One of my favorite authors on the subject of royalty continues to be Greg King. He has focused most of his work on Tsarist Russia, but now with Twilight of Splendor he has taken a look at one of the most pivotal years of Great Britain's Queen Victoria -- a monarch who set her mark on an entire century, and whose presence still lingers today.
King takes one year in the Queen's life, and explores her daily life, starting first with an outline of her childhood, and marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and then to some of the momentous events of the years 1896-1897, when she became Britain's longest reigning monarch, and the festivities surrounding her Diamond Jubilee year to celebrate sixty years on the throne. By this time Victoria was not just a queen, but also Empress of India, and the British Empire was indeed a land where the sun never set. Colonies and possessions sent emissaries and gifts, all building towards a grand festival in London to mark the occansion.
But King goes beyond a mere listing of Queen Victoria's children and grandchildren -- he explores the rather tempetuous relationships that she had with them, especially her daughters. Neither were her sons spared the maternal disapproval either -- her eldest son Bertie, the Prince of Wales, she blamed for his father's death and his social life brought further displeasure. He in turn, took out his frustrations at not having any sort of decision-making in political roles in hard living, mostly involving smoking, chasing women and sport. Nor was Bertie the only fast living Royal -- daughter Louise was notorious for her acid tongue and mischief making, and Helena developed a near crippling addiction to opium.
The most interesting section was an exploration of the various courtiers that surrounded the Queen. There was an enormous army of servants, from those who laboured in the royal kitchens, footmen who carried messages and opened doors, housemaids who swept and scrubbed and tidied, all the way up to the aristocratic men that oversaw their work. While these men would never be confidants or friends, they would form close bonds of trust with the Queen, working with her for years, until ill-health or death remove them from the office. Much more shadowy were the servants that worked more closely with the Queen, most notorious being a Scotsman by the name of John Brown, of whom it was said that the queen had actually married him, and after his death, two Indian servants who were arrogant scoundrels.
The Queen's court of servants, family and attendants moved in a predictible round of seasons and holidays. Springtime and most of summer were spent at the castle complex at Windsor, autumn in the Scottish highlands at Balmoral, and winter at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Buckingham Palace was a place that the Queen loathed to stay in, and it was only during the most formal of events that the queen would stay at the Palace for even a night. In addition, the Queen and her household would holiday on the French Riviera every two months in springtime, an activity that continued from 1890 to nearly the very end of her long life. Pilgrimages would be made to her beloved husband's tomb every year on the anniversary of his death.
And sometimes, relatives would visit from the far reaches of the world to visit. One of the more momentous occansions was when one of Victoria's favorite granddaughters visited during the autumn of 1897. Alix and her siblings had been raised mostly by the Queen after the death of their mother, Alice, and Alix had been wooed and won by Nicholas II, Tsar of Russia. Now Alix was Empress, and with her husband and child went to visit as the new couple toured Europe after their coronation. Another momentous occansion that is covered is the grand costumed affair at the height of the London season at Devonshire House. Royalty and aristocracy mingled, as much to show off their wealth, and to be seen and see. Several ladies managed to arrive as the same characters from history, accompanied by much glaring. Other little snippets included the rituals of garden parties and presentations, Christmas celebrations, and finally the Diamond Jubilee itself.
I have to say that this was a real eyeopener of a book. All too often authors skip over the people who kept the various castles and palaces running and livable. King also adds in plenty of gossipy details, little touches that help to make these stiff figures from formal portraits come alive as well. While King's narrative does get repetitous what with the same descriptive passages being used over and over, the story does move along crisply, with quite a bit of detail being given. There are several inserts of black and white photos and etchings as well. Along with the bibliography and footnotes, there is an appendix that list the various members of the Queen's hosuehold during the final years of her life.
For anyone interested in the details of how royals lived in the nineteenth century, this is a splendid read. I discovered that the royalty of the time were imprisoned as much as they ruled from a golden, rather spendid, cage. Days were carefully measured and plotted out, and oridinary people and the journalists were just as curious about them as they are now in the twenty-first century. While the reading does get a bit dull in spots, it's still enjoyable, and there's quite a bit of humor here and there to liven things up.