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Paperback review: Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household, By Kate Hubbard

Court in the act: downstairs at the palace

The re-assessment of Queen Victoria, which began in the latter part of the 20th century, continues with Hubbard’s quiet but  sympathetic account of the lives of some of the men and women who worked for the monarch and whose roles have been largely overlooked by historians – such as the unhappily married Charlotte Canning, erstwhile painter and lady of the bedchamber, or the intellectual Mary Ponsonby.

There’s little juicy gossip – Victoria seemed to have a knack for picking discreet and loyal staff, and the High Church beliefs of some of them would have precluded tittle-tattle – but there are useful reminders about the trying nature of the job. Victoria’s love of regulation meant instructions for maids about when to enter her rooms with seltzer water, when to leave, when to fetch a handkerchief, and to sit in the wardrobe room all day until called. Ladies-in-waiting had to ask permission to walk in certain parts of the grounds, and sometimes the only opt-out of the job was a death in the family.

Victoria is the woman we’ve come to expect now – an emotional, often self-indulgent, often kind, unintellectual and dutiful hausfrau, in a passionate relationship with her husband but cooler towards her children, much to the nursery governess Sarah Lyttleton’s concern. Hubbard’s servants’ history doesn’t really challenge that perception but rather reinforces it. Their frustrations with her ways were easily transferred on to the luckless and increasingly exhausted Albert, though, as the handy foreigner on whom all could be blamed, until John Brown became the servant who truly got above himself.