18 OCTOBER 1991, Page 38

How unlike the home life of Cleopatra

Ruth Guilding

VICTORIA AND ALBERT: LIFE AT OSBORNE by HRH The Duchess of York, with Benita Stoney Weidenfeld, £18.99, pp. 208

My fascination with Queen Victoria, both as a monarch, but more especially as a wife and mother of a large family, is long-standing, but in March 1988, some 19 months after my marriage to Prince Andrew, my curiosity was given new fuel by a visit to Osborne House, the home that the Queen and her consort created together on the Isle of Wight.

he Duchess's literary ambitions were no secret to those of us crowding the balconies of Osborne on that day, including the Surveyor of the Queen's Works of Art and his deputies, an elegant trio, summoned from St James's to provide her with a guided tour of the greatest possible erudition.

Later, after she had drunk deep of all they could tell her, it fell to my lot, as Osborne's curator, to pose with Fergie for the popping flashbulbs of Hello magazine in the newly restored royal nursery suite, to open which was the official purpose of this royal visit. As we stiltedly discussed the niceties of Victorian bed-linen, she turned suddenly and hissed to her lady-in-waiting, 'Take this girl's name!' With mixed feeings, I realised I had been recruited researcher- in-ordinary to the fast expanding ranks of those who would serve the cause of Victoria and Albert: Life at Osborne.

Subsequently, the quality of the material contained in this book testifies to the sterling efforts of the Duchess's team (amongst whom I did not number — I left my post at Osborne shortly afterwards), and to her strong business acumen. Having worked in publishing, the task of commis- sioning and collating is, presumably, one which she knows well. The book is written 'with' Benita Stoney, a freelance researcher of impeccable pedigree; her joint status on the title page implies a hefty share of the credit for its coherency. With such advant- ages as complete access to the Queen's private archives, this book was bound to surpass general expectations; with such a marketable subject and author, the enter- prise becomes a publisher's — Lord Weidenfeld's — dream.

Victoria and Albert: Life at Osborne is exquisitely presented, its detailed text corn- plemented with superb colour illustrations, many of which have never previously been published. Osborne was the venue at which the Prince Consort established the first toe- hold of authority within his marriage, the acquisition of the estate and the construc- tion of a home providing him with a perfect opportunity to demonstrate his capacities for planning, regulation and control. The story of Albert's gradual ascendancy is unfolded from the early days of marriage to a woman who was wont to exclaim heatedly, 'Albert is in my house and not I in his!' to a state at 'beloved Osborne', where the queen found herself in an envi- ronment completely of his construction — furnishings, paintings, the model farm at Barton and even the drainage system by which sewage was disposed of — all were of Albert's devising. Increasingly un- confident of her own taste, on his birthdays the Queen bombarded him with sentimental portraits by Winterhalter of herself and the children. These Albert courteously hung up in the sitting room and bedroom which they shared, but not one of them found its way into his own study-cum-dressing-room, whose walls were exclusively hung with his collection of Italian Primitives, now in the National Gallery.

Such a marriage, recorded in such embarrassing detail, begs, and receives, a certain levity of treatment, and some of the book's best passages treat of the Queen's life as a tyrannical widow, obsessed with her husband's memory. Comforted by Disraeli's happy idea of a new title — that of Empress of India — the Queen dared to add an exotic Indian wing to the Italianate perfection that was Albert's Osborne. Indoors, the once elegantly furnished rooms filled up with a profusion of rather ugly mementoes — photographs, portraits, locks of hair, and hundreds of representa- tions of Albert, despite his own avowed distaste for effigies. As the national memorials proliferated, Charles Dickens wrote to a far-off friend:

If you should meet with an inaccessible cave in that neighbourhood, to which a hermit could retire from the memory of Prince Albert and testimonials to the same, pray let me know of it. We have nothing solitary and deep enough in this part of England.

While not averse to dabbling with psy- chology in the pursuit of truth, the author's view has a certain bias. The Duchess, who described herself as a 'fun mum' when pub- licising her book on Radio 4's Woman's Hour, prefers to theorise about the miser- able relations which existed between the Queen and her eldest son : Her unspoken, perhaps even unconscious, thought was regret that he was not the image of his father. She never accepted the child for himself, always measured him against her ideal, Albert, and naturally the child never matched up to it. It was a damaging mistake which she repeated with her second son.

In fact, the Queen spoke of her aversion for Bertie quite freely to those closest to her, and blamed the death of her beloved husband directly on Bertie's notorious escapade with an actress. The Prince Consort is recorded as having confided to Lord Clarendon his regret at the harshness of Bertie's upbringing, saying that he could not temper the Queen's severity towards her children because she became almost hysterical if thwarted.

Victoria and Albert : Life at Osborne is an appealing subject, and a well-crafted book. Its candid tone is surprising, and new infor- mation is contained within, set amongst less original material which has been sym- pathetically re-presented. But the book's decent quality almost eclipses its real func-

tion. The preface, which actually is written by the Duchess herself, contains her thinly veiled bid for public sympathy. By high- lighting the perils of royal matrimonial life as experienced by Victoria and Albert — Victoria's insecurity and her inability to provide emotional support for Albert, their less-than-happy childhoods, their mis- guided sense of parental duty, and the pressures induced by lack of privacy and a bad press — she begs our indulgence for her own personal manifesto. And it has to be said that down on the ranch in Sunninghill, with their 'fun mum' and hearty, 'action-man' style papa, little Beatrice and Eugenie might be said to be amongst the luckier ones.