and comforting. Even if much that is claimed is not true, the fact that such rumours have ever existed to gain credence is significant.
To a child like Beatrice, still only four years old and not yet out of the nursery, it must have seemed to happen so quickly. Christmas i860 had been among the Royal Family's happiest, celebrated at Windsor Castle, where crisp winter sunshine gilded the freezing frost, the weather suited the season and the spirits of all present soared cheerful and bright. On Christmas Day Beatrice joined the family lunch at the end of the meal, she and Leopold admitted for dessert. A skittish Prince Consort swung his flaxen baby in a large napkin. Very young children do not look forward or back, do not indulge in analysis or introspection. If she had, Beatrice would have anticipated with pleasure the New Year towards which, with such happy gusto, her father swung her. What she expected was for everything to continue as before – the laughter and fun, the naughtiness and high good humour. What awaited her was what the Queen described, even before the Prince Consort's death, as ‘this sad year’,
the extent and intensity of its sorrow beyond the comprehension of a child living in the eternal present, from moment to moment.
Beatrice had not known that 1861 was supposed to be a special year. On 10 February the Queen and Prince Consort
celebrated their twenty-first wedding anniversary, a meaningless milestone for the youngest child of that marriage but one that gave both husband and wife pause for positive reflection. To her uncle in Belgium the Queen wrote, ‘How very few can say with me that their husband at the end of twenty-one years, is not only full of the friendship, kindness and affection which a truly happy marriage brings with it, but of the same tender love as in the very first days of our marriage’;
while to Baron Stockmar Albert described their love more grandiloquently but less cosily as a plant or tree, ‘green and fresh, and [throwing] out vigorous roots, from which I can, with gratitude to God, acknowledge that much good will be engendered to the world.’
Husband and wife undoubtedly suited one another. In marriage and a happy family both found atonement for childhoods scarred by unhappiness. The Prince Consort never embraced the British aristocracy; the Queen was his foremost friend. Determinedly family-focused later in life, the Queen began her marriage with few relatives of her own age whom she accounted friends: ‘I have none or only those who are useless,’ as she would later tell the Crown Princess.
Albert was her husband but, as she was to him, he was also her confidant and only intimate contemporary. If they loved wholeheartedly, they also did so needily. Writing to his friend the Duchess of Manchester hours before the Prince Consort died, Foreign Secretary Lord Clarendon assessed the Queen's dependence on her husband: ‘No other woman has the same… motive for being absolutely guided by the superior mind of her husband. This habit, or rather necessity, together with her intense love for him, which has increased rather than become weaker with years, has so engrafted her on him that to lose him will be like parting with her heart and soul.’
When the time came, the Queen would agree with Clarendon. It was a moment she had not conceived of and for which she was ill prepared. The progress of the royal marriage represented the progress of the Queen's submergence of herself in the Prince. At his death died too that part of herself she had schooled in his disciplines of self-abnegation and control. She must learn to be herself all over again. The process would be long and – because
she resisted it, clinging determinedly to the Prince's shade as to a living presence – painful. For the Queen it was like sailing a boat that had lost its rudder: too weak to learn another way to steer, she imagined instead that a piece of the hull had been torn from the vessel and expended her diminished energies in struggling to remain afloat. She had ‘[done] nothing, thought of nothing, without her beloved and gracious husband, who was her support, her constant companion, her guide, who helped her in
great and small’. Now she ‘[stood] alone in her trying and difficult position, struggling to do her duty’, she wrote to Lord Derby.
She referred to herself, as habitually, in the third person, deriving infinitesimal comfort from the distance lent by the syntactical conceit, at a time when she could still not bring herself to enter in her Journal any first-person account of the dreadful night. It was surely more than anyone could bear.
Of all those close to the court only the Queen and Princess Beatrice, it seemed, had been surprised when, at quarter to eleven on the evening of 14 December of ‘this sad year’, the Prince Consort died of typhoid fever. Fearing for her mental health, the Queen's doctors had shielded her from their worst suspicions, even declining to name the Prince's illness, concealing all foreboding behind the euphemism ‘gastric fevet’. The Queen for her part had clung to the certainty that the Prince must rally. Princess Alice, the eldest of the couple's daughters still at home – cast in the role of nurse by the Queen's unsuitability for such a role (through temperament as much as inexperience)—wrote to her fiance Prince Louis of Hesse, ‘Poor Mama is very unhappy about it – but not worried.’
Remembering afterwards, a member of the household was clear about the line the Queen adopted: ‘She could not bear to listen, and shut her eyes to the danger.’
Forty years later, it was the policy Beatrice would adopt in relation to the dying Queen.
'Her grief is extreme, and she feels acutely the loss of one whom she cherished and tended with affectionate and dutiful devotion,’ the Prince Consort had written following the death of the Queen's mother on 16 March. ‘In body she is well, though terribly nervous, and the children are a disturbance to her. She remains almost totally alone.’
The words have a prophetic ring
to them. Now the circumstances were the same, only the suffering was intensified, the aloneness total at last. The Queen could not bear the presence of any of her children save Alice, who had nursed her father and now did the same for her mother, and Beatrice, who in his illness had diverted the Prince and must now divert the Queen. Even the sound of the Prince of Wales's voice pained his mother.
After her grandmother's death, Beatrice had been puzzled at the lack of merriment that accompanied her fourth birthday celebrations the next month, but comforted her mother by repeatedly referring to her grandmother, ‘how she is in heaven, but she hopes she will return. She is a most darling, engaging child.’
Seven months later her task was again to provide comfort, but now the Queen's need was incalculably greater, and Beatrice's medicine took the form not of childish prattle about her father in heaven but simple distraction. When the family gathered to take their leave of the dying Prince, Beatrice remained in bed, considered too young for such a scene. She slept soundly, not suspecting that tonight her father would die. ‘Dear little Beatrice had not seen him for many days previous to his death,’ Mrs Thurston, Beatrice's nurse, afterwards wrote to her daughter Elizabeth Bryan.
Once, on 6 December, the Queen had taken her to the Prince, in the hope that her unaffected high spirits would rouse his sinking heart. ‘He was most dear and affectionate when I went in with little Beatrice whom he kissed. He quite laughed at some of her new French verses which I made her repeat. Then he held her little hand in his for some time and she stood looking at him.’
The child had sensed that all was not well. Instead of taking the lead, she stared in silence at the enervated figure of her father, not even boastful of the new earrings she wore, having recently and bravely had her ears pierced. The Queen did not repeat the experiment. When the Prince died, Thurston told her daughter, it was astonishing that Beatrice did not speak more of him. The child was unnerved by the epic scale of her mother's grief and the immediate and complete alteration in the life she had known. The Queen did not attend the Prince's funeral at St George's Chapel, Windsor, but shortly set off with her four
daughters for Osborne, that sun-kissed family holiday house away from Windsor with its death chamber and memories of twenty happy Christmases. Before they went, the Queen instructed Alice, Helena, Louise and Beatrice to cut off a lock of their hair for placing beside their father in his coffin.
Queen Victoria demanded circumspection from those who served her: ‘The discretion is extreme here,’ Mary Bulteel had written in 1853;
‘makes the Queen furious if she thinks anything is written about what goes on here.’
But such a cataclysm as the death of the Prince Consort, and the Queen's response to it, could not pass unmentioned. Eyewitness accounts proliferate.
Given the absence of privacy in royal residences of the nineteenth century, these accounts are strangely at variance. Eleanor Stanley was not in waiting in December 1861 but pieced together a version of what happened from information given to her by those who were present. She describes the period immediately after the Prince's death: ‘The Queen went up to the nursery first, kissed little Princess Beatrice, and came down again, alone to her dressing room, in which she had slept for about a fortnight then.’
This account largely agrees with that of ‘an old servant’, Mrs Macdonald, quoted by E. E. P Tisdall in 1961: ‘It was an awfid time – an awful time. I shall never forget it. After the Prince was dead, the Queen ran through the ante-room where I was waiting. She seemed wild. She went straight up to the nursery and took Baby Beatrice out of bed, but she did not wake her… Orders were given at once for the removal of the Court to Osborne.’
What Mrs Macdonald did not say is what the Queen did with the baby she was at pains not to wake.