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Cover of the book under review.

Henry Ponsonby's career as a soldier and a courtier, including spells as equerry to Prince Albert and the Queen, culminated in eight years as the Queen's private secretary and a further 17 years combining that role, as the main channel of communication between the Sovereign and the politicians of the day, with responsibility for handling her personal finances as keeper of the privy purse. He was hidden from public view but a significant figure in national affairs for 25 years. He and his wife met at court when she was a maid of honour to the Queen; she had little formal education, bore him five children and, in keeping with the times in which they lived, never held a serious post of her own. But the title of the book is accurate. It is a biography of two people and much more about each of them as individuals than it is about their marriage. The book is balanced. There are ten chapters; two are to do with both of them, and Henry and Mary are each the central figure of four chapters (2, 5, 7 and 9 for him and 3, 6, 8 and 10 for her). The overall impression is that Kuhn found Mary a more attractive and interesting personality than her husband and possibly more intellectually curious.

The subliminal message of the first chapter is that Kuhn feels the need to persuade readers that the book was worth writing and that it will be worth their reading. It is entitled "Starting in the Middle" and covers the first three years of Henry's time as private secretary. The intrinsic interest of his material is such that Kuhn would have been quite safe in opening the book in more conventional fashion with what are currently chapters 2 and 3, in which he covers his subjects' lives up to their marriage in 1861. It is hard to see why anyone would stop reading until the last page. Their story illustrates how upper/upper middle class lives were lived in the second half of the nineteenth century by people with relatively little capital behind them. It is an unusual but authentic lens through which to observe the life of the Queen and her court. Many Victorians of great interest in their own right add to the liveliness of the book. They include the Duke of Wellington, George Eliot, Gladstone, Ethel Smyth, A. C. Benson, William Harcourt and Edmund Gosse. Above all it is a book about two unusual people.

The Married Couple

Henry was a liberal who believed in Parliamentary democracy and saw the need for the Crown to support the duly elected government of the day not least in order to secure its own survival. He opposed the flogging of soldiers and the purchase of commissions — unconventional views for a soldier of his generation who had purchased promotions. He was left alternately uncomfortable and amused by the traditional formalities of court life. Early light is cast on his approach when Kuhn is writing about his second visit to Dublin as a soldier:

He thought all this dressing up and showing off was a bit middle class, characteristic of civic authorities, mayors and their wives, who delighted in wearing their chains, robes and insignia of office, earning them the sobriquet, "the chain gang." Henry had grown up among old governing families in which shabby was chic and ostentation vulgar. [108]

Mary began adult life in a phase of intense enthusiasm for high church faith and practice. She broke off an engagement with William Harcourt, who later held high office, with a view to founding an Anglican sisterhood. It was predictable that she would want to found one rather than join one. She read her way into Anglican agnosticism through George Eliot (who later became a friend) and John Stuart Mill, strongly supported the founding of Girton, better jobs for women and the trade union movement. She was generally more left wing than Henry who, without her, might not have been as left wing as he was but never shed the attachment to breeding and manners that her own upbringing gave her.

Both had experienced the loss of their father relatively early in life and in both cases there was, as a result, much less money than they had been used to in their early years.

Kuhn's main source is the letters and diaries of Henry. Husband and wife shared a code, and parts of some of the letters used this code, which at the time of publication had not been cracked by anyone. We can presume that Mary wrote to Henry on roughly the same scale that he wrote to her during the several months each year that he was at Osborne or Balmoral or travelling in Europe with the Queen and she was at Windsor, but the letters appear all to have been destroyed. Destruction is not absolutely certain and there must be an outside chance that they remain to be discovered. Henry's writings make it clear how much he loved Mary. Kuhn's judgment, which has to be more speculative, is that Mary did not love her husband so passionately and depended on him less, but that she was not unhappy in the marriage and that he was always important to her.

Henry Ponsonby's Role as Private Secretary to the Queen

Sir Henry Frederick Ponsonby, by Walery, published by Sampson Low & Co. in September 1889. © National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG Ax38302).

The book does not attempt to give serious attention to the many controversial issues in public life that Henry had to handle between 1870 and 1895, but it does include a useful account of the origins of the post of private secretary (140-152) and gives a clear account of his own ups and downs in the role. The first ever person to hold the title of private secretary was General Charles Grey, who, after eight years of doing the work, was finally given the title in 1867 when Derby and Disraeli formed an administration and were more willing to give the queen what she wanted. Within three years Grey, who was Mary's uncle and more distantly related to Henry, had retired and was replaced by Henry. The work had been done for a long time, then, although the title itself was recent when Henry took it on.

In the days before typewriters and photocopiers let alone laptops and I-pads, the job was as much to do with copying letters as giving advice. Indeed giving advice to Victoria was a hazardous business particularly if she decided to reject it. To begin with, Henry was useful in trying to keep Gladstone in order for the Queen, and he was all the more likely to succeed because he was essentially on Gladstone's side. When Disraeli took over, Henry was increasingly sidelined. The new Prime Minister preferred to deal directly with the Queen and, when that was not practicable, avoided Henry who was the proper channel of communication by using alternative, unorthodox routes of reaching her. Although openly Liberal in his sympathies, Henry's guiding principle was that the Crown should support the duly elected government of the day and he was entirely trustworthy. Still, the Queen connived at Disraeli's irregular ways of getting through to her and even encouraged them. She herself rarely confronted Henry directly, preferring to send rebukes through messengers chosen from amongst ladies-in-waiting, or the clergymen close to the Household.

Once Disraeli had left office, Henry increasingly came back into his own as the Queen's most senior personal adviser. The political complexion of the Government made no difference to him in this respect. His success sprang partly from his longevity in office and thus his deep familiarity with the personalities involved, and their histories. He developed a reputation for sorting out tricky problems with a rare measure of tact and discretion. It did him no harm with the Queen that he got on perfectly well in turn with John Brown and Abdul Karim — the Munshi. It was true of few of those who surrounded the Queen. The Queen, of course, had no idea that Henry coped with the stresses and strains of his role by giving his wife written accounts and his whole family oral accounts of those many moments in his working life that he found intensely amusing. The Queen was not exempt from the cast of the funny stories. The whole family cherished stories that led to helpless laughter with tears streaming down their faces. Kuhn gives the impression, probably fairly, that this did not amount to disloyalty or to hypocrisy. It was a safety valve that did no damage to Henry's conscientious discharge of his duties.

Henry died on the Isle of Wight, and his bronze memorial plaque by Countess Feodora Gleichen can be seen in the north transept of St Mildred's Church, Whippingham, there. According to the inscription, it was placed in the church by the Queen in 1900 "in grateful remembrance" of him.

There is no sense of Henry's changing much throughout his adult life. Some characteristics became more marked, and he obviously grew more experienced and authoritative, but, save for the marginal impact of Mary's influence, his views and values remained much the same from his early years as Albert's equerry to his grander role up to his death in 1895, just before his 70th birthday.

Mary Ponsonby's Life

Mary was very different. She was very young when she came to court and, no doubt because she was very bright, formed a close relationship with the Queen's eldest daughter. The legacy showed in an anecdote of the Ponsonbys' youngest son, Arthur:

I noticed that my father would have long talks with her [his mother] and seem to be consulting her and on one occasion when we were in the Carpenter's shop a messenger from the castle brought her a letter. On the bench with a carpenter's pencil she drafted a reply. The Queen had sent her a letter from the Princess Royal (afterward Empress Frederick) at a time of her constant quarrelling with her son (the Emperor William) and asked my mother how she should reply. As my mother had drafted the suggestion for the Princess Royal's letter she found no difficulty in drafting a suggestion for the reply. [xiv]

Despite this story, the Queen seems to have been more suspicious of Mary than of Henry perhaps because her left wing political views were more pronounced. She was bound to see much less of her than she did of her husband but would have seen more of her if she had been willing to offer them family accommodation near Osborne and Balmoral. This happened occasionally towards the end of Henry's life and indeed his fatal stroke occurred in their temporary home at Osborne so that fortunately Mary was there. Through most of their lives the Queen could only see Mary at Windsor. Mary did have a life of her own and the months of her separation from Henry and thus from the Queen were a chance to get on with it. That this gave rise to inescapable tensions is illustrated by an observation by Ethel Smyth, much younger than Mary but a close friend for some years:

From the way he [Henry] looked at and spoke to her I guessed that his chief joy, relaxation and refreshment was, whenever it was possible, to steal half an hour with his wife. Hence a slight sense of guilt on my part, and a suspicion that in his heart he must often be saying as he opened the door: 'There's that damned Smyth woman again.' If so, it couldn't be helped: as long as she liked me to be there, there I should be. [230]

Ethel Smyth was only one of around a dozen women with whom Mary had close friendships. There is nothing to suggest that these were physical relationships. Indeed there is evidence that both Ethel Smyth and Vernon Lee, whose real name was Violet Paget, were disappointed by Mary's refusal to provide a warm physical response.

Mary lived for over 20 years after Henry's death. In the later years she was less active but to begin with she occupied her widowhood by writing, notably long, thoughtful articles on the position of women for distinguished journals. She responded to a request from Edmund Gosse to produce material for a long article on Queen Victoria. He was acting on behalf of John Murray who wanted it for the Quarterly Review. It appeared in April 1901 very quickly after Victoria's death. Although it was far from generally critical it avoided the reverential tone of much of the coverage after her death and very obviously drew on an inside source. It appeared under Gosse's name although he drew freely on her words as well as her material. She managed to avoid being linked to it unambiguously although she was suspected to be the source by some insiders. The article made a great stir and incensed Edward VII.

Her life after 1895 was divided between a house near Ascot (the first house that either of them had owned) and a grace and favour apartment in St James's Palace. Henry had left £70,000 which given his income and personal wealth surprised everyone who knew their circumstances. When she died at 84 in 1916, Henry's £70,000 had diminished to between £12,000 and £17,000. She had a pension that was well over half Henry's final salary and the income from his capital which suggests that she was not so adept at handling money as Henry had been or that her children were less helpful than they might have been.

The book's epilogue deals with the publication of Arthur Ponsonby's biography of his father in 1942: Henry Ponsonby, Queen Victoria's Private Secretary: His Life from His Letters. In a fascinating 14 pages Kuhn describes how Arthur Ponsonby set about obtaining clearance from Buckingham Palace and the respective perspectives of the courtiers, Queen Mary, to whom the King sent it, and George VI himself. The King was torn between a reluctance to see publication and great amusement at much of what he read but in the end gave his consent, sought very few changes and overrode strong outright opposition from his mother to whom the later life of Queen Victoria's court was much more immediate than mere history. The private secretaries of the 1940s recognised and respected the way that Henry had set the standard for a subtly demanding role and empathised with his way of relieving pressure in the letters he sent to Mary.

This is a serious, scholarly and enjoyable book which is unlikely to be replaced by any later account of this well-placed married couple. It is full of insight and should be read by anyone interested in the Victorian period generally and the court in particular.

Book under Review

Kuhn, William M. Henry & Mary Ponsonby: Life at the Court of Queen Victoria. London: Duckworth, 2003. Now available in a Kindle edition ASIN: B00YLR2QDM.

Last modified 27 September 2015