Unsuitable for Publication: Editing Queen Victoria

by Yvonne Ward

When Yvonne Ward began researching Queen Victoria’s Letters, she found that key aspects of her life were deemed unsuitable for public consumption: her experience of motherhood, her struggle to combine the roles of ruler and wife, and her intimate friendships with other royal European women.

In this edited version of her Lunchbox/Soapbox address last week, she unveils the details of her globetrotting historical detective work, as she filled in the gaps for herself.

When Queen Victoria died in 1901 at the age of 81, there was widespread anxiety as to the future of the monarchy. At the forefront of the courtiers’ minds was the question of how best to commemorate a reign of 63-plus years. Lord Esher had the novel idea to publish the Queen’s correspondence. It offered the mourning citizens something of the dear old queen – and perhaps a chance of restoring some of the quiet dignity and majesty to the Crown in a noisy, rapidly changing Edwardian world.

My book, Unsuitable for Publication: Editing Queen Victoria, tells the story of the editing of the first three of the nine volumes of the Letters of Queen Victoria, this series covering the Queen’s early life until 1861, the year of the death of her husband, Prince Albert.

The men who edited these volumes, Viscount Esher and Arthur Benson, were interesting. They did important work in ultimately setting up the Royal Archives so that papers were more likely to be systematically kept – and less likely to be burnt or lost. They were themselves ‘men of letters’: they wrote large numbers of them daily. (Lord Esher kept all he received.) They both kept diaries. Esher has a huge archive of his papers in the Churchill College, Cambridge. Arthur Benson’s diary, comprising 181 volumes, is held at Magdalene College in Cambridge. The publisher, John Murray, being a very orderly and successful businessman, also kept records – not just ledgers. These records allowed me to be able to piece together the progress of the editing on an almost day-by-day basis.

When Arthur Benson began work in Feb 1904, on the first day in Windsor Castle’s Round Tower he counted 460 volumes of bound correspondence.

He read through each letter in each volume, then selected letters to be typed. From the typed sheets, editing was done, deleting irrelevancies and preparing the sheets for Esher to look at. Then they were sent to the publisher, John Murray to print. The printing process meant that metal type was set in trays for each page and stored. From those printed sheets, more excisions were made. There was a constant juggling of space (and pages) to accommodate the story, the introductory sections and footnotes. Then more materials would be found … and have to be included. What a nightmarish task it was!

Although I found no mention of it, I believe that they must have had some sort of chronological framework to hand, to be able to judge the significance of each letter. And it was through these selections they had to try to convey the Queen’s life to the readers.

At the same time, they had to be mindful that they were producing a book over which the King ultimately had veto. They could not risk displeasing him (or any of his many friends or relations) by allowing some of the Queen’s blunter assessments of them to be published. And in order to earn any money, indeed for John Murray not to lose money, it needed to be a commercial success. The three volumes were eventually published in 1907, two years later than Benson and Murray had been hoping to complete them. At the end of the project, Arthur Benson had a nervous breakdown. Lord Esher went on to help establish the Royal Archives and edit two further volumes of Queen Victoria’s girlhood journal.

Why did any of this matter to me?

I had returned to university in 1992, with four children at home and a fanciful idea that I would like to do a PhD. I had to do two fourth-year history subjects and an Honour’s thesis first. While pegging nappies on the clothesline, (we did that in those days!) it came to me out of the blue: I don’t know anything about Queen Victoria. So I began my Honours thesis looking at how biographies of Queen Victoria had changed since her death.

I was soon captivated by my subject. A girl living with her widowed mother in rooms in Kensington Palace; passing her eighteenth birthday, only 4’10” (140cm) tall, hoping to grow taller; then one month later becoming Queen; having to move into a world of men, conducting Privy Council meetings, meeting overseas dignitaries. Then, aged twenty, meeting her cousin Albert for a second time, falling in love, having to do the unfeminine thing of proposing to him, then marrying and producing heirs. All in the course of five years. How did she hold herself together?

And how do you raise children to be heirs to the throne? We looked at our little darlings and thought ‘What could they become?’ not ‘how do we make these square pegs fit round holes?’

I began my Master’s degree with those questions. What to use for sources? There were nine stout volumes of Letters of Queen Victoria; five volumes of biography of Albert, and six more volumes of correspondence with her eldest daughter, Vicky, and more referred to in the other biographies I had looked at. So I set off.

Letters Vol I … birth of first baby: where is it? Nov 29 1840 … no mention. Oh here it is, in a footnote, three pages later. This is the birth of an heir! Born to a Queen Regnant for the first time since Queen Anne. But those babies hadn’t survived. Maybe the male heir, the second baby will be more prominent? Well, there was a letter by Queen Victoria describing him when he was three weeks old …

Why was this? I was astounded. I was also a bit worried. Where was I going to find out how Victoria felt about babies and heirs?

What I needed was the Directory of British Archives … Royal Archives, Windsor Castle. So I wrote a letter requesting access to Queen Victoria’s journal and various memos to do with the education of the children, backed up by a support letter from my supervisor. I sent it off in August 1997. In September came the two-page reply: Students were not admitted, but under the circumstances they decided to allow me in for three days. I had to stipulate the years of the journal I needed, because I couldn’t possibly be granted enough time to read the 24 years I had requested.

I couldn’t believe my luck.

I finally arrived in Windsor on the Monday before Easter in 1998. I found my way up to the Castle gate, timing the walk so I wouldn’t be late the next morning. I arrived with my exercise book and pencil (no pens allowed in the archives), then climbed up the 122 funny old steps in the Round Tower to the door.

After signing an agreement not to publish without their permission, nor to share any of the material, I was shown to a desk. There on a stand were five blue volumes of Queen Victoria’s journal, and several other volumes holding the requested memos. There was one other researcher at another table. I began reading – Jan 1840, one month before Victoria and Albert’s wedding. Over the next three days I read through to November and the birth of Vicky, the Princess Royal, and the following November, the son and heir, Albert Edward.

There was plenty of detail there, even though this was not Queen Victoria’s original diary. (It had been burnt by her daughter and literary executor, Princess Beatrice.) What remains is a neatly written version of Queen Victoria’s journal, with material taken out that ‘may hurt feelings or give offence’, as deemed by the princess, who rewrote the journal over 28 years, burning the original volumes as she went. She would not be persuaded to seal them or store them for 100 years – although many people, including King George V and Queen Mary, and Lord Esher, tried to persuade her to do so. The Registrar of the Royal Archives, Lady Sheila de Bellaigue, suggested on the second last day that I might need more time to read the five years. I couldn’t agree more … so she booked me in for another four days after Easter.

On the flight home, I realised the Victoria of the journals was much more real to me than the Victoria in the volumes of Letters. She described herself running upstairs to bring the baby down to show Lord Melbourne before the Privy Council meeting; knitting bootees for her own and her cousins’ babies; and later standing at the window with her newborn son in her arms, the little girl on a chair as they watched Albert ride off to inspect an Army regiment, with pride, but I imagined with mixed feelings: ‘I am the monarch, but today motherhood overrides that.’

The mismatch between the Victoria of the letters and the Victoria of the journals sent me off in two directions: one, to find letters she wrote to other women during those five years to see if I could corroborate Beatrice’s Victoria; the second, to look into the publication of the letters. Why were there almost no letters from women included? Victoria had a half-sister who she corresponded with, and several cousins and aunts. They visited her, so of course they would write to her. Where were the letters? I found them in Brussels, and in Germany at Coburg, Langenburg and Eichenzell and in Lisbon and Wales.

My research questions about Benson and Esher as editors began now too. Their biographies were hugely interesting but had little mention of the editing of the Queen Victoria Letters. But the biographers had used papers at Cambridge, so I applied to go there. So much material!

The degree was upgraded to a PhD at this stage, so I had an extra allocation of time. I was going to need it. Motherhood, anxiety about the rearing and survival of the children, Albert’s ascendency within the household, the palace and then the monarchy, were all still really important. These editors and their work needed to be pieced together and the women’s letters tracked down. Somehow it all rumbled along … but it was a little like herding cats.

I had a wonderful experience working in the Murray Archive in Abermarle Street, London – the site of the John Murray publishing business since the 1780s. Byron’s shirt in the display case, Charles Dickens’ inkwells and quills in another. John Murray the seventh and his wife Virginia showed me through the ledgers and talked me through printing procedures.

In Jan 2002, I thought I was nearly there. Then I had an email from Virginia Murray. They had been cleaning out a warehouse in Grantham and came across three fat files titled Letters of Queen Victoria. Was I interested?

Mr Murray had kept all of the letters from Esher and Benson and Lord Knollys, and many of his outgoings, on onion paper carbon copies. Now I could complete the picture in great detail. Among this collection were five foolscap pages marked EXCISIONS FROM VOL II. They comprised a succinct list: eg p45 ‘The King said … of the people’. Then I had a challenge: these were Esher’s and Knollys excisions. What was in the ellipses?

Published primary sources are selections; they have to be seen as products of the editors, their perspectives, their experiences, their reasons for producing them … even their personalities and their times. Benson and Esher could hear the men’s voices much more clearly than the women’s. They found them more interesting; they said the women’s letters were trivial.

As Ogden Nash wrote: ‘as a man is, so he sees’. And I think it is true. It is not that one view is more valid than another, but that biographers have to be sceptical of the selectivity of the editors of published primary sources.