Enchanting and evocative peek behind Queen Victoria's mystique

Life at the Court of Queen Victoria, edited by Barry St. John Nevill. Salem, N.H.: Salem House (distributed by Merrimack Publishers Circle). Illustrated from the collection of Lord Edward Pelham-Clinton, master of the household. 224 pp. $24.95. This handsome, sumptuously illustrated book contains selections from Queen Victoria's journals written in her widowhood. Each journal entry is surrounded by relevant illustrations: menus, programs, train schedules, wedding invitations, pictures, and portraits. In addition, there are useful notes and chronologies, all impeccably accurate and at the same time pithy and pungently illuminating.

Fans of court life and of royalty will be enchanted by the beautifully reproduced menu cards, seating charts, guest room assignments for royal festivities, and music programs for royal concerts, weddings, and funerals. Whether one is looking at the elaborate schedules of royal travels to Scotland or the Riviera, the program for the command performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's ``The Gondoliers'' at Windsor Castle in 1891, or the order of seating at banquets and what was consumed, one is afforded a rare opportunity to examine the careful staging that lies behind the much-celebrated ``magic'' of royalty. The atoms of the mystique are revealed here, and if anything, they enhance rather than undercut the finished effect.

But amid all the paraphernalia, gorgeous as it is, it is the figure of Victoria herself who dominates the stage. There is, for instance, her account of first reading ``Jane Eyre'' on her train in 1880 (why did it take her more than 30 years to get around to it?): ``. . . a wonderful book, very peculiar in parts, but so powerfully and admirably written, such a fine tone in it, such fine religious feeling, and such beautiful writing.'' Or her description of Thomas Carlyle, encountered at a gathering of literary celebrities organized to meet her in 1869: ``a strange-looking eccentric old Scotchman, who holds forth, in a drawling melancholy voice, with a broad Scotch accent, upon Scotland and upon the utter degeneration of everything.'' One senses a tough-minded acumen not usually associated with the sentimental author of ``Leaves from our Highland Journal.''

But of course there is sentiment and sentimentality aplenty, much of it very moving, as when she writes, ``The 50th anniversary of my wedding, and I am already 29 years a widow.'' Or her poignant entry upon hearing of the death of her son Prince Alfred, written within six months of her own death: ``Oh, God! my poor darling Affie gone too! My third grown-up child, besides three very dear sons-in-law. It is hard at eighty-one!''

Aficionados of Victoria and of royalty in general should not miss this delightful book, and neophytes wishing to get the flavor of the Queen and her court would do well to begin the process with a book as accurate and evocative as this one.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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