There is something about the whole Victorian era that both fascinates and repels us. We like to declare Victorian art and architecture vulgar, sentimental and anti-intellectual, yet perversely tend to seek out much of it. We question Victorian morality and behavior, reading avidly all those books that describe how much hanky-panky actually went on, yet we are also increasingly uneasy about our own denial of duties and obligations. In short, the Victorians are in fashion, and Evelyn Wilde Mayerson's novel "Princess in Amber" is an interesting if slight contribution on the subject.
It is a fictional account of a Victorian daughter, one of the queen's own, in fact, trying to resolve "the ethical dilemma of duty vs. self." This sounds more portentous than the reality, which is a romp through Victoria's reign, written to entertain rather than to point to a moral.
We forget how recently it was that a daughter was expected to be responsible for the care of her parents. She was expected to place this obligation above marriage or any other personal wish. Queen Victoria was no different from her subjects in this respect. She chose her youngest daughter, Beatrice -- the Princess in Amber -- to be her confidant and assistant after her beloved Albert's death. As the Queen puts it:
"A woman's duty is quite clear. Her happiness is bound up in it. Her responsibilty is always to her family . . . A woman finds fulfillment in living for others. She simply submits herself to her duties and makes them habitual. She needs nothing more." But, as Mayerson shows, Beatrice, while initially accepting that injunction, later rebelled.
Until her rebellion, Beatrice was the most tractable of children, but a painful inflammation of the hand, enduring over a long period and possibly psychosomatic in origin, suggests some inner, if unarticulated, resentment. Dutifully, she wrote letters for her mother, undertook royal visits and spent long, dreary evenings at her mother's side in draughty Windsor, bleak Balmoral and the sunnier but no less confining Osborne House. It was a life of numbing tedium and repression, and Beatrice's hand was so swollen at times that she could no longer play the piano. But at the age of 27, while attending the marriage of a niece in Germany, she met and fell in love with Henry of Battenberg, an impoverished German prince and professional soldier:
"He was handsome, with dark moustache and deep, lustrous, chocolate-brown eyes, his dashing uniform molded to his vigorous young soldier's body."
When Victoria refused even to consider the suggestion of marriage, Beatrice embarked on a war of her own: she determined not to speak to her mother. For many months, while she still lived with her mother and carried out her usual duties, she communicated only in writing. True love finally triumphed, but at a price. Beatrice could marry if Henry gave up the soldiering he loved and was good at, and came to live with Beatrice and Victoria. The canny queen thus managed to keep an indispensable assistant and to gain a son-in-law, whom in time she came to rely on almost as much as she did Beatrice.
The cost for the couple was quite high. Prince Henry, bored and underemployed, found tempting distractions, and Beatrice had no opportunity to develop a family life of her own. Even after their four children were born, the couple continued to have apartments that adjoined the queen's.
Mayerson rightly acknowledges that this is a fictional interpretation, and though she quotes Victoria and mentions historical figures and events, the book is a novel and makes no claim to be a definitive life. As a historical novel, "Princess in Amber" is typical of the genre -- titled characters, gossip about goings-on in high places, family secrets, foreshadows of disaster, a little spicy, if kinky, sex, and a heroine who is admirable and ultimately feisty and resourceful. The transformation, however, is little short of miraculous, for Beatrice in the beginning is a bland and timid creature withdrawn to the point of invisibility. Henry is a shadowy if handsome figure, the various members of the large royal family are good for colorful background, and only the queen comes across as a fully realized character. The historical facts gallop across the pages like so many futile cavalry charges, ordered to impress rather than to accomplish a particular purpose.
"Princess in Amber" is a book of some ambition -- the exploration of the psychological tensions and costs of fulfilling moral obligations, especially in public personages, is of great potential interest -- but Mayerson allows events and facts to overtake her original intentions. Somewhere along the way the book changes from a speculative study to a stereotyped love story of the beautiful princess who defies the powerful queen to marry her true love.