Review: The Last Princess

I love royal history, but some writers manage to make it tremendously boring. The first book I read about Queen Victoria was such a snore that I’ve been a bit prejudiced against Victoria and her family ever since. Even though I know better, I automatically expect books about them to be dull, dull, dull.

But The Last Princess by Matthew Dennison proves that a good writer can make any topic — even Queen Victoria and her long decades of gloom-soaked mourning for her husband, Prince Albert — interesting. The book’s subject, Victoria’s daughter Beatrice, led a very uneventful life, but the book wasn’t easy to put down.

The narrative moves along at a quick pace and stays closely focused on Princess Beatrice. It starts in April of 1857, with Queen Victoria going into labor with Beatrice, her final child (hence the book’s title), and proceeds in mostly chronological order until Beatrice’s death in October 1944.

Chapters center around specific topics, such as Princess Beatrice’s rheumatism (which was aggravated by her mother’s insistence on cold, wet carriage rides) and her engagement (which her mother opposed).

It’s hard to read this book without saying, “Poor Beatrice.” The princess had a quiet life, but not an easy one. Dennison describes how the widowed Queen’s “epic, titanic” (and selfish) grief for Prince Albert transformed Beatrice from a lively, spoiled child into a nervous, self-effacing woman who served as her mother’s full-time companion. “Constant unhappiness was simply a fact of life,” the author says.

So determined was Queen Victoria to keep Beatrice at her side that she prevented the princess from making friends. She even tried to stop people from discussing the topic of marriage in front of Beatrice! Nonetheless, Beatrice eventually fell in love and became engaged to Prince Henry of Battenberg.

The Queen’s reaction took the form of silence. Beatrice’s eldest son, the Marquess of Carisbrooke, told biographer David Duff that for seven months, from May to November 1884, mother and daughter continued to live side by side without the Queen addressing a single word to Beatrice.

To gain the Queen’s approval, Beatrice and Prince Henry had to agree to live with the Queen after their marriage. In addition, Beatrice’s husband had to give up his military career. Victoria was happy with this arrangement, and Beatrice seems not to have complained.

After her husband’s early death, Beatrice remained at her mother’s side to the detriment of her relationships with her own children. Queen Victoria died in 1901, and Beatrice spent the next 30 years dutifully editing and rewriting her mother’s journals. She endured tragedies in her personal life and, unlike her mother, overcame them. She seems to have been a calm and kind-hearted woman. Even though her son-in-law, the king of Spain, absurdly blamed her for his son’s hemophilia and “never spoke to Beatrice again,” the author says Beatrice “remained loyal” to him.

“The Last Princess” is a worthwhile book about a worthwhile subject. Even if you share my anti-Victoria prejudice, you’ll probably enjoy this biography. I did.

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