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Royal babies: a late-nineteenth-century perspective

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

Last week, the world’s media was fixed on the arrival of another royal baby. At less than a week old, pictures of Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, the first child of Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and the Queen’s eighth great-grandchild, have been shared around the globe. Although the birth took place in the relative privacy of the Windsor estate – avoiding a repeat of the now-familiar press camp outside St Mary’s Lindo Wing – the royal couple were still expected to present their new baby to the world within days. Royal Instagram followers were even treated to a photo of Archie’s feet on Sunday to mark Mother’s Day in the US. This level of exposure might seem unique to the internet and social media age, but royal childhood was followed just as eagerly at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Girl’s Realm was a sixpenny monthly magazine first published in 1898 aimed at teenage girls and young adult women. From the start, the periodical often featured articles on royal childhood, alongside photographs and illustrations of young royals. For example, the first issue included an article on ‘The Young Princesses of Wales’, where stories from the three princesses’ early lives were presented as ideal models of middle-class domestic girlhood.[1]

Even in the final years of her life, Queen Victoria remained the archetypal royal girl. An article in The Girl’s Realm in December 1898, titled ‘The Simplicity of the Queen’s Girlhood’ presented a picture that would have been familiar to middle-class girl readers: home life, toys, study, and pets. The author, Sybil, concluded: ‘You will see that the girlhood of the Queen differed very little from that of ordinary young ladies’.[2] Articles on Queen Victoria in the Girl’s Own Paper, the most successful girls’ magazine in the period, presented the monarch as a role model ‘who to our girls so bright a pattern gives’.[3] As Beth Rodgers noted, such narratives ‘established the “girl-Queen” as the ultimate heroine’.[4] Readers were encouraged to feel a connection to their sovereign through an imagined common girlhood. This fitted with broader portrayals of Queen Victoria in the period, who as John Gillis has shown, was ‘commemorated mainly as wife and mother, not as a political figure’.[5]

It was not only British royals that featured in the periodical press. Of course, in this period, royal families across the continent were intricately linked by marriage. The Girl’s Realm used this as an opportunity to teach its readers about different national cultures. A series on girl royals in 1899-1900 included illustrated biographies of the families of Princess Alice of Albany, the Empress of Russia, and Princess Beatrice of Saxe-Coburg Gotha.

This final example suggests that articles about royal childhood had several aims. Author Minka Von Drachenfels wrote: ‘A great and natural interest is taken by loyal English girls in the lives of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, whether these are of British or of foreign birth. I am sure, therefore, that an account of the youngest daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha cannot fail to give pleasure to the numerous readers of THE GIRL’S REALM.’[6] By celebrating royal girlhood, the periodical sought to cultivate a readership that was loyal to the Crown.

Another important idea here was the power of the monarchy to preserve international peace. An article in The Girl’s Realm described the ‘cruel trial’ endured by the queen’s daughters, the Princess Royal and Princess Alice, when the sisters found themselves on opposing sides in the 1866 Austrian-Prussian War, and hoped similar situations could be avoided in future.[7] Of course, with hindsight, this appears somewhat naïve. By 1914, Queen Victoria’s grandchildren were enmeshed in a complex web of alliances that brought them into conflict in the First World War. In fact, it is haunting to think of young girls reading personal stories and seeing photographs of the four daughters and son of the last Tsar and Tsarina of Russia in these light-hearted magazines, just years before they were murdered during the Bolshevik Revolution.

The place of the royal family has changed considerably since the end of the Victorian era. But public interest in the personal lives of royals has endured. The narratives surrounding Archie’s birth have their echoes in the past. Once again, the country is being encouraged to celebrate a model of the ideal family, representative of a changing, increasingly multicultural Britain, and symbolic of an international alliance – this time between Britain and the USA.

 

Image: Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Family of Queen Victoria, oil on canvas, 1846 (public domain)

[1] Sybil, ‘The Young Princesses of Wales’, The Girl’s Realm, 1/1 (Nov. 1898), pp. 3-12.

[2] Sybil, ‘The Simplicity of the Queen’s Girlhood’, The Girl’s Realm, 1/2 (Dec. 1898), pp. 111-17.

[3] ‘“Victoria’s Laurel”’, Girl’s Own Paper, 8 (June 1887), p. 2.

[4] Beth Rodgers, Adolescent Girlhood and Literary Culture at the fin-de-siècle: Daughters of Today (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p. 50.

[5] John R. Gillis, Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 10.

[6] Minka Von Drachenfels, ‘Princess Beatrice of Saxe-Coburg Gotha’, The Girl’s Realm, 2/17 (March 1900), pp. 459-64.

[7] Sybil, ‘The Queen’s Daughters as Girls: The Princess Royal and Princess Alice’, The Girl’s Realm, 2/16 (Feb. 1900), p. 365.

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