The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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January 13, 2013

Serving Victoria

Being something of a Queen Victoria groupie, I put Kate Hubbard's book Serving Victoria:  Life in th Royal Household on my reading list as soon as I saw it mentioned on dovegreyreader scribbles, and I was lucky enough to find it -- along with a new biography of her son, Edward VII  -- in the college library.  I wasn't necessarily planning to be chronological, but when Fleur Fisher wrote about Serving Victoria, it leapt in front.  And I'm so glad it did!  It's a wonderful book, and it was treat to read it.

Fleur wrote a great review and gives an excellent overview of the main characters, but in a nutshell, Serving Victoria is a portrait of life with Queen Victoria -- from her accession and marriage until her death in 1901, at Windsor, Osborne, and Balmoral -- through the diaries and letters of her ladies-in-waiting, dressers, other servants, her private secretary, doctor and chaplain, and through their relationships with Victoria, Prince Albert, their children and each other.  Some of the stories were familiar -- Victoria's deep mourning and seclusion after Prince Albert's death, and her relationship with her Highland Servant, John Brown -- but a lot of what emerges are day-to-day details, and those are relentlessly fascinating and entertaining.  That's partly because the book is full of details and anecdotes:  I loved reading (just for example} about her dressers' chagrin over Victoria's hopelessly unchic fashion sense, and about London's 'mourning warehouses,' where the ladies-in-waiting, ordered suddenly in mourning for a royal relative could shop for mourning clothes or, later, for lilac or grey half-mourning dresses in the Mitigated Affliction Department.

But what emerges most is the personalities and very human frailties of all the characters, from the overworked and nervously exhausted members of the household to the 'Royal Malingerer,' who constantly played on her grief and overwork and illness, and enjoyed planning and attending funerals.  The men and women who held senior positions in the household were from aristocratic families, but often needed the not-lavish but respectable salaries they earned, and endured long separations from their families and other impositions. And while life at court was an honor and a duty, it was almost universally described as incredibly boring, with long stretches of stilted conversation and waiting for orders from the Queen, and as 'an odd mix of never-ending house party and boarding school,' with exasperating rules,  petty squabbles, and stiffly-worded {and in retrospect, very funny} messages carried between the members of the household and the royal family.

Just a lot of fun to read, and the kind of book I love to sink into. {The library had the U.K. edition, but Amazon lists an April publication date in the U.S.}


FleurFisher said...

isn't it wonderful?! And this book has planted a seed - I've found a joint biography of the Ponsonbys in the libarary since I had to take my copy back and their son wrote his memoirs too.

Lindsey said...

I haven't read a lot about this time in history but it does sound like a great pick. Life at court can't be interesting all the time, I suppose.

Ann Summerville said...

It's amazing what was accomplished during Victoria's reign considering the vast about of time in mourning.

Anonymous said...

Your review describes this book so well that it's been added to the TBR list. I love Victorian times, and was not familiar with this title. Thanks for the info!

Victorian fans, unite!
liz in texas

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