Queen Victoria's Bathing Machine is a new, non-fiction picture book by Gloria Whelan, superbly illustrated Nancy Carpenter. Whelan, who is now in her 90s, is the author of several books for young readers, many of which are historical fiction that take place all over the world. While I have only read a handful of her books, I have loved and been moved by each and every one. You can read my reviews here and scroll to the bottom of the review to see more of her titles. Queen Victoria's Bathing Machine is the first picture book by Whelan that I have read and it works as playful, rhyming story as well as a glimpse into an interesting period of English history. I'm not sure which part of the book I liked more - Whelan's rhyming text or her Author's Note at the end of the book. Both are filled with fascinating information.
When Queen Victoria's Bathing Machine we find the Queen gazing out at the cool, blue sea, uncomfortable in the many layers of clothing it was customary to wear at the time, whispering to herself, "How grand it would be to go for a swim." This wish causes her lady-in-waiting to collapse at the impropriety of it all, saying that it would "be a disgrace/ to see more of the queen than her hands and her face./ How would she get from the beach to the water/ without showing more of herself than she ought to?"
Hopefully this scene gives young readers who know nothing or little about the Victorian era an idea of the strict social customs of the time, especially for the queen. A loving and inventive husband, Prince Albert tells the queen that he will find a way to transport her to the water without being seen so that she can "dabble and splatter and swim like a fish." Being learned and bright, Albert is full of ideas, the first of which is a catapult that will send the Victoria into the sea. Telling her of this idea he says one of my favorite lines in the book, "Victoria, dear, it might be romantic/ to be launched from your window into the Atlantic./ Moving so quickly you would never show/ as much as a peek of your royal toe."
Victoria reminds Albert that the British do love to hunt and she would probably be shot out of the air in an instant. Happily, Prince Albert settles on the design for the bathing house and he, the queen and their children (who are seen boisterously playing in the background of every scene) begin to build a changing room on wheels with privacy curtains that would allow Victoria to be rolled to the edge of the water and slip into the water without being seen. In Queen Victoria's Bathing Machine the queen has a grand old time swimming about and is even spotted by sailors offshore who mistake her for a soup tureen before realizing that it is their queen.
Whelan's Author's Note adds in some wonderful details, like the fact that Victoria preferred the informal residences of Balmoral Castle and Osborne Home on the Isle of Wight (which Prince Albert designed) to the stuffy Buckingham Palace. She adored her nine children and especially liked sketching and painting them along with pressing flower, which she did when away from the Palace. Osborne House is on the Isle of Wight, which is where Prince Albert, who believed that bathing in the ocean was healthy, had this machine installed. After the queen's death, it was used as a chicken coop, but has since been restored and is on view at Osborne Beach. Queen Victoria was an avid diarist from an early age and Queen Elizabeth II has had all 43,000 pages of her journals placed online. Whelan also includes a brief list of books and websites for further reading.
Gloria Whelan's Other Books:
Winner of the National Book Award in 2000, Homeless Bird
The Impossible Journey and the sequel, Burying the Sun
Small Acts of Courage and the sequel, All My Noble Dreams and then What Happens
Source: Review Copy