The Adventures of Alice Laselles, by Queen Victoria, aged 10¾ - book review: showing a darker side to the royal's childhood

The Queen’s central character, Alice, is devastated to be sent away to board but soon makes friends

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The Independent Culture

Here’s a pretty curio, a story written by Queen Victoria when she was 10 and now published for the first time as a handsome hardback for children.

The story, which has been preserved in the Royal Archives at Windsor, tells the tale of Alice Laselles, a 12 year-old girl who is devastated to be sent away to board but who soon makes friends and ends up being “one of the best learners in the school”. What lends the book a special charm is that it is illustrated with digitally manipulated images of paper dolls which were painted by Victoria.

These, at least, are the basic facts about The Adventures of Alice Laselles. But on a deeper level the story reflects the darker aspects of the queen’s childhood, as well as the uncertain times in which she lived.

In later life Victoria – who was christened Alexandrina but who quickly became known by her middle name – described her early years as “very unhappy”, which is not surprising when you consider her circumstances. Her father, the Duke of Kent, died before Victoria’s first birthday, leaving her German mother widowed for a second time. The presence of Victoria’s half sister, Feodora, gave the young princess an early awareness of how complicated families could be.

Victoria’s royal status also shifted several times during her first 10 years, as one by one her uncles died, leaving her closer to the throne. She would also have become aware of several earlier tragedies that had cleared the path for her rise to become heir presumptive to William IV, including the death in childbirth of her cousin, Princess Charlotte, aged 21.

These harsh realities of 19th-century life can all be seen in the story of Alice Laselles, whose “dear Mamma” has died, to be replaced by an “unworthy and selfish stepmother”. Then, at Mrs Duncombe’s school, Alice encounters the orphaned Ernestine, sent away by her uncle, and Diana, “whose mother died at Diana’s birth”. Alice is confronted with other cruel aspects of Regency England, including the effects on poor Ernestine of a bout of smallpox “by which malady she had lost one eye”, as well as the suffering of the school’s deaf and dumb girl, Selina Bawden. So it’s a bold parent who gives this book to their child. The story may have a happy ending, but be prepared for some challenging questions along the way.