The Childhood of Queen Victoria

Princess Alexandrina Victoria, born in spring of 1819 in Kensington Palace, London was an unlikely successor to the English throne. Her older uncles were expected to produce heirs. King George IV had one child named Charlotte who died in childbirth. King William IV succeeded George IV but had no legitimate children.

When Victoria’s father the Duke of Kent noticed that his brothers were failing to produce children, he decided that he should start a family. His search for a wife ended with the Dowager Princess of Leinigen who already had two young children by her first marriage. As a child with an English father and a German mother, Victoria soon mastered both languages.

Since she was not initially expected to be heir to the throne, Victoria’s early childhood was less restricted than it was later on. She enjoyed going to concerts and the theater. After attending a concert or play, she would often dress up her dolls as her favorite characters or she would draw sketches of them.

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Princess Victoria, age 4

Like other young girls, Victoria loved to play with dolls although she had a few more than most. With help from her governess Louise Lehzen she made beautiful clothes for her collection of over 100 dolls. Though the dolls were put away when she grew up, Victoria continued to be an avid sketcher and painter throughout her life. As a child she particularly loved to draw her pet dog Dash.

Though the future Queen Victoria had multiple pets including some very fast horses, Dash the Cavalier King Charles spaniel was her favorite. She loved him so much that after her coronation she rushed home to give him a bath.

Her female companions consisted of her mother, with whom she had a complex relationship, her half-sister Feodora, and her German governess Baroness Lehzen. Feodora was 12 years older than Victoria. She married a German prince in 1828 and went to live with him, leaving Victoria without one of her favorite companions. After one of Feodora’s visits an emotional 15-year-old Victoria said, “I clasped her in my arms and kissed her and cried as if my heart would break; so did she, dearest Sister.” The two would correspond and visit each other throughout their lives.

When it became clear that Victoria was next in line to the throne, her mother decided to employ the so-called Kensington System for Victoria’s remaining upbringing. At all times Victoria was to be accompanied by an adult; she even had to sleep in the same room as her mother until she became queen at age 18.

Victoria’s mother had a bad habit of listening to her advisor Sir John Conroy who wanted only to enhance his own power. Victoria’s mother took a great deal of bad advice and never completely understood her adopted country, but her two daughters Fedora and Victoria were successful and accomplished young women. Despite her mother’s faults, it is likely that the Duchess had something to do with Victoria’s character.

Though her closeness with Baroness Louise Lehzen would complicate her adult relationships, when she was younger Victoria believed her to be nearly perfect. She was Victoria’s closest companion and someone she in whom she could safely confide.

Victoria’s father the Duke of Kent died when she was an infant, and the scheming Sir John Conroy was certainly not someone that Victoria could look up to as a father figure. That role was filled by her Uncle Leopold. He was her uncle from her mother’s side and eventually became King of the Belgians in 1831. He tried to give Victoria advice on how she should behave and to prepare her for the possibility of becoming queen. He told her “high personages are a little like stage actors – they must always make efforts to please their public.” Victoria relied on Leopold’s letters and took his advice to heart.

At the age of 18, Victoria learned that she was to become queen of England. She remembered, “I cried much on learning it and even deplored this contingency.”

Book Review: Fallen Skies by Philippa Gregory

In her historical novel Fallen Skies Philippa Gregory takes the reader to 1920s England. We meet Lily Valance, a chorus girl with ambitions to become a singer. She meets Capt. Stephen Winters, a World War I veteran, at one of the clubs where she performs. Stephen hardly knows Lily, but believes he is falling in love with her because she seems so unspoiled by World War I. Haunted by his experiences in Belgium, Stephen wants nothing more than to forget the war. He believes Lily’s insistence that no one talk about the past will help him to move on.

Lily enjoys his attentions. She especially likes when he takes her and her mother out in a car driven by his chauffeur. Yet she is also attracted to Charlie, her director. Charlie has a physical injury from the war that will not allow him to have children. Although he loves Lily, he thinks he is doing the noble thing by letting her go.

When Lily’s mother dies, she just wants someone to take care of her. She is convinced that Stephen will do this, so she accepts his marriage proposal.

Soon, however, there is trouble in their marriage. Lily is embarrassed by Stephen’s behavior when a car backfires during their honeymoon. Convinced he is in a war zone, Stephen hits the ground and starts rolling. Onlookers tell Lily he is shell-shocked. She gets him back to the hotel and when he feels more like himself, he acts as though nothing has happened and violently insists that Lily do the same. He pays off the hotel staff with money, and Lily finds herself trapped with a man she fears rather than loves.

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British army at Battle of Ypres, Aug. 1917

When they return home to Stephen’s parents’ house, Lily discovers that she is expected to sit at home with her mother-in-law or to pay boring calls on other ladies while Stephen goes to work. One day she manages to slip out of the house and audition for a production that Charlie is directing. When he realizes what Lily has done, Stephen tries to rape her. With a little help from an unlikely friend, Lily is both saved from rape and allowed to continue performing at the theater. She decides she will let Stephen do what he likes with her at home but lives for her work—at least until she discovers that she is pregnant.

With a baby on the way, Lily and Stephen both have to confront their past. Stephen cannot avoid his war memories and the knowledge of what he and his chauffeur did while at a farmhouse in Belgium. He has to decide what is more important: keeping his past secret or keeping his family together. Lily also has to decide what is most important in her life: her baby or her career. Ultimately the decisions they make will have live-or-death consequences for themselves and their son.

Overall I would recommend the book, especially to anyone who wants to learn more about how World War I affected soldiers when they returned home. The novel also does a good job of describing gender expectations in the 1920s, which basically involved men working and women staying home. Given some of the subject matter, however, I would recommend it for ages 12 and up.

 

Guy Fawkes Day Celebrations in England and America

On November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes planned to blow up King James I during a Parliament meeting by lighting over 20 barrels of gunpowder in the building’s cellar. The night before the planned attack, Fawkes hid in the cellar and covered the barrels with coals and fagots. Fawkes and a number of other Catholic men resented the anti-Catholic laws in England, and hoped to establish a Catholic government after they blew up the Protestant king. The plot’s mastermind, Robert Catesby, chose Fawkes for the task because he had recently returned from fighting a foreign war and wouldn’t be recognized easily.

Unfortunately for Fawkes and his co-conspirators, the Gunpowder Plot was discovered. Authorities arrested Fawkes that evening and tortured him on the rack to force him to name the other men. Catesby and four others were killed when they resisted arrest; Fawkes and the rest of the gang were found guilty of treason and executed.

In January of 1606, Parliament declared November 5 as a day of thanksgiving. According to tradition, children carried straw effigies of Guy Fawkes through the streets, asking passersby for “a penny for the Guy” so they could buy fireworks for the celebration. They recited verses from the poem “The Fifth of November,” which states “Remember, remember!/The fifth of November,/The Gunpowder treason and plot;/I know of no reason Why the Gunpowder Treason/Should ever be forgot!”

The holiday even spread to the American colonies, where it was referred to as Pope’s Day. Colonists did not focus on the figure of Guy Fawkes, but they did burn effigies of the Pope, the devil, and political enemies.

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Guy Fawkes Night Celebration in England. Photo by Peter Trimming.

Unlike Britain, which still celebrates the original holiday, America does not. During the American Revolution, the colonies needed the support of France, which was a Catholic country. It became politically incorrect for colonists to hold an anti-Catholic celebration.

In England, however, people celebrate Guy Fawkes Day with fireworks, bonfires, parties, and burnt effigies of Fawkes and unpopular politicians. Children still go door-to-door before the holiday asking for “a penny for the Guy,” which is similar to the American custom of trick or treating on Halloween. Guards also continue the tradition of searching the Houses of Parliament, just in case any plots like the one Fawkes and his conspirators planned are afoot.