Just Like Us: Victoria, Albert and the middle-class family (part 3 of 4)

Part 3: Taking position – ‘the locale’

The residences which are most closely associated with Victoria and Albert’s domestic idyll, and that of their burgeoning family, were not palaces or state apartments but retreats. The cost of reimagining the far more modest abodes that had until the late 1840s and early 1850s occupied two sites at almost opposite ends of the kingdom would have been prohibitive to all but the wealthiest. Yet Osborne House and Balmoral Castle, the former almost entirely rebuilt as an Italianate villa and the latter a combination of Scottish baronial manor house and the style of German Schloss with which Albert would have been familiar since childhood, retained a degree of homeliness that might nonetheless have struck an aspirational chord with those of the same generation with a tidy income or the promise of one:

… one could see why the Queen called Osborne her ‘little Paradise’. Compared with Windsor or Buckingham Palace the ceilings were low and the rooms so small that for large receptions a marquee had to be erected on the lawn. [1]

Victoria’s fondness for her seaside retreat can hardly be doubted; it is described as ‘dear Osborne’ 134 times in her journals, as often as not when expressing her regret at leaving the place. Balmoral too is invariably referred to affectionately (64 mentions of ‘dear Balmoral’) and both its architecture and surrounding landscape would undoubtedly have appealed to the sensibility of an avid reader of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), whose novels were enormously popular in the nineteenth century and contributed greatly to the revival and reinvention of the culture of the Scottish Highlands. As early as 1836, Victoria declares in her diary ‘Oh! Walter Scott is my beau ideal of a Poet; I do so admire him both in Poetry and Prose!’ [2]

Caption: Queen Victoria’s Journal (detail), 1 November 1836 (Queen Victoria’s handwriting) © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2012 © Bodleian Libraries © ProQuest

She would later visit the writer’s Abbotsford home, a building similar to Balmoral in its baronial style of turrets and gabling, during an excursion in Scotland in the summer of 1867:

They only showed us the part of the house in which Sir Walter lived. In the Drawing room there is still the same furniture & carpet. In the Library we saw his M. S. of “Ivanhoe”, several others of his Novels & Poems, all written in a beautiful handwriting, with hardly any erasures, & also the relics which Sir Walter had himself collected. [3]

The fact that each residence reflected a very personal vision for a private family home suggests a distinctly middle-class aspiration, and it was Albert who assumed the major role in designing both, ‘with Victoria an uncritical admirer of his achievements.’ [4] It was when escape from the comparative formality of London and Windsor was possible that the royal couple could best achieve an equilibrium of public and private life. Balmoral provided Victoria with opportunities for touring and sketching, while Albert stalked deer to the immense satisfaction of his wife – ‘I gave my beloved Albert as a small souvenir a paper weight & pen-stand made of the horns of the first roe he shot at Balmoral. He gave me later a very pretty enamel brooch with deer’s teeth as acorns’. [5]

Caption: Queen Victoria’s Journal (detail), 9 November 1848 (Princess Beatrice’s copies) © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2012 © Bodleian Libraries © ProQuest

Osborne, meanwhile, accommodated a Swiss Cottage which the royal children themselves helped construct under Albert’s guidance.  In May 1853 the Queen records in her diary that ‘The Children’s Swiss Cottage is progressing nicely. The masonry was done in part by the Boys & Affie worked as hard & steadily as a regular labourer’,[6] and a year later she describes how ‘We drove with the six Children, to the charming Swiss Cottage, which was formally given over to them.’ [7]

Osborne also afforded Victoria the opportunity for leisure activities which neither the Palace nor the Castle could offer, not the least of which was to enjoy the surrounding sea as many others of her generation were beginning to do during the holiday season. At the height of summer 1847, Victoria describes in her journal how she ‘drove down to the beach with my maids & went into the bathing machine, where I undressed & bathed in the sea, (for the 1st time in my life) a very nice bathing woman attending me.’ [8] The following day,

an old fisherman & a young man… rowed us up to a buoy beyond Norris Castle, where we anchored, & immediately let down our lines. We were most successful in our fishing attempts, & might have caught more, had our bait been smaller & better. As it was, we got 39 whiting pout, of which I caught 10. [9]

The comparative privacy of their retreats on the Isle of Wight and in the Scottish Highlands clearly afforded the royal couple the freedom to indulge in leisure pursuits that the capital and its environs simply could not provide, and to experience to some degree a ‘normal’ life as it might be lived by those not burdened with the duties of a monarch.

David Tomkins is a curator and project manager at the Bodleian Library, including on the ‘Queen Victoria’s Journals‘ project, which reproduces high-resolution, colour images of every page of the surviving volumes of Queen Victoria’s journals, from her first diary entry in 1832 to shortly before her death in 1901. In this, the third of a series of four articles, ‘Just Like Us’, David explores how Victoria’s journals showcase her would-be-middle-class identity.

See the next post in this series: Part 4: Christmas yet to come

See the previous post in this series: Part 2: Taking position – ‘the look’

Notes & references

[1] Elizabeth Longford, Victoria R.I. (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964), p. 211.

[2] RA VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W) 1 November 1836 (Queen Victoria’s handwriting) <http://www.queenvictoriasjournals.org> [accessed 28 September 2018].

[3] RA VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W) 22 August 1867 (Princess Beatrice’s copies). <http://www.queenvictoriasjournals.org> [accessed 28 September 2018].

[4] H.C.G. Matthew and K.D. Reynolds, Victoria (1819–1901), Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and Empress of India (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004) <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-36652> [accessed 7 June 2018].

[5] RA VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W) 9 November 1848 (Princess Beatrice’s copies) <http://www.queenvictoriasjournals.org> [accessed 27 September 2018].

[6] RA VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W) 27 May 1853 (Princess Beatrice’s copies) <http://www.queenvictoriasjournals.org> [accessed 24 October 2018].

[7] RA VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W) 24 May 1854 (Princess Beatrice’s copies) <http://www.queenvictoriasjournals.org> [accessed 24 October 2018].

[8] RA VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W) 30 July 1847 (Princess Beatrice’s copies) <http://www.queenvictoriasjournals.org> [accessed 29 July 2018].

[9] RA VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W) 31 July 1847 (Princess Beatrice’s copies) <http://www.queenvictoriasjournals.org> [accessed 24 October 2018].

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