A film about Queen Victoria skips over a tragic event that made headlines at the time
THE FILM The Young Victoria opens across Ireland on Friday next. Starring Emily Blunt, it is a visually beautiful portrayal of the early years of Queen Victoria's reign and her romance and marriage to Prince Albert. What the film doesn't highlight is a scandal that rocked court and government and caused Victoria's popularity to plummet. It involved sex, high politics, personal tragedy and a terrible injustice to an innocent woman.
In 1834, three years before Victoria became Queen, Lady Flora Hastings, aged 28, the unmarried daughter of the First Marquis of Hastings, was appointed lady-in-waiting to Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent. In the film Lady Flora is a silent lady-in-waiting played by Genevieve O’Reilly.
She entered a tense and scheming household, where the 15-year-old Victoria endured a lonely, claustrophobic childhood. The princess was much closer to her governess, Baroness Lehzen, than she was to her manipulative, politically ambitious mother, and these two women despised each other.
Victoria hated the Comptroller of the Duchess’s household, Sir John Conroy, whom she called a “monster” and “devil incarnate”, and who, it was alleged, was her mother’s lover. He in turn, detested Lehzen. Into this circle of loathing came Flora Hastings, whose role was to be Victoria’s companion, a constant presence to limit confidences between princess and governess.
In January 1839, when Victoria had been Queen for just 18 months, Flora travelled back to London from her family home in Scotland, accompanied by Sir John Conroy. She had been bilious for some weeks, in pain, with a swelling of the stomach.
On her arrival in London on January 10th, she consulted the court physician to Victoria and the Duchess of Kent, Sir James Clark. He prescribed medicines of rhubarb and camphor, which had no effect. However, as Flora wrote to her uncle, Hamilton Fitzgerald, “by dint of walking and porter I gained a little strength; and as I did so, the swelling subsided to a very remarkable degree.”
But the “swelling” had been noticed by the Queen’s ladies. On February 2nd, Victoria recorded in her journal how “exceedingly suspicious” Flora’s figure looked, and that she and Lehzen had no doubt that she was “. . . with child! Clark cannot deny the suspicion.”
According to Victoria, the father of this imagined child was the hated Conroy.
Victoria’s early court was a febrile, factionalised place, and Flora Hastings was trapped somewhere in the middle. An accomplished linguist and poet, Flora also possessed a sharp wit, with Lehzen at times the target – but then, she was the Duchess’s lady-in-waiting.
Portraits of her show an attractive, slender girl. Yet Lord Melbourne, who was prime minister at the time of Victoria’s accession to the throne, called her the ugliest woman he had ever seen, and to Victoria she was “that nasty woman”. In addition, Queen and court ardently supported the Whig government, to the extent, wrote a contemporary observer, “that a Conservative cat was not permitted to mew in the precincts of the Palace”. The Hastings family were Tories.
TWO WEEKS AFTER first attending to Flora, Clark informed her that because of her swollen abdomen, the Queen’s ladies were convinced that she must be “privately married, or at least ought to be so”, and exhorted her to confess.
On Flora’s emphatic denial, Clark heatedly told her that the only way the ladies would be satisfied of her innocence was to submit to a medical examination, a suggestion that Flora’s horrified mother called “this most revolting proposal”. Unless and until that took place, the Queen banned her from court.
Flora had no option. Two doctors were involved, Sir James Clark and the Hastings’ family doctor, Sir Charles Clarke. One of Victoria’s ladies, Lady Portman, whom Flora called “my accuser”, was also present, and Flora’s Swiss maid, who was in tears throughout the proceedings. After the examination, the doctors signed a certificate which stated, “there are no grounds for believing pregnancy does exist, or ever has existed”. The Duchess dismissed Clark immediately.
Two days later, on February 19th, Flora wrote to her brother, the Marquis of Hastings, informing him that “her honour had been most basely assailed”. Although ill with influenza, Hastings rode straight from his estate in Leicestershire to London and demanded from Melbourne an audience with the Queen. He received from her assurances that Flora would be treated with “honour and kindness”, and that she would once more be welcome at court, but nothing more.
The Hastings family wanted a public apology. They also wanted the originator of the gossip to be named and for Sir James Clark to be dismissed as the Queen’s physician. None of that was forthcoming. Flora’s brother was told that if he raised the subject in the House of Lords, it would be silenced as an attack on the throne. As for legal proceedings, they were advised there were no grounds. That left the family with one last resort: to appeal to the public. Flora wrote a detailed and moving account to her uncle Hamilton Fitzgerald, and ended: “Goodbye, my dear uncle. I blush to send you so revolting a tale, but I wished you to know the truth, the whole truth – and you are welcome to tell it right and left.”
And he did. Whether Flora meant him to go further, we can’t know, but he also sent her letter to the Examiner, which published it in full. It released an explosion of newsprint, with the highly partisan newspapers exploiting both Flora’s personal tragedy and the damage to the Queen. It became Whig (for the Queen) against Tory (for Flora). It was even alleged that Victoria had been responsible for the calumny. The Queen was booed when out riding, hissed at Ascot and mocked with cries of “Mrs Melbourne”.
In April, Flora’s mother, the Marchioness Dowager of Hastings, took the extraordinary step of openly sending her acrimonious correspondence with Melbourne to the Morning Post. Outraged, Victoria fulminated against “that wicked foolish old woman”, and wrote in her journal that she would “have wished to have hanged the editor and the whole Hastings family for their infamy”.
Flora, meanwhile, unable to leave court, had no chance to rest and recover. She began to lose her hair and she became dreadfully thin. By June she was so ill she could no longer leave her room.
The Queen saw her a few days before her death, and wrote in her journal that Flora looked “as thin as anybody can be who is still alive, literally a skeleton . . . I said to her, I hoped to see her again when she was better, upon which she grasped my hand as if to say ‘I shall not see you again.’”
FLORA DIED AT TWO O’CLOCK in the morning on July 5th 1839. So fierce were the passions in this affair that Flora herself, in her last days, insisted on a post mortem, and for its results to be published in every detail, to demonstrate – as indeed it did – her innocence to the world.
In frustration, her brother published a tract containing all the papers in the affair. It ran to an astonishing seven editions in six months.
It is hard to think of a greater disgrace that could be levelled then at an unmarried aristocratic woman and her family. The truth emerged with the post mortem which showed that Flora was suffering from a liver disease.
In her long reign, Victoria noted just four events that haunted her with nightmares. One was the death of Albert, but so too did the death of Lady Flora Hastings.
The Young VIctoria opens Friday