by Sam Juliano
Queen Victoria’s reign of 63 years and 7 months is the longest in British history. The era that bears her name is remembered for Pax Brittanica, a time of peace, prosperity and confidence. The time was noted for industrial advancements and for the great literature that was written during the peak years of her power. Victoria is too-often regarded as a stodgy monarch with stiff upper lip and humorless personality. Yet Gloria Whelan and Nancy Carpenter takes a much lighter approach to how the queen maintained a far more disarming lifestyle away from the eyes of the public. In free-wheeling, whimsical verse Whelan sets up the mise en scene straight away:
Queen Victoria looked out to sea/It was blue, it was cool, it was nice as could be/The day was so hot; the sun so bright/Her petticoats itched and her corset was tight/She whispered a wish, it was only a whim/”How grand it would be to go for a swim.”
To accentuate the joyful, even irreverent demeanor of the queen’s fun-loving kids, who are undaunted by the stately behavior expected of the royals, Carpenter visualizes a state of domestic anarchy. Hence, the ink and watercolor art that is captured digitally always keeps a special eye for the humorous possibilities of each tapestry. After the Queen conveys her fancy her lady-in-waiting collapses, stating unabashedly: “It would be a disgrace to see more of the queen than her hands and her face.” The queen backs off, realizing that she’d have to wear all her petticoats, dresses and shoes if she were to to swim in the ocean, and that wouldn’t be very practical. Prince Albert (one recalls all the self-annointed geniuses in James Thurber’s Caldecott Medal winning Many Moons) decides to search for a way to allow Her Majesty to indulge in her aquatic passions “while keeping the populace from glimpsing your knees.” He enters the royal library, a real hotbed of familial interaction (one of Carpenter’s most delightful spreads shows Victoria in a pink dress fanning herself on a couch while one son plays chess with an attendant, another sits on a twirling globes, while a boy makes faces behind a telescope negotiated by his sister and another daughter engages with a sling shot. A younger child is busy with a quilt pen and a parchment on the floor. Albert suggests a devise that hurls heavy rocks in the air, but Victoria is afraid she might be the victim of target practice. Then a sudden revelation:
Just after midnight/Albert sprang from the bed/A brilliant idea had come into his head/”Wake up, dear Victoria, your worries are over/You can swim all the way from Osborne to Dover.”
And the subsequent celebration: They waltzed, they mazurkaed, they danced a polka or two/then collapsed on their bed with their nightcaps askew.
Then, with all the happy engagement of Jonathan Bean’s Building Our House, the entire brood are called in for some in house construction. The eccentric Albert, who recalls Theodore Roosevelt in Arsenic and Old Lace, as he points and barks out orders, oversees some frantic activity that includes four young ones storming in from the outside with a full tree that resembles a battering ram, while another transports stones in a wheelbarrow. Carpenter’s detailed documentation here is a hoot, and Whelan’s poetry is utterly charming:
Albert sawed lumber, he pounded some nails,/He ordered four wheels, he laid down some rails/He constructed a room with nary a frown/He fashioned a porch with steps to climb down./When all was completed, it was fit for a queen./”Victoria! I’ve made you a bathing machine!
The bathing machine is a clandestine structure that will maintain Her Majesty’s privacy, while allowing her to mingle with the creatures of the deep. Certainly it has nothing on the Nautilus, but as they say in the vernacular, it kills two birds with one stone! Victoria is ecstatic:
“You’re a genius dear Albert, I’m truly excited./We’ll all have the workmen feted and knighted”/She entered the bathing machine by the door./Off came her corset, ten petticoats, and more. And then, in a series of divine aquatic immersion, visualized in irreverent abandon:
Dog paddle, butterfly, sidestroke, and crawl,/the buoyant Victoria attempted them all./She plunged and she pitched, she rolled and she wallowed,/with water all around her, some of it swallowed. Two sailors on a frigate were having a tiff, one said a flatboat, one said a skiff/”It might be a schooner that has hoisted a sail./If it gets closer, we’ll give it a hail.”/”It’s taking the shape of a soup tureen./Belay and avast, I believe it’s our queen!”
In the book’s illustration centerpiece Victoria is captured bubbling deep in the sea, with fishes and seaweed up to her knee. Fully immersed in her in her watery dance, nothing will dissuade her, including someone from France. (To be sure, I have nothing on Gloria Whelen!) Carpenter’s tour de force underwater panel -encored on the cover with the addition of the crown) has a cinematic feel.
Whelan’s final stanza is splendid: Victoria, unaware of her subject’s surprise, carried on with her watery exercise./Tuna and turtles and salmon and flounder/tickled her toes and swam all around her./With a splash and a skitter and a final rinse,/the grateful Victoria returned to her prince.
In an author’s afterward, Whelen revealed that the original bathing machine can be seen at the Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight, where Victoria opted to spend much of her time. She thought Buckingham Palace too stuffy for her tastes. Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine is warm, buoyant and a winning diversion from the more austere biographies. The art is represents some of Carpenter’s finest work, and by any barometer of measurement should be in the thick of the Caldecott equation.
Note: This is the forty-seventh entry in the 2014 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include at least 40 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on February 2nd, hence the reviews will continue to the end of January.