Close to the throne: Household staff at Osborne House
We colonials have an enduring fascination with the monarchy: looking across the herring pond to watch the goings-on in royal circles is a long-standing avocation. In 1857, President James Buchanan arranged to receive a transatlantic telegraph cable from Queen Victoria. In 1887, the US envoy to her Jubilee told her how "attached" the American people were to her-"the good Queen"-personally. A further sign of that attachment came two years later. Americans contributed enough dollars to Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill's American mother, to outfit a hospital ship to care for the wounded in the war in South Africa-where, not incidentally, her son Winston had just been taken prisoner. Queen Victoria invited the ship's American medical staff for lunch and Jennie Jerome to spend the night at Windsor.
Fast forward to more recent times. When the Anglophile John F. Kennedy moved into the Oval Office, he installed the famous Resolute Desk, made from British naval timbers and presented to America by Victoria in 1880. In 1997, some 30 million Americans watched Princess Diana's funeral. Most recently, all the major American television networks responded to our interest in British royalty by sending crews to cover Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee, and most of the press devoted considerable space to the antics of Prince Harry. And then there is the special relationship with America but that is another story.
So no surprise that this American reviewer was looking forward to Kate Hubbard's Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household. And she was not disappointed. Using previously unpublished letters and journals from royal courtiers and retainers, Hubbard has given us a wonderful, anecdote-laden yet historically coherent book that illuminates what it was like to live with and work for Queen Victoria. Hubbard showers her readers with details of the Queen's life, details that could only have come from intimate letters of those close to the throne, and living at the royal residences at Windsor, Balmoral and Osborne. A better guide we could not have.
Hubbard chose evidence left by some members of Victoria's household, and streams their memoirs nicely into a narrative of the Queen's long life. Several are ladies-in-waiting, one a chaplain, another her private doctor, still another a governess to the nine royal children. Some of these were thrilled to be asked to join the royal household, others saddened that "waiting", as it was called, meant months away from their families, living in sometimes cramped rooms alongside others in the royal household, serving a queen who was often selfish and controlling. And at Balmoral, it meant living in frigid rooms with all the windows left open, on the Queen's orders, fireplaces rarely lit. Duty and boredom in equal measures.
Victoria became queen at 18, became infatuated with and married her Prince Charming-Albert-at 21. That infatuation endured, as did her fondness for her dogs-an affection not unknown to the current occupant of the throne. Albert might be the source of what Hubbard describes as Victoria's rigid ruling of all aspects of royal life: for example, single men could only borrow one volume at a time from the Balmoral library. But Albert did bring a cleaned-up Germanic-style management to the previous Hanoverian chaos.