Thursday, September 04, 2008

Royal Review - The Last Princess by Matthew Dennison

The Last Princess - The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria's Youngest Daughter - by Matthew Dennison can be summarized by the following sentence found on page 251:

...much of Beatrice's life and work was connected with death..

Princess Beatrice, last child of Queen Victoria was born in 1857. Four short years later in 1861, her father Prince Albert would die. The events of December 14, 1861 would come to define her life as much as her mother's. That brief period from her birth to his death there is a glimmer of joy. Such glimmers are few and far between 1857 and 1944, the year she died.

It started out well. The lovely little blonde princess, precocious, indulged, the light of her parent's lives, and the envy of her elder siblings. All of that changed when the Prince Consort died, thereby making young Beatrice a human life-raft and the object of pity of those same siblings, extended family members and courtiers alike. When I told my husband about this book he said "why would anyone do that to their child"? Why indeed.

Of course times were different. Dennison makes Queen Victoria's mourning and the effect it had on her family, particularly Beatrice, very real. Too real in fact. The Queen comes across as incredibly selfish in her desire to keep Beatrice at her side. Preventing her from finding any happiness, from living a life beyond that of Victoria's sombre court. It's clear that Beatrice young, impressionable, raised to know nothing beyond what her mother allows her to, never had a chance to begin with. That precocious princess becomes a quiet, dull and passive woman. Destined to lead a life of selfless servitude to her mother.

It would take Beatrice 27 years to find happiness, but even that would be conditional upon the desires of her mother. Despite knowing how the story ends, I still found myself rooting for Beatrice. But this happiness would be short lived too. Four children and 10 years later, she too would be a widow. But this time it's different. As an adult Beatrice has a choice. Though always putting her mother's interests above her own marriage and children, she does not sacrifice her children on the altar of her own grief. Nor does she wallow in it.

The death of her mother in 1901 serves to liberate Beatrice and simultaneously cast her adrift. Her entire life had been about her mother. With no home of her own, a widow, Beatrice's life continues to seem as if it belongs to anyone but her. The next thirty years are spent editing her mother's journals and destroying the originals. Even in death Beatrice cannot escape her mother. But there are some glimpses of happiness with the marriage of her daughter, Victoria Eugenie to Alphonso XIII of Spain and the births of her grandchildren. Princess Beatrice bears all events, the demise of her daughter's marriage and the death of her favorite son Maurice, with predictable stoicism.

Suffering from rheumatism and cataracts, she withdrew from public life in the late 1920's, Beatrice occupies herself with publishing books, spending time with her grandchildren and carrying out a limited amount of engagements. When she dies in 1944 Dennison harks back to the place Beatrice found fleeting happiness, Darmstadt. But even this mention is bittersweet; Darmstadt was flattened by bombs four months after her death.

Given the times and circumstances Beatrice grew up, it's not surprising that her father's death would be a defining event in her life. But I did not expect the emphasis to be placed continuously on death. Not a page seems to go by without some mention of death, dying, the spectre of death, potential death, eventual death. Or words associated with death: mourning, sorrow, grief, etc. The overall effect of the book is a depressing one. I kept hoping that the real Beatrice would emerge from the shadows of death and find happiness. Unfortunately for the last princess and the reader, Dennison doesn't allow this to be.

If you want to learn about Princess Beatrice's life, this is a good starting point. Just don't expect it to be an uplifting experience.

© Marilyn Braun 2008

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