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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Serving Victoria’

- - Wednesday, August 7, 2013

SERVING VICTORIA: LIFE IN THE ROYAL HOUSEHOLD
By Kate Hubbard
HarperCollins, $29.99, 418 pages, illustrated

Before His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge had even been named, there was already a lot of talk about his being a 22nd-century monarch. When that century begins, he will be the exact age his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, is now, and her subjects sing their national anthem with great sincerity these days, wishing her long still to reign over them. Looking nearly a century ahead, it is of course impossible to guess what being a British monarch will be like then, but it is pretty safe to say that it will be nothing like the elaborate court that surrounded his great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria during her more than 63 years on the throne, as brought to life by Kate Hubbard in "Serving Victoria."

Ms. Hubbard's book focuses on six aristocratic women courtiers, but it ranges through them far beyond their particular experiences. Her focus is never narrow, but, using the particular attitudes and impressions of these ladies, provides a nuanced but sweeping account of this pressure-cooker life. That is not too strong an expression to use about a milieu that could easily bring about nervous collapse, nor is the word "harness," which she quotes one lady as using. The strain of a supporting role demanding self-abnegation and constant attention cannot be overstated. " 'Great events make me quiet and calm,' declared the queen proudly, 'and little trifles fidget me and irritate my nerves.'" Her ministers got the calm quiet, but the ladies of the court had to deal with tears and tantrums, nervous crises and pettiness — and all manner of violent storms in teacups. But even more difficult to deal with sometimes was the boredom of court life, which one participant likened to a cloistered existence. Or, in Ms. Hubbard's own pungent simile, like "a second-rate boarding school — indifferent food, nagging cold, unpopular compulsory activities, numerous petty rules and regulations — with the Queen as beady-eyed headmistress."

Whether a teenage neophyte or the venerable doyenne of European sovereigns, the one adjective that always fitted Victoria was willful; and although her ministers were not immune from her willfulness, her courtiers caught the brunt of it. One of the most fascinating aspects of "Serving Victoria" is the mirrored portrait it reveals of the queen herself. We see her develop from a teenager to a matriarch, but it is apparent that, at any age, the strength of her personality and her passionate nature were as crucial to her position as her capacity for dominating those around her.

We see also her strong feeling for the arts, as she paints and plays music with her ladies, and her even stronger, staunchly Protestant religious views, as she and her ladies are buffeted by the storms raging within the Anglican Church that she headed. Raised by a Lutheran governess and mother and married to a Lutheran, she was instinctively hostile to anything within the church that tended toward Catholic practices and automatically suspicious of anyone at court she suspected of such leanings. Interestingly, she was very tolerant of actual Roman Catholics. It was the movements within her own Protestant church that alarmed and appalled her.

"Serving Victoria" is not a groundbreaking work of original scholarship. There have been many accounts of life at the court of England's longest-reigning queen — or indeed any monarch — and Ms. Hubbard has drawn on them and on other sources to good effect. She has also chosen to highlight some courtiers less illuminated in the past, such as Charlotte Canning (who went on to accompany her husband to India in a vice-regal role and died of malaria there) and Sarah Lyttleton (best known as governess to Victoria's eldest daughter, the future German empress and mother of the man known to history as the kaiser.) Ms. Hubbard's attention to Ms. Lyttleton's role as a courtier and confidante of the queen, rather than focusing narrowly on her supervisory role in the royal nursery, and to Ms. Canning's subsequent life in India are typical of her ability to provide added dimension to her portraits of those who served the queen. She writes well and is an intelligent and balanced guide through the hothouse world of what was clearly stultifying for most who lived and toiled there but is consistently interesting to the reader.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.