“The Four Graces. Queen Victoria’s Hessian Granddaughters,” by Ilana D. Miller. (Eurohistory.com/Kensington House Books). 256 pages, 80 illustrations, 4 family trees.
Victoria, Ella, Irene and Alix were the daughters of Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse-Darmstadt and Princess Alice, Queen Victoria’s second daughter. They grew up in the provincial backwater of Darmstadt but each evolved in a very different way. Victoria was a tomboy, Ella was ladylike, Irene diffident and shy, while Alix later became withdrawn.
The heroine of the story is Victoria, who by the age of 15 had lost a brother, a sister and her mother. Her childhood ended after Princess Alice’s tragic death in 1878 when she took responsibility for the family. She was a liberal to whom rank meant little. When Prince Louis of Battenberg, an officer in the British Royal Navy, proposed she loved the fact that he was “only” a Serene Highness. He rose to the rank of First Sea Lord but was forced to resign on the outbreak of war in 1914. In 1917, when he was forced to give up his German name and title, Victoria gave up her Hesse titles, saying “what is good enough for my husband is good enough for me.” Victoria was a progressive. She became the first princess to fly, loved the telephone but hated the radio because she couldn’t talk back to it!
Ella and Alix both took Russian husbands, Grand Duke Sergei and Nicholas II respectively. Irene went against her grandmother and the establishment for the only time in her life by marrying her cousin Prince Henry of Prussia. She then took on the thankless task of trying to rationalize the Kaiser’s ill-treatment of his mother’s family to Queen Victoria.
Tragedy runs like a thread through this book. Irene and Alix both gave birth to haemophiliac sons and steered their immediate family on a course of self-determination and isolation from “Prussian ways”, in Alix’s case with tragic consequences. Victoria was the stalwart of the family and the go-between in difficult circumstances, such as the divorce of her brother Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig and his wife Victoria Melita. As time wore on she also had concerns about Alix’s insularity and self-deception. “How to handle Alix” became a major issue. Of all the sisters, she remained closest to Ella. After the Russian revolution there are some fascinating accounts of the news Victoria was hearing about the fate of various members of the family, especially Ella. It shows just how confused the whole situation was, with rumours about Alix and Ella’s fates flying around. Afterwards Victoria blamed George V and various politicians for failing to save her sisters and she moved heaven and earth to ensure that Ella’s body was transported to Jerusalem for burial in the church that Sergei and Ella had dedicated in 1888.
In the aftermath of war Victoria’s relationship with her only surviving sister Irene was never quite the same and they met only infrequently. She remained extremely close to Ernie and his family but in 1937 tragedy struck again when a month after the Grand Duke’s death most of his family were killed in a plane crash.
When war came again Victoria’s family were once more on opposite sides. Afterwards she could not meet her only surviving sibling Irene, who was not free to travel. Although they kept in touch sporadically, two wars had estranged them forever. Instead, Victoria mothered her young grandson Prince Philip of Greece, becoming the matriarch of the Mountbatten family and living long enough to see him marry the future Queen Elizabeth II and father two of his children.
This is a meticulously researched work written with great perception. Both the Duke of Edinburgh and Lady Mountbatten have given assistance and one of the most striking things is the amazing amount of archive material the author has used, instead of just relying on published sources. I must also mention the illustrations, which come from the Eurohistory Archive and are absolutely wonderful.
This is a beautifully produced book and a riveting account of a family who achieved greatness in the face of tragedy. Highly recommended.