I tend to think of Princess Helena as the forgotten child of Victoria. Both her older and younger sisters had higher public profiles because of their husbands (Vicky and Alice) or because of what they did (Louise, as we shall see, was a talented artist) or who they were (Beatrice was the Queen’s famous “Baby”). But poor Helena just seems to get lost in the crowd.
She was born on May 25, 1846, both the middle child and middle daughter among Queen Victoria’s offspring. She was christened Helena Augusta Victoria, but quickly came to be called ‘Lenchen’, a German diminutive form of her name, by her father, German Prince Albert. As the middle child, she was pretty much fated to a not very exciting life; her older sisters would be the only ones who lived outside of England on marrying…and for a royal princess in the mid-19th century, marriage was the only career option. Poor Lenchen grew into a not very prepossessing child, not as clever or artistically talented or pretty as some of her other sisters. She seems to have been, basically, a matter-of-fact, sturdy child who enjoyed the outdoors and animals. Her physical sturdiness (she would always be chunky throughout her life) belied something of an inner fragility, which became apparent on Prince Albert’s death in 1861, when she was fifteen. Princesses Alice and Louise became Victoria’s chief supporters, because Lenchen could not remain long with her mother without being overcome by Victoria’s grief and bursting into tears. After her older sister Alice married and moved to Darmstadt, though, it fell to Lenchen to be her mother’s assistant. Victoria had already decided that her youngest daughter, Beatrice, would eventually be her companion in old age, and started looking for a husband for a daughter who she considered “…most useful and active and clever and amiable” but who “does not improve in looks and has great difficulty with her figure and her want of calm, quiet, graceful manners.” Ouch!
A husband was eventually found for her in the form of Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg, an impecunious former solder, fifteen years Lenchen’s senior, who was in no danger of inheriting any position and who could therefore live in England and basically be “Mr. Lenchen”—while Lenchen herself could remain at her mother’s call. Despite this rather unprepossessing start the marriage of Prince and Princess Christian (as she was titled) seems to have been a relatively happy one, lasting 51 years until Christian’s death in 1917, and produced six children (two of whom died in infancy).
In addition to serving as an assistant to her mother, Lenchen took an interest in the infant profession of nursing and was first president of the Royal British Nurses’ Association. She also had an interest in fine needlework and was president of the Royal School of Needlework. Other interests included translation of German works into English (which she did on a semi-professional basis) and women’s rights (which she supported). Though some ill-health seems to have plagued her, whether physical or psychological, she remained a busy, if at times bossy, supporter of several organizations up until her death in 1923…on the whole, not a bad way for a 19th century princess to spend her days.