The Last Princess, by Matthew Dennison

The Queen's true confidante
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The five daughters of Queen Victoria would make an excellent subject for a television drama series. Three of them led suitably dramatic, as well as tragedy-filled, lives. Vicky, the eldest and most intellectually serious, was Empress of Germany for just 100 days before her husband, Frederick, died of throat cancer, leaving their son, William, to succeed him as Kaiser; Alice, caring and sensitive, wife of the Prince of Hesse, witnessed the death of her little boy, a haemophiliac, after a fall from a window, and died young from diphtheria; and artistic, flirtatious Louise married a commoner, the Marquis of Lorne, who was probably gay. This just leaves Helena, solid and dull, whose interest in nursing Florence Nightingale deemed stupid, and Beatrice, the youngest of Victoria and Albert's nine children, described as a "shy princess" by David Duff in his 1958 biography, and now the subject of a new book by Matthew Dennison.

Born in 1857 - Queen Victoria had to be heavily dosed with chloroform during the delivery - Beatrice was a lively presence in the Prince Consort's last years. Albert lacked spontaneity and his jokes were apparently lumbering, so the antics of this youngest child, known by her parents as "Baby", were a regular source of amusement. "Baby mustn't have that, it's not good for Baby", Beatrice was chastised one mealtime, to which Beatrice replied, in a voice imitating the Queen's own, "But she likes it my dear". On another occasion, the Queen was angry when the three-year-old princess wiped her fingers on her black velvet dress instead of her napkin. "It'll never be seen at night", was Beatrice's quick-witted response.

But that wit, and the ability to treat things with levity, had no place in the period following the Prince Consort's sudden death in 1861, and the beginning of Victoria's long years of mourning. Victoria groomed Beatrice as her closest companion and confidante in her husband's place with a monstrous selfishness and egoism that Beatrice's new biographer clearly finds shocking. Beatrice may have been attracted by the charms of the Prince Imperial, exiled to England with his parents, Napoleon III of France and the Empress Eugénie, but he was killed in the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. A prospective suitor was not encouraged when placed next to Princess Beatrice at dinner, only to find her shy and retiring and barely able to speak. In fact, she had been instructed by her mother to behave that way to put him off. Eventually, Beatrice fell in love with Prince Henry of Battenberg, and although Victoria refused at first to countenance the match, she did relent in the end on condition that Henry resigned his commission and lived with them at Osborne on the Isle of White. In a commemorative poem, Tennyson described the Queen as weeping "At that white funeral of the single life". The couple had four children before Henry's death, in 1896, on an expedition to Africa's Gold Coast. Their only daughter, Ena, became Queen of Spain, the consort of Alfonso XIII (Alfonso refused ever to speak to Beatrice again after he discovered that his wife was a haemophilia carrier), while of their three sons, Maurice, the youngest, was killed at Ypres in 1914.

Matthew Dennison has researched assiduously in the Royal Archives at Windsor. He writes well, just occasionally succumbing to the purplish prose that may well be a prerequisite of the genre (Beatrice is "the last gently flickering candle of Britain's Victorian Age"). However, he has been unable to convey what he found quite so interesting about his subject in the first place, though his dutiful approach is entirely consonant with Beatrice's own life of devotion to her mother's memory, which extended throughout the four decades in which she survived the Queen. Beatrice's only true historical significance lies in her faithful filleting of her mother's journals, according to Victoria's instructions, by which the originals were destroyed after Beatrice had copied a bowdlerised version into a series of notebooks.

In the wake of Helen Mirren's success in The Queen, it's interesting to note that, in 1937, Beatrice felt unable to see Laurence Housman's play about her mother, Victoria Regina, which had caused some controversy arising from its portrayal of a modern monarch. She could not bear that her mother, "whose memory is still so intensely in my mind and heart", should be personified on the stage by a stranger, "however good". Beatrice, who had been born the year following the end of the Crimean War, died in the final winter of the Second World War.