A few months ago, I was ruminating on the personal versus the impersonal in history, a propos of the influence of Baron Stockmar on nineteenth-century European politics. We have just published two works which throw interesting (I think, anyway!) sidelights on the same topic.
The first (though the later, chronologically) is The Early Years of His Royal Highness The Prince Consort, which has the telling subtitle, Compiled Under the Direction of Her Majesty The Queen. This was made available to the public in 1867, having first been produced ‘solely for private circulation inside the members of [the royal] family, or such other persons as, from the relations in which they stood to her Majesty or to the Prince Consort himself, would naturally be interested in the story of his early days’. However, there was felt to be ‘danger of a copy being surreptitiously obtained and published, possibly in a garbled form’, to avert which, it was published in substantially the same form as the original.
The book is of course a hagiography – how could it not be? Six years after the Prince’s death, the Queen was interpolating comments or ‘memoranda’ into the text, bitterly regretting that she, at the age of eighteen, had deliberately postponed the long-planned marriage, weeping with the aged Baron Stockmar in Coburg over the ‘dear, good, Prince’, describing the anguish with which she realised that for the rest of her life she would have to think of herself as ‘I’ and not a part of ‘we’. The book was compiled by Charles Grey (1804–70), private secretary to the Prince, and after his death, to the Queen. (The ODNB suggests that Grey’s own collapse in health and death were precipitated by the Queen’s refusal to allow him to retire.) He was given access to the correspondence of the Prince and his relatives, and to the Queen’s own private journal, and some of the extracts he uses are remarkably frank in their revelation of her emotional state.
But in spite of the ‘everything in the palace was lovely’ narrative – for example, there is not the slightest hint of the tense, if not sometimes downright hostile relationship between Victoria and her mother, the duchess of Kent – genuine insights are provided by the copious quotations from letters from and about the Prince, and from the journal which he kept from the age of five or six. His parents had separated when he was five (he had affairs, which was OK, she may have done, which wasn’t), and he never saw his mother again: she died of cancer at the age of thirty-one. Is it over-interpreting to see an earnest and anxious young boy, noting the occasions when he was ‘naughty’, and when he cried – on leaving his school-books in a mess, on getting a question wrong in a lesson, from tiredness on a journey? There seems to be no doubt that the sense of duty and the moral imperative for hard work and diligence, which enabled the Prince to survive in his difficult and unprecedented role in Britain, and for which he was respected even by his political enemies, were developed at a very early age; and it is difficult not to agree with those – not just the Queen and Stockmar – who saw his unexpected death as not only a personal tragedy but a disaster for all of Europe.
The second book is an autobiography from the generation before Victoria and Albert’s, but – surprisingly, given that its author was a commoner with a slightly dubious background – also has a bearing on their story. Miss Cornelia Knight (1757–1837) was the daughter of a naval officer who rose to the rank of admiral before his death in 1775 left her and her mother destitute – or at any rate, unable to maintain their previous lifestyle in England. Young Cornelia had been well educated, and allegedly knew ten languages, both ancient and modern. He mother was a friend of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ sister, and through this acquaintance Cornelia met Oliver Goldsmith, Gainsborough, Burke, Dr Johnson, and Mrs Montagu (who called her ‘a stupid child’).
Unable to obtain a government pension after her husband’s death, Lady Knight determined to move to Italy, where she could live more cheaply, and became a close friend and regular guest of Sir William and Lady Hamilton in Naples. Cornelia inevitably came to know very well the Hamiltons’ other regular guest, Lord Nelson, in praise of whose victories she wrote patriotic poems (she was also a published novelist). On her mother’s death in 1799, she ‘placed herself under the protection’ of the Hamiltons, but when the notorious ménage returned to London in 1800, friends urged Cornelia to break off from them, lest she become tainted by the connection, and she did so, leaving Lady Hamilton to scribble her resentment: ‘Altho she is clever and learned She is dirty illbred ungrateful bad mannered false and deceitful But my Heart takes a noble vengeance I forgive her.’
The friends who had urged the break were clearly not wrong, at least in terms of Cornelia’s prospects: her social circle in London, which included Mrs Elizabeth Carter, was on the fringes of the Court, and she was presented to King George III and Queen Charlotte in 1802. In 1805 the Queen asked her to become a sort of companion to her at Windsor (not unlike Mrs Delany, you may think), without any official title but with a house, maid and salary. For the next eight years, she spent most of her time as an intimate of the royal family, experiencing the death of Princess Amelia and the descent of George III into ‘madness’. In 1813 she was appointed ‘lady companion’ to Princess Charlotte of Wales, and was subsequently a witness to the tortuous negotiations by which the Prince of Wales attempted to marry off his daughter, and to the intrigues by which she eventually succeeded in marrying the man of her own choice, Prince Albert’s uncle Leopold.
Cornelia’s editor (the military historian Sir John Kaye) ends the first volume with her summary dismissal and the Princess’s effective imprisonment by her father; Volume 2 continues the story (though rather more episodically, as the incomplete autobiography is supplemented by journal extracts) to the Princess’s happy marriage and later to her death in childbirth, which kick-started a race among the younger sons of George III to produce a legitimate heir, and resulted in Queen Victoria, and eventually in the marriage of Victoria and Albert.
Miss Knight spent the rest of her long life around the various courts of Europe, where she seems to have been a welcome guest. It is sad that she did not live to complete her autobiography, as she has an elegant turn of phrase and an eye for an interesting anecdote – and she knew so many people. She died on 17 December 1837, six months after Victoria had acceded to the throne. Her papers were preserved by her heirs (there is nothing in her own account to suggest that she had any close relatives), who gave them to Kaye to publish, which he did in 1861 – the year of Prince Albert’s death.