Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Queen Victoria Part VII: Troubled Times and the Last of Sir John

It occurs to me that I left poor Victoria hanging…the last we heard, she was on her throne and safe from Sir John Conroy…

Or was she?

Victoria spent the first year and a half of her life as queen in a haze of happiness. She pretty much made the rules, at least in her personal life. In her public life she relied on her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, to teach her the political ins and outs of being a constitutional monarch. He was a charming, intelligent man and genuinely cared about Victoria in a fatherly way, and did his best in his own sometimes indolent, cynical way to guide her. The Coronation took place in 1838 and was a huge success, and the country seemed delighted with its new little queen.

But Sir John wasn’t entirely gone. He remained as the Duchess of Kent’s comptroller much to Victoria’s discomfort even though she never actually saw him. And he was on the lookout for a way to revenge himself on Victoria and on Baroness Lehzen, her former governess, who remained at Victoria’s side and whom he blamed for coming between him and Vic (never underestimate human capacity for self-deception!).

A way soon became obvious. I’ll have to summarize a lot of the main points or we’ll still be here tomorrow morning, but it involved a phantom scandal, a lot of poor judgement, and bad feelings coming home to roost.

The Duchess of Kent had a lady in waiting named Lady Flora Hastings. She was an unmarried daughter of the Marquess of Hastings and had been with the Duchess for years. Victoria had never been very fond of her although--or perhaps because--the Duchess had always forced them together despite the wide gap in their ages (Lady Flora was a good 20 years older than Vic). Lady Flora was also a supporter of Sir John.

In January 1839, Lady Flora came back to court after visiting her family, and it was noticed that she had gained weight…but in such a suggestive way that Victoria wrote in her journal that she was quite sure Lady Flora was pregnant--and moreover, she was sure Sir John was the father of the child because they had been known to have traveled alone in a carriage together for several hours late that past autumn. Lady F. of course denied that she was pregnant and claimed to be suffering from bilious attacks. But the scandal would not die down until she agreed to be examined by physicians who certified that she was indeed not pregnant and in fact was a virgin. Victoria overcame her dislike of Lady Flora enough to admit she had behaved badly and apologized, and that should have been the end of it.

But it wasn't. Sir John would not leave the situation alone and harped on it to the Duchess and to Lady Flora herself, encouraging Lady Flora to continue to complain about Victoria and about Baroness Lehzen to her politically powerful family who just happened to belong to the opposition Tory party (the present government was Whig) even while she was accepting the Queen’s apologies. Lady Flora’s uncle took it upon himself to publish parts of Lady Flora’s letters in the The Times partly as way to discredit the Queen and especially to help destabilize the Whig government, already on shaky ground due to some issues related to the governance of Jamaica. Lord Melbourne and his government fell from power, though only briefly.

More importantly to the Queen’s personal life, it caused an almost open break between her and the Duchess. This was a serious issue--don’t forget, Victoria was not quite yet 20 and still would have been considered a minor if she hadn’t been queen. It cut deeply into her popularity, so deeply that the once-popular queen was actually hissed in public. Something had to be done, and it was. The Duke of Wellington, hero of the Napoleonic Wars and a figure revered by all, convinced Sir John that he had to not only leave the Duchess’ employ, but leave the country for at least a year or two. He finally left in June 1839, and poor Lady Flora died of cancer a few weeks later. The scandal and hubbub died down after that, and Victoria was at last rid of Sir John Conroy’s influence in her life.

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