Sunday, February 27, 2011

March 4, 1869 --- A Literary Tea

Shortly after the publication of the Queen's Balmoral memoir Leaves From the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, she takes five o'clock "pink tea" with the literary intelligentsia. The setting is the Deanery at Westminster Abbey.  Dean Henry Stanley and his wife, Lady Augusta are dear friends of HRH. 

For the Queen, who could hardly be described as an intellectual and whose tastes in reading were decidedly middle-brow, this is entirely new territory. In her journal, she concedes, "It was, at first, very shy work speaking to them." She notes meeting Robert Browning ("a very agreeable man") and, less successfully, Thomas Carlyle ("a strange looking eccentric old Scotchman.") The 74-year old Carlyle insists upon sitting in the Royal presence, citing his age and infirmity; the Queen, unruffled, asks all to take a seat. A third guest is the eminent Sir Charles Lyell, whose three-volume Principles of Geology was not likely to be on the Queen's reading table.

Browning recalls, "We took tea together and pretended to converse." At one point, the Queen and Carlyle cross swords on the question of poverty in London; the "Chelsea sage" insists that there is "very little unavoidable and involuntary" destitution, which Victoria "unhappily" denies, claiming there is "widespread evidence of poverty, produced by misfortune." Carlyle writes to his brother, "Sacred Majesty was very good; thing altogether decidedly insignificant, ditto tiresome."

There is one embarrassing moment as Victoria asks Browning if he had written anything recently, apparently unaware that he had just published his epic poem, The Ring and The Book. The gaffe notwithstanding, Browning leaves impressed, recalling the Queen's parting handshake, he writes, "I have seen, felt and through white gloves, handled a true affectionateness not unmingled with awe." Carlyle is not so romantic, noting how "Little Queen Victory... sailed out as if moving on skates, and bending her head towards us with a smile."

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