Charlotte Yonge's Life of HRH the Prince Consort
by Alison Millard
Published in "The Review of the Charlotte Mary Yonge Fellowship"
Edition Number 15 Autumn 2002
Charlotte Yonge's Life of HRH the Prince Consort
THIS short biography (241 pages) was published in 1890 by WH Allen & Co as part of its Statesman Series and cost 2s 6d. Of the ten volumes already in print at that time, The Prince Consort appears to be the only one written by a woman. When the Queen Mother died in April of this year, the accounts of her life and personality reminded me of this book and its attractive presentation of its subject.
In her Prefatory Note Charlotte Yonge states her objective: "This is an endeavour at a summary of the events of a life and the developments of a character which have had no small influence upon our century ... taking for granted a knowledge on the reader's part of contemporary events and personages." She cites twelve authorities ranging from formal biographies of Prince Albert through memoirs and autobiographies of others to The Queen's Journal in the Highlands and quotes extensively from the Prince's own letters. She has researched her subject thoroughly and expects the reader to give due weight to her findings.
The book seems to me to display in miniature the author's assured command of more than one kind of writing. Charlotte Yonge the historian has a clear grasp of the foreign and domestic policy issues of the day. She handles an enormous cast of royal, diplomatic and political characters of many nationalities with confidence and appears to be entirely conversant with the family tree of any and every monarch, crowned head, archduke and princeling. At the same time, the novelist takes pleasure in presenting the major characters as flesh and blood human beings whose hopes, dreams and predicaments are of real concern to the reader.
She is eager to show Prince Albert as a man we can like and respect. If he sometimes reads rather like Felix Underwood with a German accent, that is no discredit to either of them. For instance:
"There can be no doubt that Prince Albert was one of the most conscientious and virtuous, pure-minded men who ever existed, and that the title of 'Albert the Good' was justly bestowed on him. That he was thoroughly loveable is also plain, from the impression he made on all in immediate contact with him, from his own family outwards, as it may be said. He was perfectly truthful, and all that he did was on high principles of right. No one repudiated more in heart and life the old theory that the same honour and sincerity were not required in a State affair as in private life.
The routine of his day at this time was to rise at seven, read and answer letters, draw up memoranda, or drafts of papers for the Queen or Council. He had from the first insisted on early hours, for which the Queen has since expressed her thankfulness, and by the nine o'clock breakfast he had attended to much important business." (P. 152)
Thus the day proceeds, judiciously balancing work, exercise and sedate recreation, but any suggestion of joyless rectitude is dispelled by the writer's carrying Royal Family and reader off to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight:
"The whole place was a delight to the Prince, who could here be at perfect ease with his little children, enjoy his gardens and plantations unhampered; and listen to the songs of the birds, challenging the nightingale with his whistle, which was sure to evoke an answer." (P. 153)
This affectionate father had in due course to plan for the marriage of Vicky, the Princess Royal, to Prince Fritz Wilhelm of Prussia. Charlotte Yonge quotes from a letter written by Prince Albert's brother, the Duke of Coburg, giving the reader an insight into what must have been enlightened thinking at that time, 1855:
" 'My brother loved his eldest daughter far too much and too tenderly to place political views decisively foremost in her future betrothal. For many years it had been his wish, as I had often observed, to behold in high position this, his favourite child, in whose education he had taken the largest personal share. With paternal delight he thought of his promising, highly-gifted, early-ripening daughter on a powerful throne, but I well knew that, above all things, he wished her to be happy.'" (P. 186)
The wedding took place on 25 January 1858, only eighteen years after his own marriage. A few days later, the Prince Consort wrote an account of it to his stepmother, the Duchess Dowager of Coburg. After some information about the proceedings and the guests ("We had thirty-five Royal personages to house, to fete, to show England to"), he describes his feelings:
"T am now a real father-in-law, our child a real wife. That this looks somewhat strange you will comprehend, not less will you feel that the separation for ever of our dear daughter from the family circle makes a frightful gap in our hearts. I do not trust myself to think of Tuesday, on which day we are to lose her.'" (pp. 203-4)
Charlotte Yonge adds: "'I think it will kill me to take leave of dear Papa,' were the words of the bride to her mother.' " It is comforting to learn that "An event that was truly delightful to the Prince's warm heart was the birth of his eldest grandson" in 1859 and that visits as well as letters were exchanged between parents and daughter.
A Felix-like trait that gains strong approval from Charlotte Yonge is Prince Albert's thoroughly bourgeois sense of value for money, to which he adds a pleasure in good organisation and getting the paperwork right: "an over-mastering love of order" is her term. (P. 53) Upon his marriage he was appalled by the extravagance, confusion and discomfort of the Royal household, the administration of which does seem to have been bizarre:
"The domestic establishment was divided between great officers of state, the Lord Chamberlain, the Lord Steward, and the Master or the Horse, one or other of whom hired all the servants, gave the orders and provided for the expenses; but their duties were so curiously apportioned that while the Lord Steward was answerable for the laying of the fires and for their fuel, it was the Lord Chamberlain who had the right of kindling them, and in the same way the lamps were provided by the one and lighted by the other. " (Pp. 53-4)
To make matters worse, "the attempts of the Prince at remonstrance were at first looked on as the mere meddlesomeness of a foreigner, ignorant of British rights" (P. 55) and it was three years before "the various great officers of the service agreed to delegate their powers to a single representative, who was amenable to the Prince, and from that time forward all was well ordered, and so economical as to be a marvel after the habitual lavishness of royal households." (P. 59)
This economy enabled the purchase of Osborne House and later Balmoral without any need for assistance from public funds. The Prince, out of his own income, established model farms at Osborne and Windsor and both of them made a profit. Charlotte Yonge makes a point of telling us that "the breeds of cattle which he introduced had an important effect in improving those of the country in general." (P. 60) The reader is not to suppose that the royal coffers were the only beneficiaries from this agricultural activity.
As is well known, Prince Albert died young. In the next Review we shall see how the practised slayer of her heroes in fact and fiction deals with the passing of this "pure and true spirit".