Victoria’s Bicentenary – A Review of Victoria series 3 (ITV) and Lucy Worsley’s Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow

2019 marks the bicentenary of Victoria and Albert’s births. There have already been books published, conferences as well as documentaries that attempts to shed new light or even (disappointingly) rehash the same old myths and out-dated information on the royal couple’s life and crucially that of Victoria’s life and reign.

After a hiatus in 2018, ITV’s popular drama Victoria made a return this year and this time is set between 1848 and 1851. By the time series 3 opens, Victoria and Albert already have five children (Victoria, Albert Edward, Alice, Alfred and Helena) and she will go on give birth to two more (Louise and Arthur). Also, Albert by this time has, not without some difficulty, also established himself as the power behind the throne. While I have not had the time to do my customary fortnightly recaps, here are some of the thoughts I assembled while watching the programme:

(For more detailed recaps, please visit the Armchair Anglophile)

THE GOOD:

  1. The royal children especially Vicky and Bertie – while the programme took care to show the (still growing) family, the main focal point was Vicky (Princess Royal) and Bertie (Prince of Wales) who would have been eight and seven in 1848. The characterisations of the two oldest children are spot on, with Vicky showing the precociousness that would mark her as Albert’s favourite child. Bertie on the other hand while aware of his destiny isn’t happy; he tells anyone who is listening that he doesn’t want to be king and that Vicky being the eldest should be the sovereign.Bertie’s tantrums about not wanting to be king are the least of his parents’ worries. While the bright Vicky doesn’t need pushing and cajoling with her lessons and her ability to absorb and retain knowledge, Bertie’s progress is slow and wanting compared to his sister. In desperation, Victoria and Albert consult a phrenologist George Coombe who studies Bertie’s head and the verdict isn’t good, as Coombe delivered his verdict: “The feeble quality of the brain will render the Prince highly excitable… intellectual organs are only moderately well developed. The result will be strong self-will, at times obstinacy.” While phrenology is now dismissed as a pseudo-science, Coombe’s verdict in some aspects would be eerily accurate.

 

  1. The Great Exhibition – series 3 concluded with the events leading to the Great Exhibition in 1851 and the final scene where Victoria, Albert and the rest of the family arrive at the Crystal Palace to officially open the exhibition was well done. It was obvious that the production designers did their research and studied contemporary accounts and illustrations in order to recreate that event.

 

THE BAD/INDIFFERENT:

  1. Mrs Skerrett – the way her character has been written was pure soap and series 3 was no different especially with the way she was written out. The real Mrs Skerrett actually never married and lived to a ripe old age; apart from being Victoria’s chief dresser she was also in charge of the junior ones and was the principal liaison between the Queen and milliners, dressmakers and jewellers. Crucially she also liaised with artists such as Edwin Landseer and William Powell Frith with regards to commissions for paintings. Still Nell Hudson’s portrayal of the kindly and competent dresser was for me well done and kudos to the writer for making the relationship between Skerrett and Victoria at least believable.

 

  1. Sophie Duchess of Monmouth – series 3 saw the introduction of a new Mistress of the Robes for Victoria in the person of Sophie Duchess of Monmouth (Lily Travers). I find the introduction of a fictional lady-in-waiting baffling considering that in real life, Victoria had several interesting women who attended to her: most notably Charlotte Countess Canning, who was married to George Earl Canning who was governor-general (and later first viceroy) of India. Charlotte kept up a correspondence with the Queen even after leaving royal service to join her husband in his Indian posting, and her letters provided Victoria with information about India from a woman’s perspective; which would have been absent in official documents sent by the government in India. The fictional Duchess of Monmouth’s background however is interesting as she’s revealed to be the daughter of a man who made his wealth in trade and that the Duke of Monmouth married her in order to save his crumbling estate and precarious finances, thus demonstrating an early example of the old landed aristocracy in alliance with the new industrial elite. The marriage is unsurprisingly unhappy and the duke always finds an excuse to belittle his wife for her inferior social background; something that the Queen is happy to overlook (again showing her lack of social as well as racial prejudice). Credit also to Daisy Goodwin for not writing Sophie as the stereotypical nouveau riche vulgarian and instead portray her as someone who is doing her best and is a devoted mother. In an interesting twist, part of the Monmouths’ storyline could be seen as a foreshadowing of the real life Mordaunts whose divorce would embroil the future Edward VII in scandal.

 

THE UGLY:

  1. The ropey timeline – while I acknowledge that certain events have to be condensed for dramatic purposes, the timeline leaves a lot to be desired. The cholera epidemic is one example, while this series is set between 1848 and 1851, the “Great Stink,” as the epidemic would be known, did not occur until 1858 and led to the pioneering work of Dr John Snow, who established the cholera was a water borne disease – not airborne as has been previously believed. Another is that of Sir Joseph Bazalgette whose design of a new sewage system for London would ensure that there would be no future repeats of the Great Stink of 1858.

 

  1. Princess Feodora – while the Duchess of Kent was MIA in series 3, her place was taken over by Victoria’s half-sister Princess Feodora of Hohenloe-Langenburg (Kate Fleetwood) who is depicted in the programme as arriving in Britain in the wake of the Revolution of 1848. While it’s nice to see more of Victoria’s family, my main objection is the way Feodora has been written and portrayed – the jealous sister who is a mainstay in fairy tales and soap operas. She causes mischief at court, attempts to drive a wedge between Victoria and Albert and is bitter about what she sees as Victoria’s good fortune. The Feodora we see in Victoria is the latest in a line of pantomime villains after Conroy and the Duke of Cumberland in the first two series. The real Princess Feodora (1807-1872) was no such person; despite the 11 year age gap between them she and Victoria were close all their lives and the fact that they were only half-siblings never occurred to them. Victoria was devastated when Feodora left in 1828 to marry an impoverished German prince Ernst of Hohenloe-Langenburg. The two sisters corresponded avidly and Feodora proved to be a source of advice and solace for Victoria especially after Albert’s death in 1861. Victoria meanwhile would help support Feodora’s children, the most notable being Prince Victor of Hohenloe-Langenburg (1833-1891) who settled in Britain as a naval officer and a noted sculptor.

 

  1. Lord Palmerston – in series 3 is played by Laurence Fox who is too young to portray the wily Foreign Secretary, and I believe this was a failed attempt to recapture the buzz that surrounded Rufus Sewell’s portrayal of Lord Melbourne in the first two series. Lighting never strikes twice; while Sewell is a good actor who could convince viewers of Lord Melbourne as a younger, romantic figure, it doesn’t quite work with Fox whose portrayal of Palmerston sometimes descends into parody. Still Fox does make a passable effort of depicting the foreign secretary as an oily politician who happily styles himself as a man of the people and a champion of oppressed peoples abroad seeking freedom and liberalism while being an absentee landlord in Ireland and opposing further reforms at home. The real Palmerston has been described as a “Conservative at home and a Liberal abroad” but his tenure as Home Secretary and Prime Minister where he introduced further reforms to the Factory Act as well as changes to existing penal laws demonstrated that he could be radical as well by the standards of the time. However it is for his time as Foreign Secretary that he is best remembered, he famously declared that Britain had no permanent allies or enemies, only permanent interests, and his foreign policy was consistent with that maxim. His willingness to challenge even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert earned him their distrust but for his role in defending Britain’s interests abroad he received the affection and support of most of the press and public who called him “Pam”.

victoria_launch_07

Series 3 is pretty much consistent with what we’ve seen with Victoria – romance and soap opera mixed with history. Yet again there were also indifferent subplots that didn’t go anywhere and an upstairs-downstairs relationship which I think didn’t really add anything to the overall narrative. In the end, Victoria’s problem is that it’s not quite able to resolve what the drama wishes to focus on – history or romance. What we get is a muddled mix of both.

oooOOOooo

Having written previously about life at court under the Georgians and Jane Austen, Lucy Worsley has now set her sights on Queen Victoria. Published last year with the paperback version released this year to coincide with the bicentenary, the question now is does Worsley have anything new to say about Britain’s second longest reigning monarch?

I’ve always admired Worsley more as a writer than as a TV presenter and having enjoyed her different take on Jane Austen’s life through the homes she lived in, and she employs almost the same tactic with her biography of Queen Victoria. Rather than to go through the whole gamut of Victoria’s life, Worsley takes twenty four significant events in Victoria’s life and there’s none of the predictable ones such as the birth of her children, the Great Exhibition, the years following Albert’s death or her relationship with her various prime ministers. Instead Victoria’s story starts with the double wedding of the Dukes of Clarence and Kent in 1818, then there are encounters with leading personalities of the era such as Florence Nightingale and the Maharajah Duleep Singh as well as her visit to Benjamin Disraeli at his home Hughenden Manor among others.

While Worsley had access to major archives especially the Royal Archives at Windsor where Queen Victoria’s diaries and letters are kept, she has also drawn heavily on recent works on Victoria with at least one or two of rather dubious nature. For instance Julia Baird is described as a historian but she’s not, a quick Google search would tell Worsley that Baird is a journalist whose biography Victoria the Queen is (in my opinion) not a very good one and doesn’t really add anything new to our knowledge or understanding of Victoria.

The book is a good read but I have a few concerns. First I found her chapters on Duleep Singh and the Munshi (Abdul Karim) to be highly simplistic; while I acknowledge that India and the raj might not be Worsley’s forte and beyond the scope of her tome, the section on Duleep Singh was truncated (or bitin, as I would muse in Filipino) while that on the Munshi was mostly a basic rehash of “white British racist, Indian victim” narrative when in reality it was far more complicated than that. Secondly, we don’t really have an explanation about Sir John Conroy, why was he so controlling? Did it ever cross his mind that perhaps being a benevolent father figure rather than a bully to the young Victoria might have brought him the recognition that he so desired? These are never answered much less raised and I seriously doubt we’ll ever know the answer.

On the positive side, Worsley brings out well parallelisms between Victoria and her mother the Duchess of Kent – both women lonely, in need of male company and frightfully insecure. Just as the Duchess had Conroy as her support, Victoria during her reign leaned heavily on a succession of men either as father figures (in the person of Lord Melbourne), as Gods who could do no wrong (Albert) or as confidants (Disraeli and John Brown). While this seems to make out Victoria as a weak person, Worsley argues that in many ways Victoria underestimated herself.

No more is this more apparent during her marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. While this marriage has always been portrayed as one of domestic bliss and romance, in recent years, historians have attempted to reassess the couple’s relationship and unearth that it wasn’t all hearts and flowers. I’ve always long suspected and Worsley confirms that Victoria was always more in love with Albert than he with her. Despite their shared interests and Victoria’s obvious pride at Albert’s achievements, the marriage was also punctuated by blazing rows and a mass of seething resentments. All of these began early on when Albert chafed at not being allowed to share in Victoria’s duties and where he was not even allowed any say in the royal nursery. Victoria on the other hand resented the constant pregnancies and found motherhood especially when her children were babies distasteful.

One aspect of the marriage which Worsley brings up especially in the chapter on Osborne House was Albert’s desire for control and this Italianate house which he designed was his domain. If Victoria was ever aware of Albert’s controlling nature, she chose to overlook it and held him as the standard to which her children especially her sons should aspire. However, Albert was not always the superman his wife and history would look up to – during the Crimean War, Albert bombarded the government with numerous memorandums with suggestions as how to improve things which the government more or less ignored. Victoria roused herself to do what she can for the morale of the troops and encourage Florence Nightingale in her pioneering nursing work. She knitted comforts for the soldiers, wrote letters of condolence to the bereaved, inspected hospitals and gave her name to a medal that was to be awarded to all ranks for valour.

It was Victoria’s approach that worked and was much appreciated; her efforts during the Crimean War was one that her successors have continued to utilise ever since. It was a sign of Victoria’s “emotional intelligence” and to underscore that someone high up cared for the welfare of the ordinary soldier and person; not just as a matter of policy or popularity, but as a deep-felt and genuine emotional connection.

Victoria was a complex woman and while there are far more weightier tomes out there that delve into this monarch’s life in greater detail, even with these mere twenty-four events, Worsley has more or less succeeded in bringing this queen who gave her name to an era in all her contradictions in an accessible way.

A Speaking Monarchy: The Origins of the Christmas Broadcast

Every Christmas the Sovereign delivers a speech to the nation – it usually lasts for ten to fifteen minutes and reflects on the year that is passing and hopes for the future. The speech has become so ingrained in how the British celebrate Christmas that it has been seen as a tradition and part of the routine of how people observe the festive season. But as like other things with the British monarchy, this “tradition” is not as old as we might think and from a historical point of view is seen as one of the many ways by which the royal family has utilised modern technology to reach out to its people as well as a means of adapting to the world around them.

The first Christmas speech was broadcast over the radio by King George V on 25 December 1932. As he would write in his diary: “At 3:35, I broadcasted a short message of 251 words to the whole Empire from Francis’ (Knollys) room.” Actually the broadcast was at 3:50pm as the clocks at Sandringham (where the broadcast took place) were set thirty minutes faster than normal time to maximise daylight. The fact that the King had agreed to broadcast a speech over the festive period was a triumph for the nascent British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) under the leadership of its Director General John Reith and it was used to inaugurate the corporation’s World Service.

However, it had not been an easy road to that historic event in 1932. Although radio had been around since the 1920s and the BBC was established in 1926, the King resisted any attempts to engage with the new medium. This despite the fact that he allowed his speeches for important state and ceremonial occasions such as the opening of the British Empire exhibition at Wembley to be broadcast live over the radio.

George V was instinctively and naturally a conservative and had been a reluctant participant in the changes brought upon by political, social and demographic changes during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As the second son of the future King Edward VII, George V was originally not trained to become King;  rather it was his older brother Prince Albert Victor (known to the family as “Eddy”) Duke of Clarence who received the education deemed appropriate for a future monarch.

The Prince of Wales, mindful of the brutal hothouse education that was imposed on him by his own father Prince Albert, took great care to ensure that his children had at least the semblance of a normal (by the standards of the time) upbringing which would allow them to be children. He also enrolled Eddy and George in the navy with the understanding that while the former would eventually leave in order to further prepare himself for his role as a future King, George who was the spare and a relatively junior member of the royal family stayed; with an eye towards becoming a career naval officer in order to make his way in the world.

As Matthew Glencross noted, his time in the navy would have an eventual impact on George’s outlook, mentality and style of kingship. Unlike the army, the navy treated everyone the same regardless of social status. Every cadet had to undergo the same type of training and shared the same type of accommodation and rations. There was no special treatment for George just because he was a prince and whatever he felt about the separation from his parents and siblings (to whom he was very close), it was only shared through letters back home and repressed under the idea of duty which he imbibed and would later become a hallmark of his reign.

Another major impact of the navy on George and his eventual reign was how he saw himself. Because of his naval career, he was often absent from many family gatherings where he could get to know royals from the Continent, many of who were related to him. Unusually also for a prince at that time, George could barely speak French or German and this language barrier was a further factor in his lack of relationships with fellow royals. Glencross further observed that:

“[H]e grew up without a sense of being part of an extended and cosmopolitan royal family…..[t]his meant that, outside his immediate family, by the time he was an adult George felt little affinity with various other royals to whom he was related, whether based in Britain or on the continent……[he] therefore did not, unlike his father and grandmother have a real sense of claiming membership of a Europe-centred ‘Trade Union of Kings’, something so central to his thinking, had little real influence on George, whose thinking was so much more local.” (p. 37)

Since the King’s formative years had been spent with those in the middle class and gentry that were the bedrock of the Royal Navy, he was to see himself as British first and foremost and this would inform the decisions he would make during his reign.

George V’s view of himself as thoroughly British would stand him in good stead when he ascended the throne on the death of his father King Edward VII in 1910, and crucially during the First World War and its aftermath. From the beginning of his reign, George was eager to use ceremony to bind the royal family and its peoples-  not just in Britain but also across the empire as a “family of nations.” This meant not only following his father’s dictum that “the more the people see their Sovereign the better it is for the country” but going one step further by interacting with ordinary people. He and his wife Queen Mary immediately went on visits to various parts of the United Kingdom, a pattern that continued throughout his reign and which endures to the present day.

The growing mass media was also harnessed. During the war, the royal family’s activities were reported in the press, just as with their pre-war visits to various towns and cities across the country where they were seen talking to ordinary citizens; the king, queen and their older children were photographed out and about doing their duty and their bit for the war effort. These were not for show but to underline the King’s desire to share with his subjects and soldiers their sacrifices. After the war, the public engagements continued, but there was an increase in the work that the royals did in the field of charity and the voluntary sector;  family events such as weddings which were held privately in the past now became state and public occasions. All these were reported in the papers and increasingly were filmed to be shown in newsreels across the country and empire.

Philip Williamson wrote that as the royal family undertook more patronages and performed more engagements, they began to make more speeches and these were widely reported and commented upon. While speeches could be relied upon to be published in the newspapers, the novelty of hearing royalty speak live would be made possible with the development of radio or wireless technology. As early as 1923, it had already been proposed to broadcast live the wedding of Prince Albert Duke of York to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, something which the couple agreed to but was vetoed by the Archbishop of Canterbury on the grounds that ‘men listening to the service in pubs would not bother to take their hats off.’ The following year, the opening ceremonies of the exhibition at Wembley were broadcast live and afforded the opportunity for the public to listen to the King speak even if they were not present at the venue itself.

As mentioned earlier in this blog, George V, while seeing the value of mass media as a way to cement that closer bond between crown and people, was disinclined to make a speech that would be broadcast outside an important occasion. It took years of persuasion not only from Reith but even courtiers: the most notable being Lord Stamfordham, the private secretary, and his assistant Sir Clive Wigram, to convince the King of the merits of making such a broadcast. Both men had long seen the potential of the new medium of broadcasting as a way for the royal family to reach out more to the people and thought that an address either during Christmas or New Year would achieve that objective.

It wasn’t until 1932 when together with the Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald, that Reith and Wigram (who by then had replaced Stamfordham as Private Secretary) were finally able to persuade the reluctant King to make such a broadcast. Reith offered the King the option of a Christmas Day or New Year’s Day broadcast: George chose the former as he reasoned that the vast majority of people would be with their families that day just as he would be and it would underscore the importance of Christmas as a family day.

Once the King had agreed to deliver a speech on Christmas Day, he was not a passive bystander content to leave the planning and logistics to his courtiers and the BBC. While Rudyard Kipling was drafted to write the speech, there was active input and feedback from the monarch, ensuring that his character would shine through the speech. A BBC crew travelled up to Sandringham for the broadcast and after selecting a room for the broadcast to be carried out, George participated in voice tests to determine where in the room the table and the microphones would be set up. The control room was set up in the room next door while the microphones and cue light that were to be used by the King were covered in cases made out of Australian walnut.

georgev_xmas_broadcast

It was understandable that the King would be nervous and so the table that was used for the broadcast was swathed in thick cloth to deaden the sound of rustling paper. As for the time that the speech would be broadcast, it was decided to schedule it at 3 o’clock in the afternoon as that time was seen as the most advantageous for reaching most of the countries of the Empire by shortwaves from British transmitters.

The speech itself was short, as the King observed in his diary, only 251 words, but they underlined George’s view of Britain and the Empire as one big family, and the possibilities of technology in enabling communication between this wide family scattered across the globe:

“Through one of the marvels of modern Science, I am enabled, this Christmas Day, to speak to all my peoples throughout the Empire. I take it as a good omen that Wireless should have reached its present perfection at a time when the Empire has been linked in closer union. For it offers us immense possibilities to make that union closer still.

“It may be that our future may lay upon us more than one stern test. Our past will have taught us how to meet it unshaken. For the present, the work to which we are all equally bound is to arrive at a reasoned tranquillity within our borders; to regain prosperity without self-seeking; and to carry with us those whom the burden of past years has disheartened or overborne.”

“My life’s aim has been to serve as I might, towards those ends. Your loyalty, your confidence in me has been my abundant reward.”

“I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all. To men and women so cut off by the snows, the desert or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them; to those cut off from fuller life by blindness, sickness, or infirmity; and to those who are celebrating this day with their children and grand-children. To all—to each—I wish a Happy Christmas. God Bless You!”

 

It was perhaps just as well that the table had been covered with that thick cloth as George revealed later that his hands were shaking throughout the broadcast. If there was any trace of nerves, the listeners did not notice. In fact, the broadcast was well received; as the writer Donald Spoto in his study of the royal family observed, George V’s speeches were a natural expression of his character and the Christmas speech was no different. The broadcast also revealed that the King had a talent for and showed himself to be an effective communicator over the radio; it also made him more human and approachable. By hearing his voice over the wireless, it was as if the King was present in every home that had tuned in to hear him speak.

Although pleased that the speech went well, George V had no intention of making the Christmas address an annual event due to his nerves but upon seeing the letters of appreciation from ordinary members of the public not just in Britain but across the empire, he agreed to broadcast a speech every Christmas with the last in 1935. And while King George VI due to his stammer was not keen to carry on what his father had started, by December 1939 with the Second World War already in full swing, the Christmas broadcast was resurrected and since then it has been an annual fixture in British radio and later television.

What made that first broadcast a success and led to the development of a new tradition? The writer John Pearson mused that George V’s “resonant diction and nautical sincerity” played a part and which one of the King’s early biographers, John Gore observed:

“The homely simplicity and kindliness of his latest address to the Country and empire had been widely appreciated…..He knew himself now to be regarded as the Father of a great Family of Nations…..it was as a father of a family and a Father of the larger family of nations that he spoke each year those Christmas messages and he chose ideas, and words to clothe them, which suited the occasion, the conditions, and the character of the man who would speak them. The very simplicity of thought and the chosen words gave them the King’s authentic signature. He was a simple, natural, frank and friendly man and his favourite words were like himself.” (p. 423)

It wasn’t just George’s talent for broadcasting but also his wholesale commitment to his duty and another application of the lessons he learned in the navy as a young cadet. They stood him in good stead as the world changed and it enabled him and the royal family to adapt and move with the changing times. His grandmother and father had engaged with the innovations of their time – photography and moving images – and George V continued this engagement with technology through the medium of radio which as Pearson wrote “the broadcast marked in fact a further radical advance in the transformation of the monarchy by the mass media” and thanks to the wireless, “King George V could now seem even closer to his people as the nation heard its sovereign’s greeting live across the either……..[he] became something no monarch had ever been before in history, an intimately appreciated, widely known human being, a simple king in the age of the common man.”

Although many would point out that the Christmas speech was another in a series of “invented traditions” and a response a response to a host of specific domestic and international political forces during the late 19th and 20th centuries, it can also be viewed in Takashi Fujitani’s words as a way to “dramatize the cultural values that have been shared by rulers and ruled alike – since who knows when” and these rituals allow the rulers to “place themselves in the cultural frameworks that already unify a people.”

In the end however, for King George V and his successors the annual Christmas speech was a way for the monarch to emphasise their “duty to the Crown and all it stood for, rather than on the privileges of royalty” as well as to reaffirm that all important bond between the monarch and his people.

 

Further Reading:

John Gore. King George V: A Personal Memoir (London, 1941)

Kenneth Rose. King George V (London, 1983)

John Pearson. The Ultimate Family: The Making of the Royal House of Windsor (London, 1986)

Tom Fleming. Voices Out of the Air: The Royal Christmas Broadcasts (London, 1981)

Takashi Fujitani. Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan (Berkeley, 1986)

Louise Cooling. A Royal Christmas (London, 2018)

David Cannadine, ‘The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the “Invention of Tradition,” c. 1820-1977’ in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds) The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 101-164.

Matthew Glencross. ‘George V and the New Royal House’ in Matthew Glencross, Judith Rowbotham and Michael D. Kandiah (eds) The Windsor Dynasty 1910 to the Present. ‘Long to Reign Over Us’? (Basingstoke, 2016), pp. 33-56.

Philip Williamson. ‘The Monarchy and Public Values 1910-53’ in Andrzej Olechnowicz (ed) The Monarchy and the British Nation 1780 to the Present (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 223-257.

https://www.royal.uk/history-christmas-broadcast

 

Book Review: Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking by Deborah Cadbury

The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014 not only resulted into a deluge of books, films, articles, blogs, exhibitions and documentaries about the events leading to the war but also a reappraisal and revisiting of Queen Victoria’s role as the “Grandmother of Europe.” Eight of her nine children married into the various royal houses of Europe and this complicated network of family ties was intertwined with international affairs, which in some way were one of the causes that led to the Great War.

This network of family ties was part and parcel Prince Albert’s vision of Europe as a family of nations unified by peace and liberalism and held together by Britain and a unified and liberal Germany. This idea was not new however as Victoria and Albert’s Uncle Leopold (later King of the Belgians) always nurtured a dream of having a Coburg on every throne in Europe – a dream which Albert carried on by marrying off his oldest daughter Vicky to Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia. Through Vicky and Fritz, Albert hoped that Prussia and later Germany could be transformed into a liberal state, made in the image of Britain. However this plan unravelled quickly with the early death of Frederick after a brief reign as Kaiser and never came to fruition.

Queen Victoria and grandchildren

Queen Victoria viewed every pronouncement and scheme from her beloved Albert as akin to holy writ and as Deborah Cadbury shows in her recent work, her matchmaking would not only apply to her children but also extended to her grandchildren. Amidst the backdrop of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881 and its aftermath, Cadbury charts the Queen’s machinations as she tried to prop up Albert’s vision through her grandchildren.

These machinations often did not go according to plan as the Queen was frustrated in her attempts to block the marriages of her Hessian grandchildren Ella and Alix  into the Russian imperial family. Victoria was a passionate Russophobe, her view of Russia partly coloured by the two countries’ disagreements over the Ottoman Empire and the on going “Great Game” over Central Asia and India. She also viewed the country as unsafe and admitted to feeling her blood feeling cold over the idea of “gentle, simple Alicky” as tsarina.

Another one of Victoria’s schemes that failed was marrying off one of her grandsons, Prince Eddy the Duke of Clarence. First on the list was his first cousin Alix of Hesse but she refused him, then Eddy himself fell in love with Helene of Orleans, who despite being Catholic was willing to convert to the Anglican faith to marry him. Despite the Queen’s support and her father’s eagerness to see his daughter as a potential queen consort, Pope Leo XIII threw a spanner into the works of the proposed marriage by refusing the princess a dispensation to convert to Anglicanism. Undeterred, Queen Victoria proposed as fiancée May of Teck, a distant relation with a flawed pedigree, but unfortunately it was not going to be third time lucky for Eddy as not long after the engagement, he caught influenza and died. After a suitable period of mourning, May was then engaged to Eddy’s younger brother George, who was also nursing a broken heart after the Duchess of Edinburgh put a stop to any moves to marry off her daughter Marie to the smitten George. Instead “Missy” was married off by her mother to Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania.

Bubbling under the surface of these entanglements was the constant threat of assassination attempts and violence from revolutionary and anarchist groups. Ella’s gilded bubble was shattered when her husband Sergei was assassinated in 1905, while another of Victoria’s granddaughters, Ena of Battenberg survived one as she and her new husband King Alfonso XIII of Spain were in their carriage following their wedding in 1906. These incidents among others were a harbinger of what was to come especially in the wake of the First World War: but Queen Victoria and her son and successor King Edward VII clung naively to Albert’s vision and maintained that peace could be achieved through strengthening the family bonds between the various monarchies of Europe.

Cadbury writes in a brisk and conversational style that is readable and she has helpfully drawn up a handy dramatis personae at the beginning to help the reader through the myriad of names and nicknames that are scattered throughout the narrative. While the popular press then and hagiographers write about these royal marriages as love matches, Cadbury disagrees and presents the reality behind these marriages. The story of Nicholas II and Alexandra (Alix)’s marriage is one of love and tragedy but Cadbury does not ignore the fact that despite their personal happiness both were temperamentally unsuited to the roles they had been destined to fulfill. If Nicholas was not suited to be the autocrat like his father, Alexandra despite her royal blood and impeccable family connections was not the right consort for Nicholas. Her unwillingness to follow well-meaning advice from family and friends not to mention her defence of autocracy with the same zeal that led her to wholeheartedly embrace the Russian Orthodox faith had disastrous consequences for her family and her adopted country.

The same is true with George V and Mary and I wish that the author had explored more of their married life, as there were already signs from the engagement that the marriage was not one of love as presented to the public but more of duty. One can only speculate what the former May of Teck thought and felt as she was shut out of even something as mundane as decorating her own home and her individuality all her life repressed and subordinate to George’s will and limitations. One of her earliest biographers perceptively noted that for May there was no higher calling than to be royal and perhaps that overrode any other considerations for her.

Apart from the narration, this book’s other main strength is with regards to pointing out strongly Queen Victoria’s weakness – her naïve view that foreign policy issues could be solved between families, not really realising that growing movements of nationalism, national identity and national interest were stronger than family ties. This was something her two successors – Edward VII to a lesser extent and George V to a greater extent understood, this played a part with the establishment of the Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia in 1907 and later withdrawing the offer of asylum to Nicholas II and his family in 1918.

In the end, as Cadbury shrewdly observed, royal cousinhood would prove to be powerless against the tide of change and in the end also sowed its own seeds of destruction. After the First World War, the political power of monarchy was all but destroyed and never again would “equal” royal marriages be encouraged and viewed as tools of political alliances. A popular saying goes that “blood is thicker than water” but as this tome demonstrates, blood ties would be meaningless against a cataclysmic world war.

 

 

The Devonshire House Ball (1897): Dressing Up on a Grand Scale

One of the main displays in the current exhibition at Chatsworth House is about the Devonshire House Ball of 1897. The Great Chamber contains displays pertaining to the ball together with life sized images of some of the famous guests at the ball such as the Duke and Duchess of York (the future King George V and Queen Mary), Victor Cavendish (the future 9th Duke of Devonshire) and Mrs Arthur Paget, while next door in the State Drawing Room was a display of some costumes worn during that evening.

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The ball was held at Devonshire House in Piccadilly, London on the 2nd of July, during the height of the London Season. What made this ball special was that it was held in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and as Deborah, the 11th Duchess observed, at a time when there were balls almost every night during the height of the Season, for a ball or event to stand out and generate interest, it had to be special. And indeed it was special – invitations were sent out and the dress code was “allegorical or historical costumes before 1815”. This was an encouragement to the guests to give their imaginations full rein for the costume that they planned to wear that evening.

The hosts of the ball were Spencer Compton Cavendish, 8th Duke of Devonshire and his German born wife Louise. The 8th Duke was a politician: as Marquess of Hartington he served as a Member of Parliament and a cabinet minister as a member of the Liberal Party. He also turned down the opportunity three times to become Prime Minister. By 1897 and now Duke of Devonshire, he was sitting in the House of Lords and had split with the Liberal Party over the issue of Irish Home Rule. With his personal life, the 8th Duke would have made a prime example of the saying “appearances can be deceiving” for his intellect and sense of duty was masked by a languid appearance and indifference towards the social side demanded of his position. He was known to be forgetful, shabbily dressed and had the habit of sleeping anywhere and everywhere. Once, finding the ministerial bench at the House of Lords fully occupied, he found another bench and promptly fell asleep. When he woke up and saw what time it was, he exclaimed, “Good heavens, what a bore, I shan’t be in bed for another seven hours.”

His appearance and bearing also masked a complicated personal life. A bachelor of many years standing, he carried on a long term affair with Louise Duchess of Manchester but during the 1860s was also involved with the noted courtesan Catherine (“Skittles”) Walters who was known for her prowess as an equestrienne and on the hunting field. The then Marquess of Hartington was smitten with her, provided her with a home in Mayfair and together was openly seen out and about in events such as the Derby. As Sophia Murphy observed that, Lord Hartington “made no secret of his love for her” but in the end their affair was mentioned in the papers (albeit in the form of coy blind items) and coupled with the weight of disapproval from the highest echelons of society, the affair ended, but he made sure that she was well provided for. Catherine for her part, left for France, only returning to Britain once memories of the affair had faded, and her discretion was rewarded by the Cavendish family who carried on forwarding the annual sum promised to her until her own death in 1920.

The main driving force behind the ball was Louise Duchess of Devonshire. Known as the “Double Duchess” because until only a few years before, she had been Duchess of Manchester. Born Louise von Alten, she was the daughter of a German count and in 1852 had married William Drogo Montagu Viscount Mandeville, heir to the Duke of Manchester. Three years later they became Duke and Duchess of Manchester. Beginning in the 1860s, she began an affair with Lord Hartington with the full connivance of her husband; their affair followed the usual pattern, it began long after she had provided her husband with the requisite sons to carry on the family line and was conducted discreetly among the whirl of dinners, balls, teas and shooting parties. Louise also maintained her dignity even when Hartington had other women and she never allowed her affair to threaten her own relationship with her husband. Such behaviour today would be seen as hypocritical but they scrupulously observed the rules governing their class and so long as those rules were observed there was no scandal and everything went smoothly.

Louise quickly assimilated into her adopted country and through her entertaining advanced the political careers of both husbands. Although all her life she identified with her first husband’s political party, the Conservatives, her circle of friends and acquaintances was politically diverse. She didn’t hesitate to ensure that her dinners and balls were filled with leading politicians, regardless of their political affiliations and persuasion; her objective was that her home should be a meeting place for politicians of all stripes where they could talk in a more relaxed atmosphere away from the pressures of Westminster. Above all, she wanted to be surrounded by people who were interesting and who she liked and to ensure that they had a good time.

She also gained a reputation for being a skilled political hostess who became a sounding board for leading politicians and statesmen, and although she was dismayed that the 8th Duke of Devonshire three times turned down the opportunity to become Prime Minister, his status and wealth as well as his ability meant that Louise could entertain in style and befitting their position in the social and political life of the country. Louise’s marriage to the 8th duke which finally happened in 1891 meant that her position was more secure. As Duchess of Devonshire, she was chatelaine of seven houses (Chatsworth, Devonshire House, Bolton Abbey, Lismore Castle, Hardwick Hall, Chiswick House, Compton Place) and had large funds at her disposal which meant that she had a wider scope for her social talents. Esther Simon Shkolink in her study of late Victorian and Edwardian political wives noted that contemporary accounts were more or less unanimous in their praise of Louise’s entertaining with her “charm and attentiveness as a hostess but also her careful attention to detail.” Her guest list was always eclectic and came from different political parties and social classes as the Devonshire House Ball would later demonstrate.

The Devonshire House Ball in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was part and parcel of Louise’s pattern of entertaining. She and the Duke were fond of horse racing and annually held a dinner and a ball during and after Derby Day, regularly entertained the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) and gave lavish parties for special occasions, but the Diamond Jubilee gave Louise the idea to push the boat out – throw a ball but with a twist in the form of a fancy dress party.

Fancy dress balls had been a fixture at least since the sixteenth century; costumed masked balls were popular in Italy, particularly Venice, from where they spread to the rest of Europe. During the eighteenth century, they became popular at the various royal courts, especially in France, while in Britain costume masked balls were ticketed events held in pleasure gardens and assembly halls in major cities such as London and Bath. In these balls, attendees would usually be cloaked and masked (either with one covering half their face or one trimmed with silk or lace to cover the whole face) or dressed as characters from the past or from popular entertainment such as the commedia dell’arte. In the nineteenth century, theme balls became popular – Queen Victoria and Prince Albert threw three lavish themed costume balls during the 1840s and 1850s. The first was a medieval ball where the hosts and their guests were dressed in the style of the court of King Edward III; the second featured a Georgian theme while the last, held in 1851 had the court of Charles II as the subject. As Queen Victoria withdrew from social life following the death of Prince Albert, the mantle of royal entertaining passed onto her oldest son the Prince of Wales and his wife Alexandra, and during the 1870s they hosted a lavish costume ball at their London home Marlborough House which was heralded as a success and ensured the continued popularity of such events.

For her own ball, Louise decided that the theme would be “court or allegorical costumes before 1815” and as a later Duchess of Devonshire, Deborah mused in an article she wrote:

“It was not difficult for Louise Duchess to mobilise her female guests – they can have had little else to do but arrange themselves for such an occasion and one can easily picture the excitement and pleasure it gave. But even clever old Louise must have been surprised at managing to persuade a lot of middle-aged men to order their costumes and suffer the tedium of trying them on.”

Fortunately help was at hand. Due to the popularity of fancy dress balls, there was a plethora of books and specialist hire shops on hand to offer advice. One such book was entitled Fancy Dress Described or What to Wear at Fancy Balls by Ardern Holt and it went through several editions. It gave descriptions of the most popular costumes which ranged from historical personalities to characters from fiction, myth and legend down to allegorical and national costumes from various parts of the world. In addition, the book also gave recommendations of what costumes would suit a particular hair colour, skin complexion and age.

The ball was eagerly anticipated and as Sophia Murphy observed that “[a]n invitation to the fancy dress ball confirmed membership of the ‘smart set’, and was therefore much sought after. Apart from this, everyone was eager to witness what promised to be one of the most lavish spectacles of the century; since it was the main subject of interest that season, everyone wanted to have the fun of trying to keep their outfits a secret while at the same time trying to discover what the others were wearing.” Many of the guests came together as a group and organise a procession and in the end five main groups or courts were organised: Elizabeth I of England which was led by Lady Tweedmouth; Maria Theresa of Austria under the Marchioness of Londonderry; Queen Guinevere & the Knights of the Round Table led by Lady Ormonde (she ended up being unable to attend due to bereavement so Lord and Lady Rodney went as King Arthur and Queen Guinevere); Louis XV & Louis XVI of France under Lady Warwick (as Marie Antoinette) and the court of Catherine the Great of Russia led by Lady Raincliffe.

Three other groups more loosely defined were categorised by the costumes they were wearing such as the Italian, Oriental and Allegorical. Many other guests however decided not to join any group or procession as they went in an assortment of costumes ranging from their ancestors to those modelled from famous paintings or historical figures that did not fit into any of the groups or courts organised. With her customary attention to detail and zeal, Louise planned everything down to the last detail and even the servants on duty were in costume – the men were dressed in in Devonshire livery from the 18th century while the female staff were dressed in costumes from the Elizabethan period. Due to the large number of guests, it was necessary to hire outside staff for the night and Louise had them dressed in either Egyptian or Elizabethan dress.

On the night of the ball, the guests were greeted by Louise herself and her costume was described by The Times in great detail:

“The Duchess of Devonshire, as Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, wore a magnificent costume. The skirt of gold tissue was embroidered all over in a star-like design in emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, and other jewels outlined with gold, the corners where it opened in front being elaborately wrought in the same jewels and gold to represent peacocks outspread tails. This opened to show an underdress of cream crepe de chine, delicately embroidered in silver, gold, and pearls and sprinkled all over with diamonds. The train, which was attached to the shoulders by two slender points and was fastened at the waist with a large diamond ornament, was a green velvet of a lovely shade, and was superbly embroidered in Oriental designs introducing the lotus flower in rubies, sapphires, amethysts, emeralds, and diamonds, with four borderings on contrasting grounds, separated with gold cord. The train was lined with turquoise satin. The bodice was composed of gold tissue to match the skirt, and the front was of crepe de chine hidden with a stomacher of real diamonds, rubies and emeralds and jewelled belt. A gold crown incrusted (sic) with emeralds, diamonds, and rubies, with a diamond drop at each curved end and two upstanding white ostrich feathers in the middle, and round the front festoons of pearls with a large pear shaped pearl in the centre falling on the forehead.”

One of the guests Margot Asquith (wife of the future Prime Minister Herbert Asquith) expressed surprise at her host’s choice of costume. For her, Zenobia evoked beauty and romance but Louise in her view was neither. In her youth, Louise was known and praised for her beauty but as she grew older, her looks faded while her features became coarse and her figure grew rounder. As Duchess Deborah wrote: “The ‘Double Duchess’ was considered a great beauty, though with her frizzed up hair and short, thick neck it is hard to recognise her beauty in most of the likenesses we have of her. The people I have talked to who saw her only remember the crazily cracked make-up plastered thickly over her face, which made a bizarre effect on this grande dame receiving at the top of the staircase at Devonshire House.” Her costume was designed by the House of Worth and such was the skills of that venerable fashion house that they managed to make Louise a stately and imposing Queen of Palmyra rather than fat and coarse.

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The Duke of Devonshire was dressed as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V based on his portrait by Titian and keeping up with his modest tastes, the Duke’s costume was simple and the only adornment was the badge of the Order of the Golden Fleece which had been lent to him by the Prince of Wales for the evening and which the duke wore around his neck.

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Among the guests were Lady Randolph Churchill (nee Jennie Jerome) as the Empress Theodora, Mrs Arthur (Minnie) Paget went as Cleopatra, the Duchess of Sutherland was costumed as Jane Seymour, the former Prime Minister the 6th Earl of Rosebery who was dressed as a gentleman from the 18th century (he wasn’t amused when some of the papers said that he was costumed as Horace Walpole), Lord Rownton who went as an archbishop and Arthur Balfour (future Prime Minister) as a Dutch gentleman. The Cavendish family meanwhile was represented by the Duke’s nephew and heir Victor who was costumed as Jean de Dinteville from Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors while his wife Evelyn went as a lady from the court of Maria Theresa.  Consuelo Duchess of Manchester, Louise’s daughter-in-law from her first marriage went as Anne of Austria “in a very striking gown of white and silver satin, decorated with swags of gold satin. On her head she wore a diamond crown with a large single pearl ornament in the centre of her forehead.”

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As the ball was in honour of Queen Victoria (who did not attend), she was amply represented by members of her family. The Prince and Princess of Wales (who were costumed as a Grand Prior of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and Marguerite de Valois respectively) together with their children and in-laws attended as well as the Duke and Duchess of Teck and Prince Alfred of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Foreign diplomats such as the Portuguese ambassador the Marquis de Soveral (a close friend of the Prince of Wales) and the Austrian ambassador Count Albert Mensdorff were also present and it’s no wonder that with such a guest list, the Devonshire House Ball was seen as the event of the 1897 London Season.

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Many guests did take much time and effort with their costumes. It was said that one guest who wore an Oriental dress wanted to make an entrance via an elephant and enquired London Zoo about the possibility of borrowing one. The zoo authorities however refused on the grounds that the elephant would be unable to cope with the crowds and traffic of London. One can simply conclude that she made her entrance via the usual horse and carriage. Others in their desire for accuracy and to stand out suffered through the evening with uncomfortable headdresses and props – such as the Hon Mrs Reginald Talbot who went as a Valkyrie and who developed a headache due to the metal winged helmet she was wearing but refused to take it off as it might ruin her hairdo. There was the Countess of Westmoreland costumed as Hebe cupbearer of the gods who was restricted with her movements the entire evening due to the huge stuffed eagle on her shoulder: while Lady Wolverton who attended as Britannia would have had to contend with not only a feathered helmet but also a triton and shield.

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While some male guests such as Herbert Asquith went to the ball grudgingly and made little effort with their costumes, others threw themselves wholeheartedly into the spirit of wearing fancy dress sometimes with even more enthusiasm than their wives. One of the most expensive costumes was worn by the 9th duke of Marlborough who went as the French Ambassador in one of the courts. It was made by House of Worth, a confection of velvet embroidered in silver, pearls and diamonds with a waistcoat made out of white and gold damask. The whole costume was mostly embroidered by hand as well as the pearls and diamonds and cost 5,000 francs. As Jean Philippe Worth later recalled, even he was shocked by the bill as he presented it to the duke.

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Outwardly the ball can be seen as the pinnacle of aristocratic dominance both in the political and social scene but in reality, the ball reflected the gradual changes happening in society. It was observed that society was “less clearly defined than it had been twenty years before” and the guest list reflected Louise’s wide circle of friends and acquaintances that crossed the political divide. More crucial however was the presence of men and women whose origins and occupation would have barred them from other aristocratic homes but who were invited to the Devonshire House ball while most of the aristocratic old guard were not. Examples of these were Ernest Cassel and Alfred Beit both of whom were Jewish and were in banking; the Earl of Iveagh and Lord Rothschild both of whom made their fortunes in commerce and finance; the actor Sir Henry Irving and the American born singer Mrs Ronalds who appropriately came as Euterpe, “the Spirit of Music” in a costume decorated with the musical score from Verdi’s opera Un Ballo in Maschera.

The ball in 1897 was the last major event held in Devonshire House and with the 8th Duke’s death in 1908 followed by Louise three years later marked the end of an era for the Devonshires. The 9th duke was faced with crippling death duties from his predecessor’s estate as well as debts from the 7th duke’s failed investments. In order to economise, the 9th duke accepted the position of Governor-General of Canada where he served from 1916 to 1922. While in Canada, negotiations for the sale of Devonshire House had begun and it was finally sold in 1920. Not long after the house was demolished and an office block now stands in its place.

The sale of Devonshire House showed that following the end of the First World War not even the grandest and wealthiest of the aristocracy were immune from the changes sweeping through the aristocracy as well as feeling the financial pinch. In the years following the sale and demolition of Devonshire House, other aristocratic townhouses were sold to be demolished, converted into office spaces or museums. At the same time, aristocratic entertaining also changed – many in the aristocracy could no longer afford to entertain on the same scale as their predecessors and balls and dinners were ceasing to become extensions of cabinet meetings and parliamentary sessions. The Devonshire House Ball of 1897 would certainly be the last of its kind and one that would never be repeated.

 

Note:

Photos from the House Style exhibition at Chatsworth House taken by blogger

Further Reading:

Deborah (Cavendish) Duchess of Devonshire. Home to Roost and Other Peckings (London, 2009)

Deborah (Cavendish) Duchess of Devonshire. Chatsworth: The House (London, 2002)

Ardern Holt. Fancy Dress Described or What to Wear at Fancy Balls (London, 1881)

Sophia Murphy. The Duchess of Devonshire’s Ball (London, 1984)

Sophia Topley. ‘The Devonshire House Ball’ in Laura Burlington and Hamish Bowles (eds) House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth (New York, 2017) pp. 123-139

Esther Simon Shkolink. Leading Ladies: A Study of Eight Late Victorian and Edwardian Political Wives (New York and London, 1987)

David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990)

http://www.npg.org.uk/blog/from-downton-abbey-to-devonshire-house-american-heiresses-at-the-devonshire-house-fancy-dress-ball.php

https://fromthebygone.wordpress.com/2015/11/12/late-victorian-fancy-dress-the-devonshire-house-ball-in-1897/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/fancy-dress-1897-the-duchess-of-devonshires-diamond-jubilee-ball/

http://www.thecourtjeweller.com/2017/08/jewel-history-hired-jewels-are-much-in.html

http://lafayette.org.uk/dhblist.html

http://www.rvondeh.dircon.co.uk/incalmprose/ball.html

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/back-to-the-party-more-pictures-from-the-duchess-of-devonshires-costume-ball-1897/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/party-time-again-costume-ball-1897/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2014/01/02/costume-ball-4-ladies-only/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/costume-ball-5-more-ladies-more-gentlemen/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2015/12/31/costume-ball-6-mothers-daughters-and-others/

Book Review: The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau by Julie Ferry

The transatlantic marriage phenomenon – whereby cash strapped British aristocrats married the daughters of American nouveau riche families –  has been the subject of novels (The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton and My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin to name a few), period drama (Downton Abbey) as well as academic and popular studies from the likes of Maureen E. Montgomery and Charles Jennings. Studies on the British aristocracy from the likes of David Cannadine have also touched on this occurrence. The latest comes from journalist Julie Ferry with The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau.

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Subtitled “Husband Hunting during the Gilded Age”, Ferry examines the motivations and objectives of American heiresses and their families in crossing the Atlantic to find husbands. Her book focuses on the year 1895 which has been generally characterised as the apogee of the transatlantic marriage phenomenon. Consuelo Vanderbilt’s eventual marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough is the linchpin of this narrative and the main focus is on how this marriage came about. And a love match this wasn’t, it was arranged for all intents and purposes with a great deal of calculation, chutzpah, planning, even threats and bullying by Consuelo’s mother Alva Erskine Smith, herself from an old Southern family who lost their money in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Her marriage to William Kissam Vanderbilt, a member of a wealthy family who made their fortune in the railways, bought her wealth but not the social acceptance that she also craved. The Vanderbilts were shunned by New York society for making their money in trade and in order to be accepted by the so-called “400,” Alva planned her assault on society carefully. She persuaded her husband to build Marble Hall, which was to be their summer home in Newport; threw lavish dinners and balls; was seen at the right parties and public spaces and carefully cultivated friends and allies who could help her conquer society and secure the approval of the ultimate arbiter of New York society – Mrs Astor. Despite her efforts, she knew that the best way to secure this entrée to society was through her daughter Consuelo making a socially advantageous match. And not just any husband but a titled one – preferably British – and not just titled but a duke.

Alva turned to two friends to make this dream come true – Mrs Arthur Paget and the Duchess of Manchester who happened to be Consuelo’s godmother. Born Minnie Stevens and Consuelo Yznaga respectively, both women were part of the first wave of American heiresses to marry into the British aristocracy and through their beauty, charm and novelty managed to gain acceptance into society through their friendship with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. Being part of the Marlborough House set placed Minnie and Consuelo in a unique place. Ensconced firmly in the bosom of high society in Britain, they were in an ideal position to help Alva Vanderbilt and other pushy nouveaux riche mothers who were determined to marry off their daughters into the British aristocracy in the teeth of opposition from home grown heiresses and their match making mothers. The American heiresses and their mothers were advised on what to wear, where to rent a house for the season and how to navigate the complex etiquette and rules governing society. Minnie and Consuelo also hosted teas and dinners at their homes so that their fellow Americans could be introduced to eligible bachelors and their families.

Both women were rewarded handsomely for their efforts. It was seen as vulgar to exchange cash outright but gifts, generous discounts and settled bills certainly eased any financial difficulties that Minnie and Consuelo encountered. Helping broker these marriages allowed Minnie Paget and Consuelo Manchester to live and entertain in the lifestyle they were accustomed to and that was expected of the class they married into.

While the book isn’t exactly large, it’s packed with loads of details. Ferry charts the history behind the growth of society in America especially after the Civil War and how a system developed in order to regulate the flow of newcomers who wanted to break into established society. The rules were rigid and those who were unable to penetrate the likes of the New York Four Hundred headed to Europe where the cash-strapped aristocracy, despite prejudices against Americans, were prepared to welcome these interlopers because of the wealth they could bring to shore up their bankrupt and dilapidated estates.

Ferry also delved into newspapers and magazines of the period to demonstrate how these new rich arrivistes became the celebrities in their day. Their activities, homes, clothes, jewels and even their scandals were reported and commented upon: which horrified the old guard and traditional society who believed in thrift, modesty and propriety. Then as now, the papers were not averse to sensationalising stories, while some were embellished in order provide a talking point, other stories were outright lies and fabrication.

The result of these transatlantic marriages was mixed. While there were some who found love and happiness, others simply jogged on for the sake of family and duty. There were couples however who couldn’t simply maintain appearances and in the end decided on a separation or heaven forbid a divorce. The Marlboroughs were an example, after providing her husband with two sons to secure the family line, Consuelo and “Sunny” Marlborough began to lead increasingly separate lives and affairs on both sides led to a formal separation in 1906 and finally divorce in 1921. By the early 1900s, it was clear also that the novelty of marrying American heiresses was wearing off and even in America itself there had long been a backlash against their citizens marrying into the British aristocracy.

The book contains no new or ground breaking research but it makes a good introductory read to an era in history where the British aristocracy attempted to arrest their decline by looking across the ocean for that injection of cash while the American new rich were hungry for social validation. In the end, it proved to be a chimera – the decline of the aristocracy was irreversible while growing influence abroad would make Americans realise that they didn’t need coronets and titles to be accepted.

 

Fashioning Royal Style, 1870-1939 Part 1

The present day obsession with dissecting what members of the British royal family wear is not new. Whilst today there is social media, forums and blogs that are devoted to the clothes worn by the Duchess of Cambridge, the Countess of Wessex and even the Queen herself, interest in the fashions worn by royalty has been around since before the age of the internet and mass media. During the 1950s, Princess Margaret could command enormous press attention for her clothes which as one newspaper breathlessly proclaimed that “what she wears is news”.

Although royalty is not expected to be fashionable, the clothes that they wear are highly important. They should be visible enough to the greatest number of people as possible and allow them to stand out from among the crowds. Their clothes should take into account the occasion, the climate and who their audience will be. Accessories are also very important – hats should not obscure the face; bags and sleeves should not get in the way of shaking hands and shoes should be taken into account for the hours of standing and walking. Colours are equally or more so, very crucial as they can send out messages that can have more impact than words.

Currently, the Royal Collection Trust is presenting an exhibition of the clothes of Queen Elizabeth II spread across three royal residences to celebrate her 90th birthday. In this blog, we shall be looking at the sartorial choices of her predecessors and how they have made their own mark though their choices in clothing and style.

 

Queen Victoria (1870-1901)

By the 1870s, Queen Victoria’s image as a grieving widow was one that the public had been accustomed to. It was also during this decade that she was beginning to emerge from her seclusion and her look was reflecting the prevailing mourning custom then of the transition from deepest or first mourning towards the second stage – crape by this point was less used and she began to wear dresses in black silk.

Although she would time and again return to crape for the deaths of other family members and relations, it was by this point that our enduring image of Queen Victoria began to take shape. Photographs, prints and portraits of her depicted her as a stout woman in a black silk dress or black with touches of white, with her white widow’s cap atop her head and simple jewellery in pearls and diamonds apart from jet.

Even for state occasions such as the state opening of Parliament, Queen Victoria refused to don the state crown and robe of state. Instead she continued to wear her widow’s cap and a simple dress in black and white but as a concession to the formality of the occasion would wear a small diamond crown (made for her by Garrard’s in 1870 and now on display at the Tower of London) which was lighter, fitted well atop her widow’s cap and provided both a compromise for the need of something suitably grand for a state occasion and appropriate for mourning. The sash and star of the Order of the Garter was her only concession to colour.

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by Lady Julia Abercromby, after Heinrich von Angeli, watercolour, 1883 (1875)

The same was true with her official photographs and portraits where again she would be depicted in a black silk dress trimmed with white lace, the small diamond crown atop her widow’s cap, the sash and star of the Order of the Garter across her chest and wearing pearl and diamond jewellery. An official portrait of the Queen by Heinrich von Angeli completed in 1875 depicted her wearing a double strand pearl necklace, pearl earrings, small pearl brooch and a pearl bracelet with a miniature portrait of Prince Albert. As pearls were appropriate for mourning, the symbolism of the jewels she was wearing for this portrait was not lost on the public as pearls symbolised “tears” and spoke of her continuing sadness over the loss of her beloved husband.

From the 1880s onwards, Queen Victoria’s dresses were more aligned with the third stage of mourning where ribbons and trimmings in fabrics other than crape were used. Some of her dresses and gowns were trimmed with black beads or embroidered as well as bordered with fine lace. The black of her dresses provided a splendid backdrop for her pearls and diamonds and were suitably grand, presenting a combination of majesty and homely simplicity.

Queen Victoria’s look from the 1870s until her death in 1901 has been described by both Charlotte Gere and Kay Stanilad as “unchanging”. Her clothes could be impressive but overall, her appearance could be described as “frumpy” and could also look older than her years, as Stanilad herself observed, “[s]he had always preferred her clothing to be comfortable, and now, lacking the discipline imposed by wearing fashionable dresses and the controlling influence of Prince Albert, she gradually eschewed the increasingly rigid corsetry required to create a fashionable outline. Photographs frequently show her diminutive but expanding frame enveloped in shawls and mantles. On occasion, however, they also reveal smart, almost chic, outfits, especially mantles and bonnets.”

Queen Victoria smiling

Much like her granddaughter in-law the Duchess of York (later Queen Mary), Queen Victoria also patronised British dressmakers, stores and fabrics. Her dressmakers included Sarah Ann Unitt, Elizabeth Gieve and Martha Dudley – women who were well-versed with meeting the needs of the more conservative tastes of older women. Stores where she made regular purchases included Morgan & Co, John Redfern, Jay’s, Debenham & Freebody, Marshall & Snelgrove, Liberty’s, Robinson & Cleaver,  Romanes & Patterson as well as local shops at Windsor, the Isle of Wight and Aberdeenshire. If the Queen happened to like something, she would order it in multiples which further entrenched her unchanging image.

Towards the last decade of her life, Queen Victoria’s clothes were made with greater practical considerations in mind. Her clothes from this period were fairly distinctive and more or less uniform with variations in trimmings, embroidery and beading. This perhaps stemmed from her dressmaker Mrs Dudley using a master pattern to save time on fittings for which an increasingly infirm and elderly woman might not have much patience. The dresses are made for ease and comfort – requiring minimum to no effort in putting on and taking off while many of the skirts could be raised by use of button and loop to avoid tripping. Bodices were sewn in with pockets to keep a watch attached to a chain, keys and glasses which the Queen began to rely on more as her eyesight began to fade.

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When she died in 1901, it marked the end of an era but her image, propagated in various media such as portraits, prints, photographs, stamps, coins and commemorative objects has lived on. As Kay Staniland again noted:

As Queen Victoria’s figure thickened in old age the abiding image of the little old lady in black, ‘the Widow of Windsor’ became powerfully imprinted, so much so that even today, for many people, this is the only picture they carry of her. It is an image which in more recent years has been confirmed by the large quantity of large-waisted black dresses and capacious underwear which survives in public and private possession, the garb of an elderly and rheumatic woman. It certainly exemplifies her last years but distracts from a broader consideration of a long and varied life. (p. 169)

 

Queen Alexandra (1901-1910)

Queen Alexandra, born Princess Alexandra of Denmark and raised in modest circumstances found herself thrust onto a bigger and grander stage when she married Albert Edward Prince of Wales in 1863. Beautiful and glamorous, the new Princess of Wales was the Princess Diana of her day. From the moment she arrived in Britain, she quickly became popular with the public and following her wedding, the Prince and Princess of Wales became the toast of society, their London home Marlborough House becoming the centre of glittering events: in effect deputising for Queen Victoria who ceased to entertain following the death of Prince Albert. All this was aided and abetted by the new medium of photography and the widespread availability of images of the Princess of Wales meant that her style and clothes could be copied by society ladies and even middle class women.

Considered a tad too slim by contemporary standards, Princess Alexandra however proved to be adept at dressing in a manner befitting her new status, accentuating her best features and disguising any flaws thereby setting trends. She popularised high necklines, “dog collar” necklaces or piling several rows of pearls or diamond necklaces in order to cover a scar on her neck and following a bout with rheumatic fever following the birth of her daughter Louise in 1867 that left her with a limp, some women began to copy this as well by wearing mismatched shoes or purchasing a pair of shoes with unequal heels all while carrying a cane or walking stick.

This spawned a bizarre trend known as the “Alexandra limp” and was criticised by several quarters of the press and public. People tutted about how ugly it looked and the papers were quite scathing, noting how this trend was part of a long line of “remarkably foolish things have been done in imitation of royalty” as well as cruel for its “caricaturing of human infirmity”. As many other fashion trends, this proved to be a flash in the pan.

Princess Alexandra also learned early on that clothes and fashion could be harnessed to send a message. For instance in 1874, her sister the Tsarevna Maria Feodorovna (nee Princess Dagmar) and her husband the Tsarevich Alexander (the future Tsar Alexander III) of Russia made an official visit to Britain. The tsarevna was also a beauty and seen as a fashion icon in her adopted country. The two sisters made public appearances wearing identical clothes which many historians noted was making an underlying political point, that perhaps Britain and Russia did have something in common that could be the basis of a future alliance or understanding between the two countries. This was considered risky with the prevalent mutual antipathy between Britain and Russia especially with regard to the Ottoman Empire and over the border between the Russian empire and India but the public lapped it up: especially as the clothes emphasised their physical resemblance and striking looks.

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Unlike her mother-in-law Queen Victoria and other members of the British royal family, Alexandra did not see the need to wear exclusively British designs. Her style and taste remained resolutely continental and she relied on Parisian designers such as Doeuillet, Maison Laferrier, Madame Duboc and Worth for many of her clothes. However she did patronise several British companies especially for her daytime clothes. Despite the fact that Paris was the capital of high fashion, London (and the UK in general) did lead the way for smart tailored wear and the likes of Redfern & Sons, Gent and Son (Birmingham), Durrant of Edinburgh, Albert Phillips and John Morgan and Son all had Princess Alexandra as one of their regular customers.

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The death of Queen Victoria in 1901 set the stage for a new era and paved the way for a much more visible monarch. Even as Prince of Wales, King Edward VII was already acutely aware that as the monarch now lacked real political power, he still had an important role to play in the ceremonial life of the nation. He was of the belief that the more people saw their monarch and other members of the royal family, the better it was for both the family and the nation. Clothes were to play an important part in Edward VII’s view of the importance of public ceremonial and duty.

Having already successfully weathered the storms in her life and marriage partly due to her what Kate Strasdin called her “astute sartorial decisions” and “ability to dress appropriately for any occasion”, as queen Alexandra’s wardrobe became even more magnificent. Signalling a break from the past, the new King and Queen set the tone for the new reign by attending the State Opening of Parliament with the full pomp and splendour that had not been seen since Prince Albert’s death in 1861. While King Edward VII donned the Imperial State Crown and robe of state, Queen Alexandra was resplendent in her black gown, pearl and diamond jewellery with the sash and star of the Order of the Garter and Queen Victoria’s small diamond crown atop her mourning cap. The effect was a mix of elegance and respect.

The State Opening of Parliament was a dress rehearsal for a much more important and solemn event. For the coronation in 1902, the part of the Queen Consort in the ceremony and what she would be wearing was problematic as the last Queen Consort to be crowned was Queen Adelaide in 1831 and hardly anyone who witnessed that event was still alive to recall it. While courtiers scrambled to find records of previous coronations to ascertain what role the new consort would play, Queen Alexandra was seemingly unconcerned with precedent as she told one of the King’s equerries that “I know better than all the milliners and antiquaries. I shall wear exactly what I like and so will all my ladies – basta!”

And wear exactly what she liked it was. Her coronation gown was made in Paris by Morin Blossier, a Parisian dressmaker, from fabric designed by Lady Curzon (vicereine of India) and made in India. Her gown, actually two pieces consisted of a boned bodice and a long skirt, was made up of a cloth of gold and over it a net of Indian embroidery containing the motifs of the British Isles and the Empire. Completing the gown were long hanging sleeves and the standing collar that was trimmed with gold lace. Kate Strasdin has studied Queen Alexandra’s coronation gown, now stored at Kensington Palace’s Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, and has noted that the design of the fabric was based on the queen’s romanticised view of India, a country she never had an opportunity to visit but that was seen as the “jewel” of the British Empire. Through her choice of the fabric to be made in India, this demonstrated how important the country was in Alexandra’s mind and like her husband she understood the importance of how her appearance at the coronation would have an impact on her husband’s subjects at home and abroad. The only part of her coronation ensemble that was British made was her robe of state made by Marshall and Snelgrove but instead of the traditional violet and crimson, it was in petunia purple; while she eschewed the traditional four arches atop her crown in favour of the continental eight half arches.

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However there was a limit to how much Queen Alexandra could get away with wearing exactly what she wanted. King Edward VII was a stickler for correct dress especially when it came to official and state occasions and in one instance he took exception to her wearing the sash of the Order of the Garter the wrong way round (the correct way is that its worn over the left shoulder down to the right hip) and asked her to wear it the right way before heading downstairs for an official dinner.

Cecil Beaton in his book The Glass of Fashion observed that Queen Alexandra “probably started the modern tradition that British royalty can wear anything. During her husband King Edward’s reign she would wear spangled or jewelled and bead embroidered coats in the daytime, an innovation which has now become an accepted royal habit. Or she might wear half-length jackets covered with purple or mauve sequins and garnished with a Toby frill collar of tulle. These were clothes which most women would have worn at night, but the fact that she wore them during the day removed her from reality and only helped to increase the aura of distance that one associates with the court.”

And this aura of distance continued into the next reign as royalty took a back seat to fashion. Just as King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra used clothes to foster the idea of a ceremonial monarchy especially against the backdrop of political, economic and social changes, their successors King George V and Queen Mary would use their lack of interest in current fashions to project a wholly different image and a response to greater changes that not even his two predecessors could ever have dreamt of.

Part 2 continues here

Further Reading:

Kay Staniland. In Royal Fashion (London, 1997)

Charlotte Gere & Judy Rudoe. Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria (London, 2010)

Beatriz Chadour-Sampson. Pearls (London, 2013)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-28357269

http://theenchantedmanor.com/tag/queen-alexandra-the-fashion-icon/

Norman Hartnell. Royal Courts of Fashion (London, 1971)

Cecil Beaton with foreword by Hugo Vickers. The Glass of Fashion (London, 2014)

Georgina Battiscombe. Queen Alexandra (London, 1969)

David Duff. Alexandra: Princess and Queen (London, 1981)

Richard Hough. Edward and Alexandra (London, 1992)

Frances Dimond. Developing the Picture: Queen Alexandra and the Art of Photography (London, 2004)

Elizabeth Longford. Victoria R.I. (London, 1964)

A.N. Wilson. Victoria (London, 2014)

Matthew Dennison. Queen Victoria: A Life of Contrasts (London, 2013)

Deidre Murphy and Cassie Davies-Strodder. Modern Royal Fashion: Seven royal women and their style (London, 2015)

Colin McDowell. A Hundred Years of Royal Style (London, 1985)

Kate Strasdin. ‘Empire Dressing: The Design and Realization of Queen Alexandra’s Coronation Gown’, Journal of Design History, vol. 25 no. 2 (2012), pp. 155-170

Caroline de Guitatut. Diamonds: A Jubilee Celebration (London, 2012)

Hugh Roberts. The Queen’s Diamonds (London, 2012)

Royal Cousins at War (BBC documentary) – first telecast 5 February 2014