Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household by Kate Hubbard
A walk from the shops in Windsor into the Castle and my home in The Cloisters always takes one past a statue of Queen Victoria. Perhaps it is the most foolish of historians that can ever take their reader backwards to understand the world of the past and see inside the private world of well know public figures.
I was sent this book because my present home features in it ! I reluctantly picked it up and was fascinated by the detail – the means of telling the tail ? Through those who served in the Royal Household The unwieldy apparatus of the court was filled to the brim with courtiers, domestics and sundry hangers-on, most of them on the payroll for years, many desperate and unable to escape. Hubbard offers the reader an entertaining book, drawing on the vast pile of correspondence from ladies-in waiting, maids of honour and others, paints a picture of court life that is compellingly vivid, considering that its prevailing feature was catatonic dullness.
Victoria’s court was “an airless bell-jar”, as Hubbard describes it; a ghastly combination of nursery games and, as one poor lady-in-waiting put it, “the smallest possible talk”. They lived under a regime of metronomic regularity, in which the demands of protocol were regarded as of vital importance. The outside world rarely impinged. A cholera epidemic in which 35,000 died was a reason to stay on at Osborne for months, sealed from contagion.
Jealousies and rivalries inevitably seethed. The English loathed the Germans who had been imported by Prince Albert to bring some bureaucratic management to the waste and muddle of the English royal palaces. All of them, however, hated the Highlanders who arrived in droves in the wake of John Brown, Her Majesty’s adored Ghillie. Hubbard does not dwell on Brown, but Victoria’s susceptibility to strong and commanding men is still startling; she needed to adore.
Hubbard’s most interesting chapter concerns the rise of Abdul Karim, known as the Munshi (in Urdu, “teacher”) whose position as the Queen’s favourite in her old age was deeply resented. Karim had arrived in 1887 as a handsome 24-year-old to take up work as one of the decoratively turbaned Indian servants that Victoria liked to have attending her at all time. Victoria doted on the Munshi, signed her letters to him “your loving mother”, and sat beside him all night when he was sick with a boil on the neck, mopping his brow; every morning they studied Hindustani together.
Hubbard’s book is a fine examination of both the bizarre and the banal in the domestic machinery of Victoria’s court. My clerical friends would do well to read about what was expected from clergy in the Court!
Once it reaches paperback – buy it and I promise it will help the train commute……