Note: Thank you to Baguette Suzanna for this book report! If you need to place Princess Victoria among the 22 granddaughters of Queen Victoria, see this post.
My grandmother and I were incredibly close. I absolutely adored my grandmother. I still read her letters, cherish old birthday cards, and wear her old coat. So, when I saw a copy of Advice to My Grand-daughter: Letters from Queen Victoria to Princess Victoria of Hesse selected and with commentary by Richard Hough at a used book store, I bought it immediately. We’ve all heard about Queen Victoria’s relationships with her children, but we don’t hear much about her relationships with any of her 42 grandchildren.
Born at Windsor Castle in 1863, Princess Victoria of Hesse was the eldest child of Princess Alice of the United Kingdom and Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine. Victoria had several siblings: Elisabeth (Ella), Irene, Ernest, Friedrich, Alix, and Marie. Elisabeth and Alix would go on to marry into the Russian royal family. Irene married a Prussian prince, Ernest succeeded his father as the next Grand Duke. Friedrich, known as Frittie, suffered from hemophilia and died from injuries after a fall from a window. Marie died of diphtheria at the age of four. Just weeks later, Alice died of diphtheria herself, after nursing the entire family through it.
This collection of letters was stored at Broadlands, the home of the Earl and Countess Mountbatten of Burma. Earl Mountbatten was Princess Victoria’s son. Patricia Mountbatten (Lady Brabourne at the time of publishing as her father was still alive) Louis’ daughter, wrote the forward. In it, she talks about what an extraordinary woman her grandmother was. I suppose many of us feel this way toward our grandmothers, but Princess Victoria was described by her grandchildren as “the most remarkable woman they had ever known” – and these were kids who knew people. According to Lady Brabourne, Princess Victoria always took time to talk to everyone, “treating a child as an interesting person to be equally respected”. According to Patricia, she never wanted to behave poorly around her great-grandmother because Princess Victoria was “far too interesting, and such behavior would have been unthinkable and a waste of time”. A woman whose mere presence made children want to behave themselves? A great lady, indeed.
Interspersed throughout the letters is commentary from Richard Hough. I found the commentary incredibly helpful to place the letters within the appropriate timeframe and historical context. There are also helpful footnotes as Queen Victoria frequently used German phrases throughout her letters to Princess Victoria. The footnotes are also incredibly helpful because so many of the women in the family had the same first name, so nicknames abound and the reader would be unable to keep them straight without notes. There is also a family tree and very long list of “Chief Characters” along with their nicknames.
The letters begin when Princess Victoria was nine years old. They are the typical, sweet letters you’d expect from a grandmother to a grandchild who lives far away: sweet, loving, with compliments on how well the younger Victoria’s handwriting was coming along. How they differ from your typical letters are lines such as, “I’m so pleased to hear you like the pony”, and “I sent you another set of pearls”, “I hope you like the watch with the ‘V’ engraved on it. It was given to me by my aunt the Queen of the Belgians”. The Queen’s words to Victoria when her brother Frittie died were incredibly touching and probably brought much comfort to the girl.
After Princess Alice died, Queen Victoria never missed a chance to remind Princess Victoria that her mother was dead. You may think I’m exaggerating, but it’s easier to count the number of letters where Queen Victoria doesn’t mention Alice’s death than it is to count the ones where she does. She does not stop; if the Hesse children ever felt as though they were healing, a letter from darling grandmama would arrive, reminding them of an anniversary or event when their mother would not be in attendance. These letters were very hard for me to read because they seem almost cruel. But everyone grieves in their own way, and Alice was not just the Hesse children’s mother, she was also Queen Victoria’s daughter and perhaps the Queen was also trying to process her own grief.
When Princess Victoria became an older teenager, the letters change in tone. Queen Victoria became quite critical of Princess Victoria’s pastimes (reminding her that only women who are “quite fast” take part in shooting guns). There are several letters reminding young Victoria that Russia is awful and she would live a life of misery if she married a Russian. After Princess Victoria married Prince Louis of Battenberg and began having children, the Queen went into expert mode: ordering the Princess to walk daily to help labor go by more quickly and helping her to figure out her exact due date, giving her opinion about nurses and doctors (“The English are the best in the world”). It must have been comforting to have the advice of a woman who survived nine births in the 1800s and who could also send her own medical team to assist you when the time came.
When Princess Victoria’s younger sisters began entering marrying age, the Queen wrote to Victoria to beg her to talk sense into her sisters. The Queen had particularly strong feelings about her grandchildren marrying into the Russian and Prussian royal families. The Queen felt that Russia was in a precarious and troubling position and the court too ostentatious and secretive. She felt that Prussia was too stiff and formal and also headed for trouble (and wrote frequently that Willie the future Kaiser was, “in need of a good smacking.” Willie was…not popular among his family). When Ella became engaged to Grand Duke Serge, Queen Victoria went in hysterics. When Irene became engaged to Prince Henry of Prussia, the Queen was equally upset. But her reaction when Alix was contemplating marrying the future Czar was truly explosive; letter after letter begging Princess Victoria to tell Ella to stop encouraging the match, to beg Alix to marry anyone else, and to beg their father to put his foot down. I came away wondering how different things would have been if the Hesse children had listened to dearest grandmama. Part of me wants to see this royal game of telephone dramatized; it read almost as comedy to me, until I remembered that none of them listened to the Queen and in Ella and Alix’s case, they paid with their lives.
The letters show that even though much has been talked of Queen Victoria’s strained relationship with her own children, she very much adored her grandchildren (though perhaps not Kaiser Wilhelm as much). The letters are full of advice but mostly love and concern. Though documentaries portray Victoria as a silly woman, always grieving, extremely uptight, and constantly taking to her bed the letters in this book show that she was a witty, loving, and incredibly smart woman.
As the years wore on, the Queen’s handwriting became increasingly illegible and difficult to transcribe. Some letters trail off with no closing and no signature. The letters end in July of 1900; perhaps this is because Princess Victoria was in England during much of the Queen’s final days. When Queen Victoria died in January of 1901, Princess Victoria was by her side.