On Her Majesty’s Silver Service

In Serving Victoria Kate Hubbard has produced a wonderful, anecdote-laden account of what it would have been like to work for the great Queen

Books History
Close to the throne: Household staff at Osborne House

We colonials have an enduring fascination with the monarchy: looking across the herring pond to watch the goings-on in royal circles is a long-standing avocation. In 1857, President James Buchanan arranged to receive a transatlantic telegraph cable from Queen Victoria. In 1887, the US envoy to her Jubilee told her how “attached” the American people were to her-“the good Queen”-personally. A further sign of that attachment came two years later. Americans contributed enough dollars to Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s American mother, to outfit a hospital ship to care for the wounded in the war in South Africa-where, not incidentally, her son Winston had just been taken prisoner. Queen Victoria invited the ship’s American medical staff for lunch and Jennie Jerome to spend the night at Windsor.

Fast forward to more recent times. When the Anglophile John F. Kennedy moved into the Oval Office, he installed the famous Resolute Desk, made from British naval timbers and presented to America by Victoria in 1880. In 1997, some 30 million Americans watched Princess Diana’s funeral. Most recently, all the major American television networks responded to our interest in British royalty by sending crews to cover Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, and most of the press devoted considerable space to the antics of Prince Harry. And then there is the special relationship with America but that is another story.

So no surprise that this American reviewer was looking forward to Kate Hubbard’s Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household. And she was not disappointed. Using previously unpublished letters and journals from royal courtiers and retainers, Hubbard has given us a wonderful, anecdote-laden yet historically coherent book that illuminates what it was like to live with and work for Queen Victoria. Hubbard showers her readers with details of the Queen’s life, details that could only have come from intimate letters of those close to the throne, and living at the royal residences at Windsor, Balmoral and Osborne. A better guide we could not have. 

Hubbard chose evidence left by some members of Victoria’s household, and streams their memoirs nicely into a narrative of the Queen’s long life. Several are ladies-in-waiting, one a chaplain, another her private doctor, still another a governess to the nine royal children. Some of these were thrilled to be asked to join the royal household, others saddened that “waiting”, as it was called, meant months away from their families, living in sometimes cramped rooms alongside others in the royal household, serving a queen who was often selfish and controlling. And at Balmoral, it meant living in frigid rooms with all the windows left open, on the Queen’s orders, fireplaces rarely lit. Duty and boredom in equal measures.

Victoria became queen at 18, became infatuated with and married her Prince Charming-Albert-at 21. That infatuation endured, as did her fondness for her dogs-an affection not unknown to the current occupant of the throne. Albert might be the source of what Hubbard describes as Victoria’s rigid ruling of all aspects of royal life: for example, single men could only borrow one volume at a time from the Balmoral library. But Albert did bring a cleaned-up Germanic-style management to the previous Hanoverian chaos. 

 Prince Albert’s managerial skills were not matched by an ability to shoot without putting others at risk-an American might think of him as the Dick Cheney of his day. Despite the fact that he was a notoriously bad shot, Albert persisted in the sport, ignoring the smirks and jokes of his courtiers. He did better as a principal adviser to the architects who built Osborne House and Balmoral Castle. And he created the Great Exhibition of 1851, a triumph of British innovation and industry.

After Albert died, aged 42, Victoria was inconsolable and retired from public duties and appearances, refusing to open Parliament. But she did manage to continue to dictate where her attendants were to sit in their own dining room-she dined alone after Albert’s death. It is doubtful that she ever saw where they ate but she did decree what they ate. Hubbard gives us all the details-including menus of the meals served and a description of a brass table with steam-filled legs to keep the food warm. Governesses had to eat alone in their rooms; doctors were a special problem as they did not fit into the established hierarchy. She fretted about foods, suggesting that soup be added to her servants’ menus to vary the diet, and meddled in the hiring of a new confectionary cook: Victoria was very fond of sweets. She dictated the type and number of biscuits allowed on a plate. 

Death and its associated rituals were another of Victoria’s favoured pastimes. Hubbard describes the explicit and detailed orders the Queen sent outlining mourning clothes to be worn and when: my favourites are the “crepe weepers”, long fabric streamers worn by women attached to the hair and hung down the back, and the black swords and buckles specified by Victoria for men. She commemorated the anniversaries of deaths of her family members as well as her ladies-in-waiting and her private secretaries. She spent an inordinate amount of time choosing gifts: every visitor received a gift, as did all of the hundreds of courtiers and servants, usually tiny portraits of the Queen or, bizarrely, locks of hair. Some got stags’ teeth set with “green enamel leaves to look like acorns”, mementoes of Balmoral no doubt. Hubbard guesses that Indian servants and drunken footmen wondered at these rather odd gifts.

Hubbard gives us many of these delicious anecdotes about what can only be considered the eccentricities of a queen who spawned many of the royal families of Europe, and spent a good part of her life mourning her beloved husband. She had her own sense of duty but very different from duty as it is understood by a modern monarch, whose survival depends heavily on being out and about, and on understanding the needs of her subjects. Victoria would spend a significant portion of her 60-plus years on the throne remote from her subjects; Elizabeth II has spent her 60-plus years on the throne in intimate contact with the British people during her famous walkabouts. Both had one thing in common: they captured the fascination of the American people, not least of all this reviewer of this fascinating book.