A long history of royal memoirs
In July 2021, Penguin Random House announced that Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, is in the process of writing his memoirs. According to the publisher, Harry’s book, due out later this year, will provide “the definitive account of the experiences, adventures, losses and life lessons that have helped shape him.”
The decision to publish a full memoir might seem unprecedented – particularly in light of how outspoken Prince Harry has been about difficulties with his family, the press and royal life – but in fact, there exists a long history of royalty publishing memoirs, including Queen Victoria herself. Here are 10 noteworthy royal memoirs that allowed the public a behind-the-scenes glimpse of scandals, political upheaval and pivotal moments in world history.
More Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands from 1862 to 1882 (1884)
A royal memoir by Queen Victoria (1819-1901)
In 1868, Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, from 1848 to 1861 by Queen Victoria was an instant bestseller, raising thousands of pounds in support of educational bursaries for underprivileged children. At the time, the Queen was in mourning for her late husband Prince Albert and was rarely seen in public. The published journals, dedicated to Prince Albert, allowed the public a glimpse of royal holidays in Scotland in happier times. The sentimental anecdotes about domestic life, which Queen Victoria’s eldest son the future King Edward VII dismissed as “twaddle”, appealed to a 19th century middle class audience who expected the royal family to share their values.
The publication of a sequel in 1886, More Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands from 1862 to 1882, was far more controversial. This second book was not dedicated to the late Prince Albert, but “To My Loyal Highlanders and especially to the Memory of my Devoted Personal Attendant and Faithful Friend John Brown.”
Brown was mentioned frequently in the text, leading the public to speculate about the nature of their relationship during Queen Victoria’s widowhood. This time, the Queen’s eldest son called the publication of More Leaves “insanity” and complained that he was not mentioned at all. (Queen Victoria told him that “had he been kind enough to read the book carefully” he would have noticed he was mentioned on four different pages.) A parody of More Leaves was published in New York, entitled, John Brown’s Legs or Leaves from a Journal in the Lowlands, imagining the Queen dedicating her memoirs to her kilted servant’s muscular legs.
My Memories of Six Reigns (1956)
A royal memoir by Her Highness Princess Marie Louise (1872-1956)
1900 was a difficult year for Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein. Her brother, Christian Victor, was serving in the South African War (where he died of malaria in October), her own health was precarious, and her marriage to German Prince Aribert of Anhalt was a disaster.
Like Harry and Meghan more than a century later, Marie Louise decided to put some distance between herself and her troubles with an extended stay in Canada. In her memoirs, Marie Louise described visiting Governor General Lord Minto and Lady Minto at Rideau Hall in Ottawa where they “arranged for me to have my own car in the train and go right across Canada to the Rockies and Vancouver.” Just as Marie Louise was about to depart on her cross-Canada train journey, she received a telegram from her father-in-law demanding that she come home at once. Marie Louise wrote in her memoir, “Of course, my first impulse was to say that nothing could induce me to do so; I wanted to go across Canada to Vancouver.” When Lord Minto gave Marie Louise a second telegram, this time from Queen Victoria, the Princess returned reluctantly to the United Kingdom. Marie Louise’s marriage was annulled and she spent the rest of her long life undertaking royal duties.
By the time Marie Louise wrote these memoirs in 1957, the breakdown of her marriage was long past and she was Queen Elizabeth II’s elderly “Cousin Louie”. Kirkus Reviews gave the memoir an unenthusiastic review, concluding “No gossip intrudes or demeans the character of the book which bears its heavy train of memories with dignity and discretion. But it lacks the spark that might widen its market.”
It was not the revelations in the book that were groundbreaking, but rather the fact that she had pioneered a new genre of royal memoir writing – the recollections of an elderly royal insider who could comment with authority on generations of historical figures in the 19th and 20th centuries while still remaining close to her royal relatives.