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Authors: Carolly Erickson

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To the beat of muffled drums the Grand Duchess of Hesse’s funeral procession made its slow way along the narrow, cobblestoned streets of Darmstadt to the chapel in the Old Palace. There
were many mourners, each carrying a lighted torch. Alicky, her brother and sisters did not follow the coffin but were allowed to watch from a window as the mourners assembled in the courtyard
below. Later, the children were told how hundreds of people came to see their mother in the
chapel, taking off their hats as a sign of respect and leaving flowers and
wreaths. The tributes were eloquent, the tears heartfelt.

A letter arrived from Windsor Castle.

‘Poor Dear Children,’ Queen Victoria wrote, ‘you have had the most terrible blow which can befall children – you have lost your precious, dear, devoted Mother who loved
you – and devoted her life to you and your dear Papa. That horrid disease which carried off sweet little May and from which you and the others recovered has taken her away from you and poor
old Grandmama, who with your other kind Grandmama will try to be a mother to you.’

The queen sent particular wishes to ‘poor dear Ernie’, who was bound to suffer acutely since he was so close to Alice. ‘God’s will be done,’ she concluded.
‘May He support and help you all. From your devoted and most unhappy Grandmama, VRI [Victoria Regina Imperatrix, Victoria Queen Empress].’

Alicky and her sisters were measured for mourning clothes, and wore identical black dresses, stockings and shoes. Their fourteen-year-old sister Elizabeth, or Ella, who had been spared sickness
and who had spent the last month away from the palace, now rejoined the family, and together the five children and their father spent a mournful Christmas.

Snow drifted down over the narrow streets of Darmstadt, settling on the gabled roofs and piling in deep drifts in the palace park. Orchie let the children play in the snow, bundled warmly
against the cold, their ears covered with fur hats and their hands encased in mittens. As the days passed, though they continued to grieve, there were hours in which their sorrow lifted, and they
remembered how to skate and build snow forts and ride their sleds down the gentle slopes of the hills.

One day in January Alicky, Irene and Ernie were playing in the garden, and Alicky began to chase the two older children, who ran across an area where seedlings were growing under glass. Ernie
and Irene knew how to avoid the glass, but Alicky, too young to be cautious, crashed through it. Blood began to pour from her lacerated legs, and she screamed in pain and fear.

Later, bandaged and soothed by Orchie, Alicky ceased to sob, but her injured legs healed slowly, and she could not run without limping. Over the following weeks she
continued to cry every night for her mother, and to say her prayers for her. All in all it was a season of scars, emotional and physical, and it would be a long time before the deepest of them
would begin to heal.


n the Europe of the late 1870s, the Grand Duchy of Hesse was a very minor principality, and the death of its grand duchess a very minor event.

The leading power of the age was Britain, and Alicky’s grandmother Queen Victoria was by any reckoning the most powerful monarch in the world. Britain’s navy dominated the seas,
Britain’s goods – many of them stamped with the Queen’s inimitable image – flooded the world. Britain’s ideals of high-minded probity in government, gentlemanly honour
and social betterment (ideals often honoured in the breach) were much admired, as were such humbler products of British industry as Norfolk jackets and Sheffield pottery, Pears soap and
Cadbury’s chocolate.

But Britain’s dominion was being challenged by the rising power of Prussia. For the better part of two decades the Prussian state had been consolidating its influence among the various
German-speaking states and principalities. Prussia’s large, efficient armies had proven effective against Austria and France, Prussian manufacturing had mushroomed rapidly until, by the late
1870s, the ruler of Prussia, William I, had become German Emperor and his chancellor Bismarck was declaring, much to the annoyance of Queen Victoria, that England had ‘ceased to be a
political power’.

Compared to the might of Britain and Germany, Hesse was a virtually powerless entity with a perennially depleted treasury. But the ruling family had important dynastic ties. Not only had the
late Grand Duchess Alice been Queen Victoria’s daughter, but Alice’s sister Victoria – always called Vicky in the family – was married to
Prince Frederick (‘Fritz’) who would one day inherit the German imperial throne. Alice’s brother Edward (‘Bertie’) was heir apparent to the throne of Britain. Another
brother, Alfred (‘Affie’), had married into the Russian imperial family. Indeed the five Hesse children were related to virtually every royal house in Europe, and could be counted on,
in their turn, to make dynastically advantageous marriages as soon as they reached marriageable age.

Always the matchmaker, Queen Victoria had had her eye on Alice’s daughters as prospective brides almost since birth, and had singled out Ella (‘a wonderfully pretty girl’) and
Alicky (‘a most lovely child’) as likely candidates for marrying well. When in January of 1879, a month after Alice’s death, Louis brought his son and daughters to England, the
queen was prepared not only to console them for the loss of their mother but to inspect them to make certain they were growing up to be well-mannered, well-spoken and obedient.

Victoria was concerned that the children’s father, kindly but passive, would not show sufficient rigour in attending to their futures. She had always been fond of Louis, ever since she had
brought him to England, a handsome boy in a smart uniform, to meet Alice in the hope that the two would marry. But she had never been blind to his limitations, and she felt certain that without
Alice to look after him he might fall under questionable influences. Louis had never been one to deny himself; as a lonely widower he could, she feared, be enticed into improper liaisons which
would be harmful for the children.

To prevent this, Victoria had a plan. Her youngest daughter Beatrice, twenty-one and single, would make a capable stepmother; Louis had known her since she was a child of three and would surely
feel comfortable with her. It might not be a love match, but then, what could Louis expect at his age? In her mind’s eye Victoria could see a satisfying future. A quiet wedding, with Beatrice
slipping easily into the place Alice had vacated. Long visits to England each year by the entire family. A future Victoria could supervise and control. And a marriage for unattractive Beatrice,
instead of the spinsterhood that presently seemed to be her fate.

In mid-January of 1879 the Hesse children made the journey from Darmstadt to Flushing, where their Uncle Bertie met them and took them aboard the royal yacht. They made
the crossing to Cowes, stayed for a time at the seaside mansion of Osborne, then travelled to Windsor where the queen awaited them.

The draughty corridors of Windsor Castle were full of noise and bustle that January, for the wedding of the queen’s son Arthur was only weeks away and the many members of Victoria’s
large family were gathering to attend it. Vicky and Fritz and their children arrived from Berlin, Bertie and his family came from Sandringham, and Victoria’s daughter Helena and her husband
and children who lived on the Windsor grounds joined the others for meals and excursions. In addition, relatives of Arthur’s bride, Princess Louise of Prussia, arrived – in all, at
least three dozen visitors, plus their entourages of servants.

Despite Arthur’s insistence that his sister Alice’s death had ‘thrown a sad gloom’ over his approaching marriage, the wedding promised to be a magnificent affair,
celebrated with a degree of pomp not seen at the old castle since the Prince Consort died. Arthur was Victoria’s favourite son; of her other three, Bertie was an ageing roué, Alfred a
stodgy nonentity who had had the audacity to marry the daughter of the Russian emperor (‘The murder is out!’ the queen exclaimed when she heard of his engagement), and young Leopold,
intellectual and engaging, was afflicted with the bleeding disease which earned him the epithet ‘child of anxiety’. For Arthur, her ‘good’ son, the queen would have a grand
celebration, and would, for the first time since the start of her widowhood, add a long white train to her black gown, to be held up by train-bearers.

To six-year-old Alicky and her sisters, brought up on plain food and taught to sew and cook and wait on themselves, entering the opulent precincts of Windsor Castle was akin to entering
fairyland. The vast, high-ceilinged halls and spacious salons, the endless corridors decorated with imposing art works, trophies from colonial wars, and regimental insignia overawed them and all
but forced on them an awareness of their Hanoverian roots. When all the relatives
gathered at the long dining table laid with gleaming silver, polished candelabra and banks
of hothouse flowers, and with the queen, her ample chest adorned with flashing diamonds and sapphires, presiding at its head, the sense of dynastic force was strong indeed.

To little Alicky, however, who disliked crowds and always sought isolation and quiet, the bustle of Windsor was uncongenial. There were too many faces, too much stimulation. She much preferred
spending time alone with her cousin Marie-Louise, Helena’s daughter, or with Ernie, or with her benevolent sister Ella, talking and playing games. The animals on the Windsor grounds attracted
her, and as the weather was mild that winter she was able to go walking and riding in a pony cart through the extensive park – though she could not walk far, for her injured legs were weak
and tired easily.

What little time she spent on her own with her royal grandmother, ‘Gangan’, was agreeable, for when not presiding over a family occasion or enforcing family discipline Gangan could
be very loving and comforting. Alicky was one of Gangan’s favourites among her twenty-seven grandchildren; the little girl’s cheerful if somewhat reserved nature, her good manners and
the beauty of her delicate features were all pleasing. To Gangan Alicky was a ‘dear little thing’, to be hugged and joked with, fed on biscuits and chocolate sponge cake. To be sure,
the queen subjected Alicky, as she did all her grandchildren, to considerable scrutiny. She had to be certain that the child’s education and character formation were progressing
satisfactorily. But once Alicky passed those tests, she was rewarded with approval and affection, and she had the pleasure of basking in Gangan’s warm smile and hearing her rich,
deep-throated laugh.

Setting aside a time for solemnity amid all the family activity, the queen took her grandchildren and their father to see the memorial she had commissioned for their mother, then in the process
of being carved. It was a tall granite cross, plain and austere, with the inscription ‘To the dear memory of Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, Princess of Great Britain and Ireland, . . . by her
sorrowing mother Queen Victoria.’ No doubt she took them to visit Albert’s tomb as well, for she visited it herself often and insisted that all her
grandchildren, most of whom had never known their grandfather, pay their respects to his cherished memory.

The weeks went by, and the day of the wedding came. Arthur and Louise were joined together in St George’s Chapel, fêted in the dining hall, and sent off in a carriage with
congratulations and trunkloads of gifts. The wedding had been splendid, though the ever-critical queen had detected minor flaws – the bride’s rotted teeth and ‘ugly’ nose,
her father’s vulgarity, the embarrassing estrangement between her parents – and Victoria’s temper seemed to worsen after she discovered that the other wedding she had hoped to
arrange, that between Grand Duke Louis and her daughter Beatrice, was destined never to take place. Under British law, it was prohibited for a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister.

In mid-March the visitors to Windsor began to disperse. Queen Victoria sent her Hesse grandchildren back to Darmstadt, escorted by their Uncle Leopold, and promised to send their Aunt Helena to
Hesse to visit them later in the year. She had obtained from Louis a guarantee that the children would return to England for their summer holiday. In the interim she had given instructions to their
English governess, Margaret Jackson, to send her frequent written accounts of their activities, and to notify her at once of any untoward behaviour.

By the next time there was a large family gathering, in the spring of 1884, Alicky was nearly twelve years old and her place within the large circle of her extended family was much better
defined. In an era in which women were valued primarily for their looks, little Alicky was attracting much admiration. She was slender and tall for her age, with thick reddish-blonde hair, a smooth
fine complexion and grey-blue eyes whose direct, intelligent gaze was both intriguing and daunting. By any measure, she was a beautiful child, and it was clear that she would soon become a
beautiful young woman. Most observers thought that her sister Ella, whom she closely resembled, had a lovelier face, but both sisters were exceptional, eclipsing their numerous cousins, and
Alicky’s full loveliness had yet to unfold. Where Ella was cheerful and outgoing, Alicky was inward-turned, with a wistfulness that added to her appeal.

BOOK: Alexandra
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