In most biographies of Queen Victoria, the ladies and gentlemen of the royal household are sources of information about the Queen and her court rather than individuals. Prominent courtiers including the royal children’s governess, Lady Sarah Lyttleton or the Queen’s closest confidante after the death of Prince Albert, Lady Augusta Bruce may be mentioned dozens of times in a study of the Queen without any sense of their personalities or private circumstances. In Serving Victoria: Life In The Royal Household, Kate Hubbard, author of Bess of Hardwick: A Story of Ambition and Excess in Elizabethan England and the historical novel, Rubies in the Snow: Diary of Russia’s Last Grand Duchess, 1911-1918, brings Queen Victoria’s household alive through the letters and diaries of the people who spent decades with the Queen.
Although Victoria was only eighteen when she became queen, she intended to change the nature of the royal household beyond recognition. During the reigns of Victoria’s uncles, George IV and William IV, there was little supervision. Ladies and gentlemen in waiting followed the royal example and pursued extramarital affairs. Courtiers invited their friends to dine at the King’s expense and enjoyed stipends and pensions out of proportion with their duties.
Victoria was determined to create a respectable household that reflected her own values and those of her middle class subjects. When Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg in 1839, her new husband tackled the waste and inefficiency of the household, insisting that the Queen’s servants reuse the candles, wash the windows on both sides and stop providing free meals for their friends. The improvements made Albert unpopular with courtiers accustomed to the Hanoverian regime but saved the privy purse and civil list £25,000 per year.
For the ladies and gentlemen of Queen Victoria’s household, a respectable, efficient court was often a boring one. Contrary to popular belief, the young Queen was easily amused, content to spend her evenings doing needlework, playing parlour games or listening to piano recitals and gossip. Prince Albert attempted to raise the tone of conversation at court but Victoria did not feel comfortable engaging with artists and authors because of her own circumscribed education. For the household, evenings at court were long and uneventful.
After Albert died in 1861, the court became even more dull as the Queen went into deep mourning and outings to London and the theatre ended. Windsor Castle appeared to become a mausoleum to Albert’s memory and the entire household dreaded long visits to Balmoral, which Hubbard memorably compares to second rate boarding school with terrible food, cold rooms and unpopular compulsory activities.
In addition to revealing the daily lives of the ladies and gentlemen in waiting, Hubbard brings to life a side of Queen Victoria’s character that is rarely explored in conventional biographies: the Queen as an employer. Although Victoria suspended her public duties as a widow, she maintained a close watch on her household, taking a keen interest in her servants and attendants. While the Queen might send a reprimand to a lady-in-waiting who walked unchaperoned outside Windsor Castle or a gentleman who discussed a broken engagement in front of Princess Beatrice, whom she intended to keep unmarried, drunkenness and petty theft were largely tolerated. Some of the most interesting chapters of Hubbard’s book concern Queen Victoria’s intervention when a servant was found in a drunken stupor or accused of stealing one of her brooches. The Queen emerges as a complex mistress of her household who could be both severe and unusually forgiving depending on the circumstances.
Serving Victoria: Life In The Royal Household provides a vivid portrait of Queen Victoria’s court through the observations of the most prominent members of the royal household. The narrow focus on life in the Queen’s service reflects the insularity of the court, particularly in the decades following the death of Prince Albert. I hope that Hubbard will continue her research regarding royal service and write a second volume about how Victoria’s example shaped the courts of her daughters and granddaughters. Events in the outside world rarely altered the closed world of the Victorian court but the precedents set by the Queen influenced how future generations of royalty throughout Europe governed their households.