What a fine time I have been having this weekend reading Letters to Vicky which, since finishing Helen Rappaport's book Magnificent Obsession, now makes for even more interesting reading. In fact it's quite easy to see how all things Victorian can become an obsession as I shelve most of the 20th and 21st century in order to continue my stately progress through Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens - A Life, and George Eliot's letters and journals to get in the mood for Team Middlemarch which will be rolling into town tomorrow (and with gifts).
I am very fortunate to have been sent the Folio Society edition of Letters to Vicky, Queen Victoria's correspondence between 1858 and 1901 to her eldest daughter Victoria, Empress of Germany. I could never afford these editions in the past because there was membership and the minimum number of purchases involved, but the rules are changing and Folio Society books can now be bought individually. Introductions are now written by authors as diverse as Carol Ann Duffy and David Vann, and there is now a newly opened Folio Society 'Reading Room' in Bloomsbury...wish I'd known that last week.
Talking about the beauty of a book compared to a Kindle as we were, and really this is like comparing a Reliant Robin (with apologies to all three-wheeler devotees) to a Rolls Royce. These are books you want to have as special gifts and to hold and read and to see on the shelf, and though I used to find them a bit elaborate and unnecessary... what's wrong with my well-worn paperback after all, it hasn't stopped me picking up quite a few Folio Society editions second-hand down the years and I still do (a lot of Trollopes for a start and some Virginia Woolf) I have to admit that I treasure them, and if I had my time over I think I would have made more of an investment in them for children and Godchildren.
But Letters to Vicky now has heightened resonance since I have been furnished with the detail. I knew snippets but I'll own up to getting in a bit of a muddle previously with all the children and the sequence of births, marriages and deaths.
I now have a much fuller picture so I read of Victoria's unconcerned mentions to Vicky of Albert's failing health with interest...
February 16th 1861
'Poor dear Papa has been suffering badly with toothache since three days...it comes from inflammation at the root of the tooth...I hope however it is a little better today, but dear Papa never allows he is any better or will try to get over it, but makes such a miserable face that people always think he's very ill. It's quite the contrary with me always; I can do anything before others and never show it, so people never believe I am ill or even suffer.'
Perhaps Victoria may have lived to regret expressing such confidence in her own fortitude which, when put to the ultimate test of grief, crumbled so spectacularly. And poor Albert, his gravestone inscription really should have read 'Told you I was ill.'
November 30th 1861 (remembering Albert will die two weeks later)
I can begin by saying that dear Papa is in reality much better - only so much reduced and as usual desponding as men really only are - when unwell..
Also evident, and something Helen delineated so clearly in her book, is Victoria's unshifting faith in the 'admirable' Dr Jenner. Interestingly a trust that seems to have been unshaken by Albert's death given that some years later he remains in attendance and continues to reassure with
'no cause of alarm but anxiety'.
as the Prince of Wales writhes on his bed in the agonies of typhoid fever and something excruciatingly painful in progress with his leg. And who sees nothing unfavourable in the symptoms of Alice's diphtheria just two days before her death.
Whilst after the death of Victoria's beloved John Brown...
'On Tuesday we were so much happier about him and Sir William Jenner who knew him well and is never over-sanguine or ever misleads you told me that evening at 10 o'clock I need not be so much alarmed, that his pulse was better and he took plenty of nourishment and the eruption had not spread! An hour after, all was over in his sleep!'
Perhaps the good doctor's role was to sooth and contain anxiety in a fragile monarch, nothing more and with little expectation of happy outcomes. It will certainly be interesting to reflect more on that role in the nineteenth century given that doctors had so little at their disposal in terms of effective treatments, and to follow Dr Lydgate's progress in Middlemarch as one of the first general practitioners to feature in English literature. I have been reading George Eliot's journals too. There's another one who was a martyr to an unpredictable and painfully bilious digestive system... enough to make me wonder, from reading the symptoms she describes, whether she may have had gallstones. It would certainly explain the prolonged episodes of debilitating pain and sickness that delayed the writing of Middlemarch.
November 17th 1860
'I have finished The Mill on the Floss and I must say it made a deep impression on me. The writing and the descriptions of feelings is wonderful and painful! Poor Maggie! Why must they be drowned, but poor Philip Wakem I pity the most of all! Stephen did behave very ill, Tom had much good but was very hard.'
And throughout the letters, mother and daughter discuss their reading. Vicky is riveted by The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins to the point where 'I can hardly get away from it.' Victoria reads Jane Eyre aloud to Albert, she mentions that Elizabeth Browning's poem Aurora Leigh whilst at times seems 'dreadfully coarse', yet still finds it 'an incredible book for a lady to have written.'
Vicky replies three days later...
'I have read Aurora Leigh and dislike it extremely...I think it thoroughly without taste and poetry. The feeling is very crude and does not touch me - in fact I put it down with disgust.'
The Queen is right back at her with
I think you judge Aurora Leigh too severely; that is I mean you have overlooked the decided genius and some most beautiful passages...
And mention of a book that has intrigued me...
February 17th 1886
'I send you two books which I think you will find interesting and very powerfully written. The author (whose real name I do not know) is only 21 - and I must say I think the writing worthy of George Eliot and Currer Bell. Donovan should be read first. I have not yet read We Two but Beatrice has and many others and men of intellect who are immensely struck by it...'
It transpires the writer is Edna Lyall, the pseudonym of Ada Ellen Bayley (1857-1903)...does anyone know her??
And all mixed in with the politics of the time, and of course Vicky well-placed to keep her mother informed about the wider European picture, are fascinating details about the search for a bride for the errant Bertie, Prince of Wales. Defects as various as strange manners, loud laughs, a bad figure in a low gown, broad square shoulders, foolish and frivolous parents rule countless victims out of the running, and one can only wonder whether letters from our own Queen might reveal anything similar should they ever see the light of day....though I'm not sure who she'd write too, and perhaps she does e mails anyway.
So a real gold mine of a book that has kept me deeply rooted in the nineteenth century all weekend.
Right... is everyone ready... let's bring on Team Middlemarch tomorrow.