2019 marks the bicentenary of Victoria and Albert’s births. There have already been books published, conferences as well as documentaries that attempts to shed new light or even (disappointingly) rehash the same old myths and out-dated information on the royal couple’s life and crucially that of Victoria’s life and reign.
After a hiatus in 2018, ITV’s popular drama Victoria made a return this year and this time is set between 1848 and 1851. By the time series 3 opens, Victoria and Albert already have five children (Victoria, Albert Edward, Alice, Alfred and Helena) and she will go on give birth to two more (Louise and Arthur). Also, Albert by this time has, not without some difficulty, also established himself as the power behind the throne. While I have not had the time to do my customary fortnightly recaps, here are some of the thoughts I assembled while watching the programme:
(For more detailed recaps, please visit the Armchair Anglophile)
- The royal children especially Vicky and Bertie – while the programme took care to show the (still growing) family, the main focal point was Vicky (Princess Royal) and Bertie (Prince of Wales) who would have been eight and seven in 1848. The characterisations of the two oldest children are spot on, with Vicky showing the precociousness that would mark her as Albert’s favourite child. Bertie on the other hand while aware of his destiny isn’t happy; he tells anyone who is listening that he doesn’t want to be king and that Vicky being the eldest should be the sovereign.Bertie’s tantrums about not wanting to be king are the least of his parents’ worries. While the bright Vicky doesn’t need pushing and cajoling with her lessons and her ability to absorb and retain knowledge, Bertie’s progress is slow and wanting compared to his sister. In desperation, Victoria and Albert consult a phrenologist George Coombe who studies Bertie’s head and the verdict isn’t good, as Coombe delivered his verdict: “The feeble quality of the brain will render the Prince highly excitable… intellectual organs are only moderately well developed. The result will be strong self-will, at times obstinacy.” While phrenology is now dismissed as a pseudo-science, Coombe’s verdict in some aspects would be eerily accurate.
- The Great Exhibition – series 3 concluded with the events leading to the Great Exhibition in 1851 and the final scene where Victoria, Albert and the rest of the family arrive at the Crystal Palace to officially open the exhibition was well done. It was obvious that the production designers did their research and studied contemporary accounts and illustrations in order to recreate that event.
- Mrs Skerrett – the way her character has been written was pure soap and series 3 was no different especially with the way she was written out. The real Mrs Skerrett actually never married and lived to a ripe old age; apart from being Victoria’s chief dresser she was also in charge of the junior ones and was the principal liaison between the Queen and milliners, dressmakers and jewellers. Crucially she also liaised with artists such as Edwin Landseer and William Powell Frith with regards to commissions for paintings. Still Nell Hudson’s portrayal of the kindly and competent dresser was for me well done and kudos to the writer for making the relationship between Skerrett and Victoria at least believable.
- Sophie Duchess of Monmouth – series 3 saw the introduction of a new Mistress of the Robes for Victoria in the person of Sophie Duchess of Monmouth (Lily Travers). I find the introduction of a fictional lady-in-waiting baffling considering that in real life, Victoria had several interesting women who attended to her: most notably Charlotte Countess Canning, who was married to George Earl Canning who was governor-general (and later first viceroy) of India. Charlotte kept up a correspondence with the Queen even after leaving royal service to join her husband in his Indian posting, and her letters provided Victoria with information about India from a woman’s perspective; which would have been absent in official documents sent by the government in India. The fictional Duchess of Monmouth’s background however is interesting as she’s revealed to be the daughter of a man who made his wealth in trade and that the Duke of Monmouth married her in order to save his crumbling estate and precarious finances, thus demonstrating an early example of the old landed aristocracy in alliance with the new industrial elite. The marriage is unsurprisingly unhappy and the duke always finds an excuse to belittle his wife for her inferior social background; something that the Queen is happy to overlook (again showing her lack of social as well as racial prejudice). Credit also to Daisy Goodwin for not writing Sophie as the stereotypical nouveau riche vulgarian and instead portray her as someone who is doing her best and is a devoted mother. In an interesting twist, part of the Monmouths’ storyline could be seen as a foreshadowing of the real life Mordaunts whose divorce would embroil the future Edward VII in scandal.
- The ropey timeline – while I acknowledge that certain events have to be condensed for dramatic purposes, the timeline leaves a lot to be desired. The cholera epidemic is one example, while this series is set between 1848 and 1851, the “Great Stink,” as the epidemic would be known, did not occur until 1858 and led to the pioneering work of Dr John Snow, who established the cholera was a water borne disease – not airborne as has been previously believed. Another is that of Sir Joseph Bazalgette whose design of a new sewage system for London would ensure that there would be no future repeats of the Great Stink of 1858.
- Princess Feodora – while the Duchess of Kent was MIA in series 3, her place was taken over by Victoria’s half-sister Princess Feodora of Hohenloe-Langenburg (Kate Fleetwood) who is depicted in the programme as arriving in Britain in the wake of the Revolution of 1848. While it’s nice to see more of Victoria’s family, my main objection is the way Feodora has been written and portrayed – the jealous sister who is a mainstay in fairy tales and soap operas. She causes mischief at court, attempts to drive a wedge between Victoria and Albert and is bitter about what she sees as Victoria’s good fortune. The Feodora we see in Victoria is the latest in a line of pantomime villains after Conroy and the Duke of Cumberland in the first two series. The real Princess Feodora (1807-1872) was no such person; despite the 11 year age gap between them she and Victoria were close all their lives and the fact that they were only half-siblings never occurred to them. Victoria was devastated when Feodora left in 1828 to marry an impoverished German prince Ernst of Hohenloe-Langenburg. The two sisters corresponded avidly and Feodora proved to be a source of advice and solace for Victoria especially after Albert’s death in 1861. Victoria meanwhile would help support Feodora’s children, the most notable being Prince Victor of Hohenloe-Langenburg (1833-1891) who settled in Britain as a naval officer and a noted sculptor.
- Lord Palmerston – in series 3 is played by Laurence Fox who is too young to portray the wily Foreign Secretary, and I believe this was a failed attempt to recapture the buzz that surrounded Rufus Sewell’s portrayal of Lord Melbourne in the first two series. Lighting never strikes twice; while Sewell is a good actor who could convince viewers of Lord Melbourne as a younger, romantic figure, it doesn’t quite work with Fox whose portrayal of Palmerston sometimes descends into parody. Still Fox does make a passable effort of depicting the foreign secretary as an oily politician who happily styles himself as a man of the people and a champion of oppressed peoples abroad seeking freedom and liberalism while being an absentee landlord in Ireland and opposing further reforms at home. The real Palmerston has been described as a “Conservative at home and a Liberal abroad” but his tenure as Home Secretary and Prime Minister where he introduced further reforms to the Factory Act as well as changes to existing penal laws demonstrated that he could be radical as well by the standards of the time. However it is for his time as Foreign Secretary that he is best remembered, he famously declared that Britain had no permanent allies or enemies, only permanent interests, and his foreign policy was consistent with that maxim. His willingness to challenge even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert earned him their distrust but for his role in defending Britain’s interests abroad he received the affection and support of most of the press and public who called him “Pam”.
Series 3 is pretty much consistent with what we’ve seen with Victoria – romance and soap opera mixed with history. Yet again there were also indifferent subplots that didn’t go anywhere and an upstairs-downstairs relationship which I think didn’t really add anything to the overall narrative. In the end, Victoria’s problem is that it’s not quite able to resolve what the drama wishes to focus on – history or romance. What we get is a muddled mix of both.
Having written previously about life at court under the Georgians and Jane Austen, Lucy Worsley has now set her sights on Queen Victoria. Published last year with the paperback version released this year to coincide with the bicentenary, the question now is does Worsley have anything new to say about Britain’s second longest reigning monarch?
I’ve always admired Worsley more as a writer than as a TV presenter and having enjoyed her different take on Jane Austen’s life through the homes she lived in, and she employs almost the same tactic with her biography of Queen Victoria. Rather than to go through the whole gamut of Victoria’s life, Worsley takes twenty four significant events in Victoria’s life and there’s none of the predictable ones such as the birth of her children, the Great Exhibition, the years following Albert’s death or her relationship with her various prime ministers. Instead Victoria’s story starts with the double wedding of the Dukes of Clarence and Kent in 1818, then there are encounters with leading personalities of the era such as Florence Nightingale and the Maharajah Duleep Singh as well as her visit to Benjamin Disraeli at his home Hughenden Manor among others.
While Worsley had access to major archives especially the Royal Archives at Windsor where Queen Victoria’s diaries and letters are kept, she has also drawn heavily on recent works on Victoria with at least one or two of rather dubious nature. For instance Julia Baird is described as a historian but she’s not, a quick Google search would tell Worsley that Baird is a journalist whose biography Victoria the Queen is (in my opinion) not a very good one and doesn’t really add anything new to our knowledge or understanding of Victoria.
The book is a good read but I have a few concerns. First I found her chapters on Duleep Singh and the Munshi (Abdul Karim) to be highly simplistic; while I acknowledge that India and the raj might not be Worsley’s forte and beyond the scope of her tome, the section on Duleep Singh was truncated (or bitin, as I would muse in Filipino) while that on the Munshi was mostly a basic rehash of “white British racist, Indian victim” narrative when in reality it was far more complicated than that. Secondly, we don’t really have an explanation about Sir John Conroy, why was he so controlling? Did it ever cross his mind that perhaps being a benevolent father figure rather than a bully to the young Victoria might have brought him the recognition that he so desired? These are never answered much less raised and I seriously doubt we’ll ever know the answer.
On the positive side, Worsley brings out well parallelisms between Victoria and her mother the Duchess of Kent – both women lonely, in need of male company and frightfully insecure. Just as the Duchess had Conroy as her support, Victoria during her reign leaned heavily on a succession of men either as father figures (in the person of Lord Melbourne), as Gods who could do no wrong (Albert) or as confidants (Disraeli and John Brown). While this seems to make out Victoria as a weak person, Worsley argues that in many ways Victoria underestimated herself.
No more is this more apparent during her marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. While this marriage has always been portrayed as one of domestic bliss and romance, in recent years, historians have attempted to reassess the couple’s relationship and unearth that it wasn’t all hearts and flowers. I’ve always long suspected and Worsley confirms that Victoria was always more in love with Albert than he with her. Despite their shared interests and Victoria’s obvious pride at Albert’s achievements, the marriage was also punctuated by blazing rows and a mass of seething resentments. All of these began early on when Albert chafed at not being allowed to share in Victoria’s duties and where he was not even allowed any say in the royal nursery. Victoria on the other hand resented the constant pregnancies and found motherhood especially when her children were babies distasteful.
One aspect of the marriage which Worsley brings up especially in the chapter on Osborne House was Albert’s desire for control and this Italianate house which he designed was his domain. If Victoria was ever aware of Albert’s controlling nature, she chose to overlook it and held him as the standard to which her children especially her sons should aspire. However, Albert was not always the superman his wife and history would look up to – during the Crimean War, Albert bombarded the government with numerous memorandums with suggestions as how to improve things which the government more or less ignored. Victoria roused herself to do what she can for the morale of the troops and encourage Florence Nightingale in her pioneering nursing work. She knitted comforts for the soldiers, wrote letters of condolence to the bereaved, inspected hospitals and gave her name to a medal that was to be awarded to all ranks for valour.
It was Victoria’s approach that worked and was much appreciated; her efforts during the Crimean War was one that her successors have continued to utilise ever since. It was a sign of Victoria’s “emotional intelligence” and to underscore that someone high up cared for the welfare of the ordinary soldier and person; not just as a matter of policy or popularity, but as a deep-felt and genuine emotional connection.
Victoria was a complex woman and while there are far more weightier tomes out there that delve into this monarch’s life in greater detail, even with these mere twenty-four events, Worsley has more or less succeeded in bringing this queen who gave her name to an era in all her contradictions in an accessible way.