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Dear John ...: Bendor Grosvenor reveals for the first time a letter by Queen Victoria, which sheds light on the true nature of her relationship and feelings for her man-servant John Brown.

AT 10.40PM ON MARCH 27TH, 1883, Queen Victoria's highland servant John Brown died at Windsor Castle. The unconventional, hard-drinking, good-looking Scot, who had for the last twenty years been Victoria's 'constant companion', succumbed painfully to erysipelas, a debilitating skin condition. Given the intense speculation over Victoria's relationship with Brown, we might look to her reaction to his death for confirmation or otherwise that Brown was, as Victoria's daughters joked, 'Mama's lover'. During research for my doctorate I discovered, in a letter written by the Queen just two days after Brown's death, evidence that allows us to reinterpret their famous relationship.

Until now, our record of Victoria's reaction to Brown's death has centred on her diary. On March 28th, she wrote:

'Leopold [the Queen's youngest son] came to my dressing room and broke the dreadful news to me that Brown had passed away early this morning. Am terribly upset by this loss, which removes one who was so devoted and attached to my service and who did so much for my personal comfort. It is the loss not only of a servant, but of a real friend.'

This entry, and the muted sentiments therein, can now be revealed as a complete fabrication. Victoria's journal was heavily edited by her censorious daughter, Beatrice, in the 1900s, and the original, a record of unparalleled importance, has not been seen since. What did Victoria write after Brown's death that was so sensitive?

Perhaps the closest we will come to knowing is the letter published here for the first time. The Queen, writing to one of her former ministers Lord Cranbrook, described some of her feelings for Brown, and most importantly, compared his death to that of her husband Prince Albert. As was often the case, the Queen wrote in the third person:

'The Queen, though not equal to much writing as her hand shakes so--wishes to thank Lord Cranbrook from the bottom of her heart for the kind words of sympathy in her present unbounded grief for the loss of the best, most devoted of servants and truest and dearest of friends. Perhaps never in history was there so strong and true an attachment, so warm and losing a friendship between the Sovereign and servant * as existed between her and her dear faithful Brown.

Strength of character, as well as power of frame--the most fearless uprightness, kindness, sense of justice, honesty, independence and unselfishness, combined with a tender warm heart, retaining the homely simplicity of his early life, made him one of the most remarkable men who cd be known--and the Queen feels that life for the second time is become most trying and sad to bear deprived of all she so needs. ... the blow has fallen too heavily not to be very, heavily felt. The shock too was so sudden that the Queen is quite stunned.' [*The phrase 'between the Sovereign and servant' was an addendum.]

Victoria then went on to describe the circumstances of Brown's illness, and the process by which she was informed of his death by her physician Sir William Jenner. It is in complete contrast to the version of events given in her diary:

'Last Saturday 24th he [Brown] went out with her ... at seven o'clock that evening he was unable to return to wait her dinner as he had done all that week serving quite well, while she did not leave her room on Sunday. Now the awful malady, an attack of which he had passed safely through four years ago at Baveno, began to show itself, & he was very ill by that night. Still many people have gone thru worse attacks of erysipelas and recovered, and even as late as 1/2 past 9 or 10, even, on Tuesday night the 27th Sir William Jenner said the Queen need not be so much alarmed; the pulse was better, dear Brown swallowed quite well, had taken plenty of nourishment and the eruption had not spread over the head--when at 1/2 past 11 he came in again--said he was "much worse", and when she said she would be carried up to see him for she cannot walk at all yet--he said it was "too late".'

The Queen has let her pen run on ...

'The Queen is not ill, but terribly shaken and quite unable to walk ... missing more than ever her dear faithful friend's strong arm.'

Victoria was distraught, her grief 'unbounded--dreadful'. 'I shall never', she wrote, 'be the same again in many things.' But her family were delighted. For years they had suffered, or effected to suffer, the humiliation of being forced by the Queen to treat Brown as an equal. The Prince of Wales loathed 'that brute'; Prince Leopold found him 'fearfully insolent'; and the Duke of Edinburgh had been evicted, he claimed, from Buckingham Palace 'because he objected to shake hands with John Brown'.

It is worth recalling how extraordinary Brown's influence over the Queen was. He addressed her 'without any mark of respect, such as 'Your Majesty' or the like', and in public often simply called her 'Wumman'. Victoria, in return, would call him 'darling one'. 'Often I told him', Victoria later wrote, 'no one loved him more than I did or had a better friend than me: and he answered "Nor you than me ... No one loves you more".' Brown even told her when she had put on weight. And once, when Gladstone had again bored the Queen to tears, he simply told the prime minister to shut up.

Brown controlled almost everything to do with Victoria's day-to-day activities, travel and security. He was in 'constant attendance upon her in her room', and oversaw the delivery of everything from private mail to an almost constant supply of cakes. The Dean of Windsor reported that he was 'with [Victoria] alone for two hours nearly every day ... & when she travels in Germany, his room must always be next hers.' Lord Derby, Foreign Secretary from 1874-78, recalled in his diary a secret court source, probably the Dean again, as claiming that Brown 'sleeps in a room adjoining her bedroom, contrary to all etiquette and even decency ... the belief in a private marriage is general among the household ...'

The twenty-first century mind may read all this and leap to the conclusion reached by Wilfrid Scawen Blunt--that Victoria 'allowed [Brown] every conjugal privilege'. We shall never know if that was the case, and, frankly, who cares? Had Victoria been a king such behaviour would be considered normal. Historians recall, pruriently and perhaps correctly, the Queen's sense of morality and class as barriers to any intimate relationship.

And yet the similarities between Victoria's treatment of Albert and Brown in death are too numerous to ignore. The death of both plunged the Queen into long periods of deep mourning. Brown's room, like Albert's, was meticulously kept as if he was alive. Victoria commissioned a range of Brown memorabilia, from portraits to tie pins, and surrounded herself with his image. Her first volume of Leaves from a Highland Journal was dedicated to Albert; More Leaves ..., the second volume, was dedicated to Brown. At a service to commemorate the anniversary of Albert's death, in December 1883, the Queen instructed that Brown's name be coupled with Albert's in the prayers of remembrance. A plaque was even erected in the hallowed Royal mausoleum at Frogmore. And when Victoria herself died, eighteen years later, her servants, as she had secretly instructed, placed in the royal coffin (alongside mementos of Albert) a lock of Brown's hair, his photograph, a pocket handkerchief and several letters exchanged between them.

It is perhaps not entirely fanciful to suggest, as the Queen appears to in her letter to Lord Cranbrook, that Brown became as much of a second husband to her that social standards allowed. We must not forget that beneath the stately dignity and mournful crinoline Victoria was a lonely, needy, and relatively young, widow. Brown, as Lord Derby noted, became 'the only person with whom she could really be said to live'. Are we not merely clinging to a misconceived notion of Victorian morality if we continue to deny Victoria and Brown the relationship that, on balance, they probably had?

Bendor Grosvenor
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Title Annotation:Frontline
Author:Grosvenor, Bendor
Publication:History Today
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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