Philip Hensher

When we were very young

The Adventures of Alice Laselles reveals much about the future queen — including her dearest childhood wish to have a room of her own

Few monarchs could become novelists. They wouldn’t be able to develop the practice, or possess the necessary temperament. No monarch could sit in the corner of a room observing, or walk the streets unnoticed. They don’t have much of a chance of a long morning working quietly, without interruption, or of seeing what ordinary people are like at their most natural and unselfconscious. (Imagine what changes would have had to take place in Edward VII’s life before he could have thought of writing fiction.)

If they are never going to have the chance to observe and to write, they are also unlikely to have the disposition to do so. The future monarch will be assured from birth that his is the existence that matters. The world as seen through other eyes is a faint, unimaginable place, and the practice of the novel, which springs from wondering what it might be like to be other people, is not one an anointed king-emperor is likely to master.

To all of this Queen Victoria was an immense exception. She certainly did have the right character to be a novelist, even if most of the major influences of her life warned her against fiction — her mother, Lord Melbourne and Prince Albert thought novels an improper and wasteful distraction. Nevertheless, she read Oliver Twist with immense interest, and other masterpieces — along with some rather lesser works. Her secretary Ponsonby was once trapped into saying at the royal dinner table that Marie Corelli appealed to the ‘semi-educated’, not realising what a favourite she was with the Queen.

Victoria had an irrepressibly romantic nature, and public policy repeatedly found itself being directed by her weakness for figures like Melbourne and Disraeli.

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