Historical notes: The prince and the autograph album

LEOPOLD GEORGE Duncan Albert, Queen Victoria's youngest son, was a haemophiliac and started suffering from a form of epilepsy shortly after his 13th birthday. Smothered by his mother's protective love, Leopold found the transition from childhood to adolescence more than usually stressful. The Queen was determined to keep him with her. His frail health was one reason. Another was that he was clever and she wanted to groom him for the role of companion and personal assistant. She chose and disposed of his attendants with this end in view. Even contacts with his brothers and sisters were restricted for fear that they might give him ideas of independence.

One seemingly insignificant possession was to play an important part in deciding his future - an autograph album. Probably a Christmas or birthday present, it was hardly used at first. It took an imaginative tutor to see how helpful it could be to him. The Rev Robinson Duckworth arrived at Windsor in summer 1866 to find his new pupil miserable and hardly speaking to his mother. Duckworth saw that his pupil needed to be distracted from a situation which they were both powerless to resolve.

He encouraged Leopold to use the autograph album as a means of introduction to the famous people who passed through his mother's house. Politicians, clergy and writers - few boys of Leopold's age could have such easy access to the great, the good, and the interesting.

Lewis Carroll is one such name in his book and it is a name which plays an important part in Leopold's story. As a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, Robinson Duckworth was friendly with the Rev Charles Ludwidge Dodgson, Mathematical Lecturer at Christ Church, better known as "Lewis Carroll". Few people were familiar with that name when the two young men took Dean Liddell's daughter on a picnic expedition up the Isis. While Duckworth rowed, Dodgson held the children spellbound with his impromptu tales of Alice. As they listened his masterpiece was born. The book became a runaway success. And thanks to Duckworth the album contains a small memorial to the creator of Alice; a cut-off signature, among the pasted- in letters which says simply, "Believe me, at 1.30am, sleepily but sincerely yours, C. L. Dodgson."

This would not be Dodgson's only contribution to the album. Some time in 1867 Duckworth must have told his friend about Leopold's restricted life, and the response was imaginative and generous. In November Dodgson sent the Prince a bundle of autograph letters for his collection. For Leopold, the letters provided an introduction to some of the leading figures in contemporary art and literature. The letters were personal to Dodgson and they would have meant nothing to Leopold if there had not been someone behind him - Duckworth - to explain, interpret, and bring the names to life as they were pasted into the album.

In this lay the value of Dodgson's gift to the Prince. The letters widened the horizons of a boy whose experience was severely limited. They also planted the seeds of an idea which would eventually free Leopold from the confines of home. A prince with haemophilia could never follow a standard career in the Army or Navy, but there was no reason why he could not study. Oxford became Leopold's dream. In time, much against his mother's wishes, he went to the university and, almost eight years after the gift was made, he finally met Dodgson. Volumes have been written about the author of Alice and his feelings for children: in this one case at least, his kindness played a transforming role.

Charlotte Zeepvat is the author of `Prince Leopold: the untold story of Queen Victoria's youngest son' (Sutton, pounds 18.99)

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