Queen Victoria’s Journals

The Queen apparently keeps a diary, and has done so for many years.  It will no doubt be pure gold for future historians, though I doubt whether it will appear in my lifetime.

It would be interesting, though, to know what she thought of last week’s Jubilee festivities.  My mother is just 3 months younger than Elizabeth II, and while Mum probably does a good deal more shopping, cooking and laundry than the Queen, I don’t think she could have stood for hours in the rain, let alone clamber into a barge for a ceremonial journey down the Thames.

The present Queen’s great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, kept a diary too.  Thirty years ago I visited Windsor Castle to read part of it.  It took weeks to arrange: I had to get the necessary permissions and the security clearance, and there were limits on what I could read.  I had to say which years I wanted to read, and there were definitely no photographs allowed, either of the journals or of my surroundings.

After all the preliminary hoops to jump through, when I arrived everyone was friendly and helpful.  I was even invited to join the staff at morning tea, where we made painstaking conversation about cricket.  I know nothing about cricket, but the Ashes were being played at the time, and this was clearly a safe topic to discuss with a colonial.

I was looking for information about Oswald Brierly (1817-1894), an artist who spent the 1840s in New South Wales, working for Benjamin Boyd, before returning to England in 1851.  Brierly specialised in painting ships, and in 1874 he was appointed marine painter to Queen Victoria.  There are some 150 of his paintings in the Royal Collection.

Oswald Brierly, Opium Clipper

Oswald Brierly, Opium Clipper, in Royal Museums, Greenwich

Brierly was close to the royal family.  He painted scenes from the Royal Yacht, Victoria and Albert.  In 1867/8 he accompanied one of Victoria’s younger sons, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, on a world cruise on HMS Galatea.  During that tour they visited Australia, where on 12 March 1868, Prince Alfred was shot and badly wounded by an Irish Fenian in Sydney.

I hoped that Queen Victoria might mention hearing this news in her diary – but I could find no reference to Brierly anywhere, nor any mention of Alfred’s brush with death.  One of Victoria’s daughters, Princess Beatrice, transcribed her mother’s diaries, and no doubt censored some of the more personal material in them.

So my trip out to Windsor was wasted – except for the chance to see behind the scenes of a royal palace.  Those sorts of thrills are becoming increasingly rare these days, as the digital world opens up to everyone, what was once only available to a privileged few.

As part of the Jubilee celebrations, Queen Victoria’s Journals  have been digitised and put on line here.

We can’t do anything about Prince Beatrice’s deletions – but they are still a remarkable source.  I particularly love Victoria’s sketches.  Not as skilful as those of Oswald Brierly, perhaps, but providing a remarkable insight into the private life of the queen.  (But you’ll have to go to the website to look at them as they are copyrighted)

John Milner and Oswald W. Brierly, The Cruise of H.M.S. Galatea (1869)

This time last year:
China Wakes, 2 June 2011
The Lamington goes to War, 5 June 2011
Coins in early Australia, 7 June 2011
Our Sedentary Ways, 10 June 2011

Note to regular readers: I’ve been overseas for a couple of weeks, and took longer to recover from jet lag than I had expected.  Apologies for not posting as frequently as usual – but normal service has now resumed.

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8 responses to “Queen Victoria’s Journals

  1. Good to have you back Marion
    That was really interesting too, it just shows though that things can still be kept private – but isn’t that odd to have found no mention of Brierly!

  2. Marcus Harmes

    it’s very odd there was no references to him – I wonder what this suggests about the Queen’s priorities?

  3. I imagine that by the time Victoria heard about Alfred being shot, he was already out of danger. But it IS odd that she didn’t muse on it at all – clearly it wasn’t her top priority, Marcus.
    Thanks Eunice – it’s nice to be back – with lots of interesting thoughts on Russia, too, though it will take me a while to think through what I’ve seen there.

  4. I liked your admission that you didn’t find what you were looking for when you visited Windsor Castle to read the diaries, but I don’t agree that it was therefore a wasted trip. Historical research is about pursuing likely trails, many of which will prove dead ends, but they still need to be tested before they can be eliminated. In fact I wonder if the more dead ends there are on a particular historical quest, the more valuable will be the evidence, even if it is a scrap, when it is found?

    I have been pondering this recently as I keep coming up against deadends in my research which increases my enthusiasm for the quest. However, there has to be some cost/benefit analysis applied. Unfortunately we don’t have time or funds to travel to every corner of earth to find things. This is where those dead ends become very frustrating.

    • Hi Perkinsy. I take your point – a negative result can be important, too – and in any case, the trip didn’t feel wasted, when I had so many good experiences as a result of it.

      But I do wonder about your suggestion that ‘the more dead ends there are on a particular historical quest, the more valuable will be the evidence, even if it is a scrap, when it is found?’ I don’t think there’s an inverse relationship between the difficulty of finding that elusive scrap of information, and its importance in the final manuscript. There are things I’ve sweated blood over, which actually don’t add much to the final argument, but it has often taken me years to admit as much. And the cost/benefit analysis is important – not just in terms of funds and time, but in terms of what the reader gets out of that added piece of information. The hard thing is knowing when to draw the line.

      • You are right. It is easy to lose perspective and get caught up in the hunt. This is something I need to keep in mind!

  5. Mary-Ann Turnbull

    i.e. its the journey not the destination.

  6. Pingback: Queen Victoria’s Journals | Null Entropy

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