The amazingly prolific letter-writing of the Victorians (think of Ruskin, Thomas and Jane Carlyle, George Eliot, Darwin) is ascribed to the introduction of the Penny Post by Sir Rowland Hill in 1840. The setting up of a select committee to investigate and propose reforms to the postal service occurred quite early in Queen Victoria’s reign, as the existing system was increasingly criticised for rising costs, inconsistent tariffs (based on both distance and the number of sheets of paper – double rate if you used an envelope), and general inefficiency.
It’s well known that the recipient had to pay the postage, or the letter would be returned to the sender. The underlying reason for this was a social one, apparently: you could prepay, but this would insult the standing of the recipient as it implied that s/he was insolvent. On the other hand, since the cost of the letter could be as much as a day’s wages for a labourer, poor families simply couldn’t keep in touch with distant relatives. Evasion was common, and among various perceived unfairnesses, M.P.s (and the queen) would have their post sent free of charge by ‘franking’: and of course obliged their extended families, friends, acquaintances, etc. by franking for them.
Given the scale of her own letter-writing, it would be nice to think that the queen was personally interested in postal reform. ‘Voluminous’ does not begin to describe her correspondence: the edition prepared at the command of her son Edward VII and published between 1907 and 1932 is a fairly small selection, and contains contextual essays and notes, but it consists of nine volumes and over 6,000 pages. (The work’s title is misleading, by the way: this is a ‘correspondence’ with hundreds of people, not merely ‘letters’ in one direction.)
The editors of the first three volumes, the poet and writer A. C. Benson (1862–1925) and the second Viscount Esher (1852–1930), administrator and courtier, decided that the plan for the selection of letters from the thousands available (bound in volumes, with many of the early ones indexed by the Prince Consort) should be to publish ‘such documents as would serve to bring out the development of the Queen’s character and disposition, and to give typical instances of her methods in dealing with political and social matters’.
The volumes are arranged chronologically from Victoria’s first known letter, written when she was nine, to her last journal entry, nine days before her death in 1901, though there was a gap of almost twenty year between the first three (published in 1907) and the subsequent six, edited by George Earle Buckle (1854–1935), a historian and former editor of The Times, which came out between 1826 and 1932.
The first volume covers the period from Victoria’s birth (on 24 May 1819) until 1843. The first of her letters is the earliest in her long correspondence with her maternal uncle, then Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and later King of the Belgians. In it, she wishes him a happy birthday, assures him that she uses his ‘pretty soup-basin’ every day, and asks if it is very warm in Italy. In a P.S. she adds petulantly, ‘I am very angry with you, Uncle, for you have never written to me once since you went, and that is a long while.’
In 1872, Victoria wrote down some memories of her early childhood, which are presented in the book. Perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘Up to my 5th year, I had been very much indulged by everyone, and set pretty well all at defiance.’ She was of course in an odd position at this stage: she was rampagiously healthy (except for an attack of dysentery, during which she remembered ‘being very cross and screaming dreadfully at having to wear, for a time, flannel next to my skin’), but it was by no means certain that she would succeed to the throne.
Her education was therefore intended to fit her ‘to be either the Sovereign of these realms, or to fill a junior station in the Royal Family’ – the junior station presumably consisting of being married off to a minor German princeling and then producing children, or remaining unmarried and taking a mild interest in the arts, like the host of married and unmarried aunts who drifted in and out of her childhood.
Everything changed on 20 June 1837, when at 8.30 in the morning she seized the chance to write a note to Uncle Leopold, letting him know that her uncle William IV had died, that she was now queen, and was in half an hour to meet her prime minister, and after that the Privy Council … She also found time to write to her aunt, the Queen Dowager Adelaide (who seems to have been one of the nicer queens in British history, as well as one of the saddest, having lost five children between 1818 and 1822), and her half-sister Feodore, as well as meeting with fifteen separate members of the government and of her own household.
The last letter in volume 9 of the work is a note to her private secretary on 27 October 1900. The last journal entry given is from 13 January 1901; on 22 January the 81-year-old queen died. The volumes show the development of the spoilt and passionate child into the Mother of the Empire, and the huge range of diplomatic and political challenges in which she was personally involved, as well as providing lots of family gossip and social news.
But the abiding impression is the energy of the woman – even during the so-called ‘Widow of Windsor’ period, when she drastically curtailed her public appearances, the queen was writing letters (as well as memoranda and her journal) day in, day out. As the editors note in the Preface to Volume 1, the bound letter-books of the period from 1840 to 1861 alone consist of between 500 and 600 volumes.
Did Queen Victoria keep the ‘franking’ privilege, or did she have to send a lady-in-waiting out to get a dozen Penny Blacks two or three times a week?