Arthur Ponsonby (1871-1946) was the son of the Queen's Equerry and Private Secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby, and was actually born at Windsor, so he would have had a very good idea of the Queen's true character. He adds a footnote on the first page: "The Diary extracts from The Childhood of Queen Victoria are quoted by kind permission of Viscount Esher and Mr. John Murray." Other footnotes have been incorporated in brackets in the text, and page numbers appear in square brackets. This chapter from his book on English diaries has been formatted, linked to other material on the website, and illustrated for the Victorian Web by Jacqueline Banerjee. Click on all the images to enlarge them and for more information about them.
Left: South front of Kensington Palace in 1819. Regent's Park in the early nineteenth century, looking across the boating lake.
1832, Wednesday August 1. We left K.P. (Kensington Palace) at 6 min. past 7 and went through the Lowerfield gate to the right. We went on and turned to the left by the new road to Regent's Park. The road and scenery is beautiful. 20 min. to 9. We have just changed horses at Barnet a very pretty little town. 5 min. past 1/2 past 9. We have just changed horses at St. Albans. The situation is very pretty and there is a beautiful old Abbey there. 5 min. past 10. The country is beautiful here; they have begin to cut the corn; it is so golden and fine that I think they will have a very good harvest at least here. There are also pretty hills and trees. 20 minutes past 10. We have just passed a most beautiful old house in a fine park with splendid trees. A 1/4 to 11. We have just changed horses at Dunstable there was a fair there the booths filled with fruit, ribbons etc. looked very pretty. The town seems old and there is a fine abbey before it. The coxmtry is very bleak and chalky. 12 minutes to 12. We have just changed horses at Brick hill. The coimtry is very beautiful about here. 19 min. to 1. We have just changed horses at Stony Stratford. The country is yery pretty. About 4 past one o'clock we arrived at Towcester and landed there. At 14 minutes past 2 we left it. At 1/4 past 3. We have just changed horses at Daventry. The road continues to be very dusty. 1 minute past 1/2 past 3. We have just passed through Braunston where there is a curious spire. The Oxford Canal is close to the town. 1 min. to 4. We have just changed horses at Dunchurch and it is raining.
This is the first paragraph of the first entry in Queen Victoria's diary which she began writing at the age of 13. There is nothing in the least remarkable in a child eagerly writing in great detail the first entry in a new diary book. But there is something very remarkable in the fact that the child continued to write and that the child, who lived to the age of 82, filled over a hundred volumes with practically daily entries, kept up to the very end of her life. In later years the lady-in-waiting wrote the details of the functions while she herself noted her personal impressions. Of these hundred volumes only extracts have been published covering the period before her marriage 1832-1840 (published in 1912) and extracts taken from the diaries between 1848-1862 and published under the title of Leaves from the Journal of our Life in the High [288/289] lands and More Leaves (1862-1882), both of them published during the Queen's lifetime, the first in 1868, the second in 1883.
Future generations may read Queen Victoria's diary, we have only got these scrupulously edited extracts. Editing, as we have already had occasion to notice, does not improve the quality of a diary, and often deprives us of much that might be of real human interest. In the case of a sovereign who died so recently editing becomes not only a personal but an official matter. In the earlier diaries the dots and spaces are tantalising; in the latter Leaves the passages were selected by the Queen herself, the editor knowing that anything from her pen would be likely to reach a very large public. As a diary they are of little value. The early diaries, in spite of omissions, do disclose to a considerable extent the personality of the writer.
The Queen, Sir Arthur Helps tells us in the preface to the Leaves, declared "that she had no skill whatever in authorship," and indeed it is apparent enough throughout that her literary skill was very limited. It was not Fanny Burney's facility for expression which induced her to keep a diary, nor was there any desire for introspection, or self-analysis which a Windham might show; nor like Wesley, another lifelong diarist, did she wish to impart a lesson to her fellows by precept and example. She simply acquired the habit which she regarded as a duty and diligently noted events as a help, no doubt, to her memory, which, as time proved, became wonderfully reliable.
Queen Victoria at the age of twenty, from a sketch by Sir Edwin Landseer.
But Queen Victoria, except perhaps in the first year or so of her diaries, must have been aware that the diary of a sovereign was certain one day to see the light. She might therefore have posed for the picture, she might have written with her eye fixed on posterity, she might have painted her own portrait with the consciousness of her position in history. She did nothing of the kind. And this brings us to the leading feature in the diary which the published extracts illustrate quite sufficiently. It is the most natural, unsophisticated and ingenuous document that can be imagined. There is no pose, no pretence, and more especially no pretension, about it. The Queen did not have the advantage of being brought up like Edward VI by an Ascham. The precincts of an early nineteenth-century court did not constitute a favourable atmosphere for intellectual development. She was taught to be punctilious, and in spite of the awkward and uncomfortable position of her mother, the Duchess of Kent, her inclinations were intensely domestic. Punctilious domesticity is essentially the characteristic of that period, and the reaction [289/290] from it which has been pushed to the opposite extreme in the twentieth century will make many feel that her manner, her habit of mind, her taste, and her method belong to an age they have grown to regard with something like contempt. Nothing would be easier than to make fun in the modem spirit of the period and of the person whose name it takes and who is the incarnation of it. The Queen's demonstrative raptures, her superlatives, her limited vocabulary, do not contribute to literary finish or thoughtful penetration. Moreover, as Lord Melbourne said, "the life of Kings and Queens is not very amusing," and "Uncle Leopold" (the King of the Belgians) went so far as to say it was "very tiresome." In fact, the metiér of a monarch is not at all conducive to interest or entertainment in diary writing. Ceremonies, functions, banquets, and parties are dull to read about, however many great people may have been present at them. Besides this, her indiscretions and probably too some of her criticisms have all been carefully cut out. Nobody can suppose that Queen Victoria throughout her life used superlatives only in praise. Nevertheless, while we find no brilliant phrases, no epigrams, no profound thought and no artistry whatever, and while the official blue pencil has no doubt deprived us of much that might be interesting and amusing, the faithful and wonderfully simple sincerity of the writer marks every page we have and probably every page in the hundred volumes. In fact it would not be too much to say that the young Queen infects one with her enthusiasm for simple things. This ingenuousness is the feature that will claim attention more in centuries to come than in the immediately succeeding period when a revulsion against the domestic virtues is the fashion of the time.
Whatever faults the Queen may have had, she was never indifferent to what was passing round her. She was intensely interested
in life and full of vitality and energy. "I love to be employed;
I hate to be idle," she writes when she is 16, and would have written
the same when she was 60. Her sorrows and joys were acute
and she never restrained herself in recording them. So far as
we are allowed to see, the sorrows are all for losses by death.
Hers was not a temperament given to morbid dejection, but like
all royal personages she was inclined to revel in woe. She cannot
find new words to express her feelings, so she underlines the old
ones. But she is quite incapable of affectation. She enters so
conscientiously into the duties and obligations of her isolated
and artificial position as to make one understand how she accepted
it quite naturally. She revealed herself far more than she knew [290/291]
in her daily jottings. The early diaries give the clue to her
manner and method of diary writing, the later volumes show that
she did not change her style in middle age, and had we the hundredth volume before us we should certainly find the same
The entries of the early diaries contain little more than records of events and ceremonies given very fully with a punctilious regard for accuracy in titles and relationships. The smaller as well as the greater pursuits are faithfully recorded. For instance, an afternoon in 1832 is entered thus:
At one we lunched. I then played on the piano and at a little before 3 played billiards downstairs with Victoire and then went out walking. When I came home I first worked and then we blew soap-bubbles.
And a visit to Plymouth in 1833:
At about J past 9 we went on board the dear little Emerald. We were to be towed up to Plymouth. Mama and Lehzen were very sick and I was sick for about 1/2 an hour. At 1 I had a hot mutton chop on deck.
In 1837 she gives quite an amusing account of a game of chess:
The rest of the evening I sat on the sofa with dearest Aunt Louise who played at chess with me to teach me and Lord Melbourne sat near me. Lord Tavistock, Lord Palmerston, Mrs. Cavendish, Sir J. Hobhouse and Mme de Mérode sat round the table. Lord Melbourne, Lord Palmerston, Sir J. Hobhouse, and later too Lord Conyngham all gave me advice and all different advice about my playing at chess and all got so eager that it was very amusing; in particular Lord Palmerston and Sir J. Hobhouse who differed totally and got quite excited and serious about it. Between them all I got quite beat and Aunt Louise triumphed over my Council of Ministers!
She loved playgoing, and many entries are occupied with descriptions of plays and criticisms of actors. Her appreciation [291/292] [of] acting remained throughout her hfe, and was as strong when she was 80 as when she was 18.
On her sixteenth birthday she gives a long and elaborate description of all the presents she receives, but she thinks she must preface it by a few reflections in the copy-book morality stram:
To-day my 16th birthday! How very old that sounds; but I feel that the two years to come till I attain my 18th are the most important of any almost. I now only begin to appreciate my lessons and hope from this time on to make great progress.
Mourning dress originally worn by the Queen.
Throughout the diaries it will be found that the Queen's sorrows were produced almost exclusively by the death of her friends and relations. Mourning was a duty, and mourning was a function. We see it at the age of 16 when a nurse who "was not a pleasant person" dies and she writes: "it would be very wrong if I did not feel her death," and she breaks out constantly into "awful" and "dreadful" when recording the death of anyone she knew. This attitude towards death was what she was taught by the deans and bishops, and it must be remembered that black hearses, plumes, mourning bands, crape, heavy horse cloths, drawn blinds, and all the rest of the hideous paraphernalia of mournmg had been introduced by the Hanoverians and reached their highest pitch in the nineteenth century as the privilege of the rich and the ambition of the poor. It was this way of regarding demonstrations of mourning as a duty and as a sign of affection that induced the Queen to exceed all limits when her husband died. To her all the years it lasted it was a sacred duty. No one dared tell her that it was the most excessive self-indulgence.
Religion occurs in the diary occasionaUy in the form of thanksgiving to God, accounts of sermons and Church ceremonies. But she is determined not to be troubled by the confusions of religious speculation. She writes at the age of 19 when the tenets of various sects are explained to her:
I said one could get oneself quite puzzled by thinking too much about these matters and that I thought it was wrong to do so.
And a year later:
I said that the use of the church was that it made one think of what one would otherwise not think of.
She finds time on the very day of her accession to write a full account of the momentous scene — and even to insert a brief reflection: [292/293]
Since it has pleased Providence to place me in this station I shall do my utmost to fulfil my duty towards my comatry. I am very young and perhaps in many though not in all things inexperienced but I am sure that very few have more real good will and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have.
After her accession a large part of her diary is taken up with records of her conversations with Lord Melbourne. He was her first Prime Minister, her confidential adviser and her political coach, and before her accession she had not come into close contact with any intelligent people. She is therefore very naturally impressed by him. As Mr. Strachey says [in Queen Victoria]: "Upon every page Lord M is present. Lord M is speaking, Lord M is being amusing, instructive, delightful and affectionate at once, while Victoria drinks in the honeyed words, laughs till she shows her gums, tries hard to remember and runs off as soon as she is left alone to put it all down." In addition to politics, they discuss books, plays, education, food, clothes, gardens, and in fact every conceivable topic that comes up. This is the sort of thing:
1837. Lord Melbourne rode near me the whole time. The more I see of him and the more I know of him, the more I like and appreciate his fine and honest character. I have seen a great deal of him every day these last 5 weeka and I have always found him in good humour, kind, good and most agreeable : I have seen him in my Closet for Political affairs, I have ridden out with him (every day) I have sat near him constantly at and after dinner and talked about all sorts of things and have always found him a kind and most excellent and very agreeable man. I am very fond of him.
1838. I asked Lord Melbourne how he liked my dress. He said he thought it "very pretty" and that "it did very well." He is so natural and funny and nice about toilette and has very good taste, I think.
1839. Said to Lord M I was never satisfied with my own reading and thought I put the wrong emphasis upon words; he said "no you read very well; I thought you read it very well this morning"; and I said I often felt so conscious of saying stupid things in conversation and that I thought I was often very childish "You've no reason to think that" said Lord M and that I feared I often asked him tiresome and indiscreet questions and bored him "Never the least" he replied "You ought to ask."
Talked of my being so silent which I thought wrong and uncivil as I hated it in others. "Silence is a good thing" said Lord M "if you have nothing to say." I said I hated it in others and that it annoyed me when he was silent. "I'm afraid I am so sometimes" he said "won't say a word." Yes I said that nothing could be got out of him sometimes. "And that you dislike?" he said. Yes, I said, it made me unhappy, which made him laugh. [293/294]
Talked to Lord M of his being tired and I said he mustn't go to sleep before so many people for that he generally snored! "That proclaims it too much," he said, in which I quite agreed.
In her historical conversations with Lord Melbourne we get her opinions on some of her predecessors. She is very much shocked at the way Henry VIII treated his wives. "Spoke of Charles I whom I thought much to blame." "I observed that Richard III was a very bad man: Lord Melbourne also thinks he was a horrid man," and she makes him tell her many anecdotes about George III and George IV.
Dancing was a great joy to her, and she describes balls with great enthusiasm. "I never enjoyed myself more. We were all so merry." "It was a lovely ball, so gay, so nice, and I felt so happy and so merry."
When Prince Albert appears on the scene the intensity of rapture reaches a superlative degree.
Prince Albert, from an Illustrated London News illustration of 1844.
First of all with his brother Ernest,
those dearest beloved Cousins whom I do love so very very dearly; much more dearly than any other cousins in the world.
"It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert who is beautiful ... he is so handsome and pleasing ... he dances so beautifully," etc., and she describes "his exquisite nose," and "delicate mustachios and slight but very slight whiskers." Her reluctance to marry disappears and the intimacy advances: "I played 2 games of Tactics with dear Albert and 2 at Fox and Geese. Stayed up till 20 m.' past 11. A deUghtful evening." Two days later she describes her proposal.
At about 1/2 p. 12 I sent for Albert: he came to the Closet where I was alone and after a few minutes I said to him that I thought he must be aware why I wished him to come here — and that it would make me too happy if he would consent to what I wished (to marry me). We embraced each other and he was so kind and so affectionate. I told him I was quite unworthy of him — he said he would be very happy "das Leben mit dir zu zubringen" and was BO kind and seemed so happy that I really felt it was the happiest moment in my life.
In the afternoon she sees Lord Melbourne, and after some prehminary remarks about the weather and Lord Huntingdon's rank,
I then began and said I got well through this with Albert "Oh! you have" said Lord M."
Under the ingenuous innocence and simplicity and among the [294/295] sincere confessions of her own shortcomings, one looks for traces of the development of the Queen's determination which Greville described as her peremptory disposition and which some may have characterised as obstinacy, and one finds them.
On the subject of vaccination Lord Melbourne has some difficulty in persuading her:
Said to Lord M. I should resist about this vaccination; "Oh! no you'll do it," he said kindly: I said No and that no one could force me to it; he agreed in that but strongly urged it and said earnestly "Do."
After she had been two years on the throne Lord Melbourne tells her:
I said to Stanley it's far better that the Queen should be thought high and decided than that she should be thought weak. 'By God!' he said 'they don't think that of her; you needn't be afraid of that.' Lord M. seemed to say this with pleasure.
Politically her first exhibition of determination was with Sir Robert Peel over the question of her retaining the Ladies of the Bedchamber on the change of government. Here is part of the account she gives to Lord Melbourne of the proceedings:
Soon after this, Sir Robert said "Now about the Ladies" upon which I said I could not give up any of my Ladies and never had imagined such a thing; he asked if I meant to retain all; all I said; the Mistress of the Robes and the Ladies of the Bedchamber? he asked. I replied all ... they were of more consequence than the others and I could not consent and that it had never been done before; he said I was a Queen Regnant and that made the difference; not here, I said — and I maintained my right.
Whether the Queen was right or wrong is not the question. At the age of 20 she stood up to Sir Robert Peel, so that he refused to form a government.
Over the question of the rank to be given to Prince Albert she expresses herself very forcibly to Lord Melbourne and she ends her record of the conversation:
I feared I vexed him, kind, good man as he looked, I think, grieved at my pertinacity.
And we notice the order of the last words in the last published entry describing her marriage:
We took leave of Mama and drove o££ at near 4; I and Albert alone.
It will not be difficult to find other examples of "pertinacity " when the many other volumes of the diary appear. [296/297]
She mentions the books she reads, and of course the books Lord Melbourne recommends her to read, but she was not a great reader, although she conscientiously ploughed through some rather stiff volumes.
Although in one entry she says she dislikes "to hear nothing else but Polities and always Politics," she took a sufficiently close interest in affairs to have a strong political bias, and it was some little time before she overcame her prejudice against Sir Robert Peel. Parallels to this also would be found later in her reign.
Balmoral Castle in 1855.
Leaves from the Journal of our Life in the Highlands are simply descriptive extracts of expeditions in Scotland lifted out of the Queen's diaries. The Queen was at first reluctant to publish them, but her scruples were overcome by editor and publisher. They knew, no doubt, that an author counts more than a book with the public, and that anything written by the Sovereign, no matter what it was, would be safe to have an immense success. Moreover, at the time of publication the Queen in her retirement had become a very distant unknown figure. A book showing she was an ordinary human being with simple domestic tastes was likely to be appreciated, so descriptions of her expeditions and pursuits at Balmoral were collected and printed.
The style is very much the same as the style of the early diaries, but the entries are so much cut and trimmed and edited for public consumption that the charm of personality is almost entirely eliminated, and there remains only bald records of the days which gave her great happiness, or in the second volume recollections of and regrets over past happiness. The domestic scenes presented and rather sentimentally described appealed to a majority of those who read them, and the picture of the fond wife and in the second volume of the sorrowing widow came to constitute the sole conception of the Queen in the eyes of her people. They had not seen the earlier diaries, they were not allowed to see anything else. Ordinary people revelled in being able to read something written by a Queen; superior people laughed at the childish narratives, which were entirely devoid of literary merit or political interest. Neither of them wondered whether they were not being presented with a very incomplete picture, nor did they pause to speculate what that part of the diary recorded which they were not allowed to see. In fact, they were all rather taken in.
For instance, they read that in October, 1868, the Queen, accom- panied by her gillies and attendants, went to a housewarming [296/297li at a little house at Glassalt Shiel, where reels were danced and whisky toddy drunk, Ross played the pipes, and the cook, the housemaids, the stablemen, and the policeman joined the party. But they were not told that a week or two earlier the Queen was writing to Disraeli practically dictating to him with regard to certain ecclesiastical appointments and getting her own way (Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Vol. V, 64-67).
Again in September, 1874, they read a description of the home- coming of the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh with "Brown in full dress on the rumble"; Marie "in a brown travelling dress with a hat," the playing of the pipes, the dancing of reels, and the drinking of healths. But they did not hear that in the same month the Queen was having important consultations with Disraeli, who wrote from Balmoral to Lady Bradford saying, "She opened all her heart and mind to me and rose immensely in my intellectual estimation. Free from all shyness she spoke with great animation and happy expressions, showed not only perception but discrimination of character and was most interesting and amusing" (Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Vol. V, 344).
There is little that is worth quoting from the Leaves. The rapture over life in the Highlands occurs again and again.
There is a great peculiarity about the Highlands and the Highlanders; and they are such a chivalrous, fine active people. Our stay among them was so delightful. Independently of the beautiful scenery there was a quiet, a retirement, a wildness, a liberty, and a solitude that had such a charm for us.
The pure mountain air was most refreshing. All seemed to breathe freedom and peace and to make one forget the world and its sad turmoils.
She goes for long expeditions of several days to remote parts of the Highlands incognito, and the amusement and entertainment of being able to behave and be regarded as an ordinary mortal entranced her. They were the only little ventures she ever made in the Haroun al-Raschid style. We get accounts of her visits to cottages and her conversations with the old women. She shows the same interest and accurate knowledge of the relationships and careers of her gillies, pipers, attendants, dressers and wardrobe women as for those of the Royal Family and the aristocracy. And of course in the first volume Albert's sporting exploits and doings figure very largely. There are accounts, too, of the rejoicings over the fall of Sebastopol and the reception of the news of the death of the Duke of Wellington.
An instance of how one diarist can be checked by another [297/298] occurs in her entry of September 13, 1850. Lord Carlisle, as we shall see, notes that the Queen, in her anxiety at seeing the Prince Consort rush to the rescue of two men who were in danger in the river, "pinched me very much." And the Queen writes:
There was a cry for help and a general rush including Albert towards the spot which frightened me so much that I grasped Lord Carlisle's arm in great agony.
The Queen made £2,500 by the publication of the Leaves, and with the money she founded university and school bursaries for the people at Balmoral.
As already noted, so far as diary is concerned between 1840 and 1900, these little scraps of what may be called holiday notes tell us very little, although at the time of their publication they were eagerly read as giving a complete picture of the Queen. Since then we have had two volumes of her letters, two volumes of her early diaries and her correspondence with Disraeli. There in a great deal more to come. The portrait is still incomplete.
So far as she was at all conscious of any reader as she wrote, it seems clear that the Queen wrote for herself in her old age, and marginal notes in the diaries show that she re-read them. Their eventual fate, she, like many other diarists, probably never considered.
The full disclosure of the life and activities of Queen Victoria is not going to reveal that the childishness, ingenuousness and simplicity were a pose, and that hidden behind this there was a Machiavellian figure of masterly intellectual powers. Nothing as crude as that. If we may venture to prophesy, when the whole story is known — and the hundred volumes of the diary will reveal more than all the histories and memoirs — it will be found that what we see of her abeady in the material published is a true picture. She was ingenuous, she was simple, she was entirely without affectation, she was not highly educated, she was punctilious and domestic, she had strong prejudices and she was obstinate. But it wll be found also that there was a very pronounced personality, formed partly by the immense range of her experience which was carefully stored in a very retentive memory, partly too by an individual charm, which struck as much those who came in contact with her in the last years of her hfe as the ministers who were assembled round the table at Kensington Palace on June 20, 1837; and that this personality, enhanced by a very rare distinction of manner and bearing, by no means habitual with sovereigns, gave her a curiously indefinable but very strong [298/299] influence over all who were brought into relation with her, were they monarchs, ministers of State or gillies. Moreover, she was well aware of her own limitations, and would never attempt to assert herself unless she was quite sure of her ground. In fact. Queen Victoria wall be found to be a notable instance of the triumph of character where knowledge and talents might have failed. The image of the devoted wife and sorrowing widow did very well for public consumption while she lived; she was quite content to leave it at that, and every one accepted it as authentic.
Whether she interfered where she ought not to have, whether she showed unfair bias, whether she was constitutional or unconstitutional, are matters open to dispute. The conclusion that will eventually emerge will be that she impressed her personality to an unsuspected degree on her surroundings, and that the authority which came from such simple sources was more baffling and irresistible than the decrees of an autocrat.
Ponsonby, Arthur. English Diaries: A Review of English Diaries from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century with an Introduction on Diary Writing. London: Methuen, 1923 (available in the Internet Archive).
Created 18 April 2020