TV Review: Victoria Christmas Special (ITV) – Comfort and Joy

Bloggers’ note: We apologise for the delay of this review. This is what you get when being out of the country when the special is aired and afterwards real life gets in the way

 

Titled “Comfort and Joy”, there’s not much of one or the other during the programme’s two hour run. Albert is busy recreating what in his mind was the perfect family Christmas (until Ernst tells him otherwise) while Victoria is keen to forget Christmases past and isn’t amused when Albert invites her mother to the festivities without consulting her. Christmas also brings two unwelcome visitors – King Leopold who is still plotting to marry off Ernst, this time to Princess Gertrude of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (Nina Pavlovic), and the Duke of Cumberland (now King of Hanover) demanding the return of a suite of jewels belonging to his mother Queen Charlotte that he claims was left to him.

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Apart from Albert’s obsession that the celebrations should be pitch perfect, the other main story line of this special is Victoria receiving an unusual present from King Gezo of Dahomey (Derek Ezenagu), in the form of a girl rescued by Captain Forbes (Ben Lamb) and christened Sarah (Zaris-Angel Hator). He recounts to the Queen and the court how she came to be a slave – captured with the rest of her family during a tribal war, she was earmarked for human sacrifice while her parents and siblings were all slaughtered. Captain Forbes persuades King Gezo to hand the girl over to the “Great White Queen” and thus Sarah’s life is spared.

Upon meeting Sarah, Victoria recognises right away that the girl is of royal blood and is impressed by the Captain’s reports of how Sarah is a quick learner and has blossomed under the care of his wife (Catherine Steadman). Despite being repulsed at the idea that the girl is given to her as a gift, the Queen invites Sarah to stay with her and the rest of the family at Buckingham Palace. Albert isn’t too sure about this but Victoria over-rules his misgivings: especially as he’s invited her mother for the festivities without telling her.

The rest of the special consists of little storylines that tie up those from series 2 – Harriet finally learns of Ernst’s syphilis, and Lord Alfred, who is still in mourning for Drummond is touched by maid of honour Wilhelmina’s attempts to comfort him and finally proposes marriage to her. Downstairs, Mrs Skerrett has come into an unexpected windfall from a distant relative and the inheritance will be more than enough for her and Francatelli (who has also proposed marriage to her) to set up home and the bed and breakfast business that they have dreamed of.

While this special does tie up a few storylines from series 2 and gives us a preview of what to expect for a series 3, the narrative over all felt a tad disjointed; the two main storylines – Albert’s zeal with his preparations for Christmas and desperation to believe that Christmas was the one bright spark in an otherwise unhappy family life as well as Victoria’s wish to forget her unhappy childhood and finding a kindred spirit in Sarah do seem to complement one another. But the other storylines particularly downstairs were simply fillers and while one might care for Ernst and root for his happiness, it’s hard to feel the same with the others – Penge’s little storyline as well as Skerrett and Francatelli’s feels forced and crowbarred into the narrative.

Hovering in the background is the of course the history. Although it’s now established that the first Christmas trees were brought into Britain by Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III in the 18th century, it is still generally assumed that it was Prince Albert who was the first to introduce them into this country. However Prince Albert does deserve credit for popularising Christmas trees as following illustrations and accounts of the royal family’s Christmas celebrations, the idea of having a tree inside the house decorated with baubles and lights eventually supplanted the old sprigs of holly, yew and mistletoe that were a staple of Christmases past.

Queen-Victoria-and-Prince-Albert-xmas-tree-jpg   VictorianChristmasTree1851

The Duke of Cumberland’s claim to the jewels on the other hand was not resolved in the simple way that the special would lead us to believe. Victoria held on to the jewels until 1858 on the grounds that they belonged to the British crown, while her uncle claimed that Queen Charlotte left them to a male heir – which after the death of King William IV meant him. A settlement was finally reached with the Duke’s son George where the jewels were handed over to him and Victoria began a new collection which she designated as Crown property to avoid a repeat of the fiasco over Queen Charlotte’s pieces.

Apart from Albert’s role in popularising how we now celebrate the festive season, this Christmas special also explores the issue of slavery. Although the slave trade was outlawed in 1807 and slavery itself was abolished in the 1830s in Britain and its empire, it was still widespread in other parts of the world and the Royal Navy was deployed in stamping out the practice and freeing slaves. Sarah herself was none other than Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880): her maiden surname coming from Captain Forbes himself and his flagship HMS Bonetta. After her rescue, the real Sarah was indeed presented to Queen Victoria who agreed to serve as her godmother and pay for her upbringing and education. Sarah and the Queen did enjoy a close relationship and the former was frequently a guest at the various royal residences and played with the royal children. Upon her marriage to a businessman James Pinso Davies, they had three children, and the oldest Victoria Matilda was named after the Queen and as she did with Victoria’s mother the monarch was honoured to act as the girl’s godmother. In the special there are touching scenes between Victoria and Sarah and sadness is palpable as the Queen grants Sarah’s request that she would like to return to live with the Forbes family. Yet again as we have seen in series 2 and in real life, this story line depicts Victoria’s lack of racial prejudice and what were for the time very enlightened attitudes. However while the relationship between Victoria and Sarah is moving, the parallel storyline of Skerrett’s inheritance which turns out to be 20 slaves (she learns that the uncle she has never met was a slave trader) doesn’t ring true at all and feels very disjointed from the main narrative. I would have preferred to have seen more of Sarah’s personality and interacting with Victoria and her children all of which are documented in the accounts of Captain Forbes and the Queen herself.

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sarah forbes bonetta

 

This Christmas special is a feast for the eyes as Buckingham Palace and its gardens are transformed into a winter wonderland and we are treated to a panorama of the way the royal family celebrated Christmas, which would have a considerable influence on how we observe the festive season to this very day. It also taps into the universal and perhaps timeless desire to relieve and create happy memories and a happy home, as exemplified by Albert’s obsessive preparations and stubbornness in the belief that his childhood Christmases were as magical as he thought they were. However I wished that Daisy Goodwin stuck to the main elements of her narrative rather than to muddle it further with various indifferent and clearly forced subplots that either lead nowhere or are resolved so quickly that no-one cares about them.

Somewhere in this two hour special is a decent drama that did touch on historical issues and family dramas which could have been so much better had the writing stuck to the core story lines. Hopefully we’ll see a much tighter and coherent narrative in series 3 but perhaps I’m too optimistic.

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A Country House Christmas: Remembrance of Christmases Past

Originally titled Treasure on Earth and published in 1952, this small book was written by Phyllis Elinor Sanderman (born the Hon Phyllis Legh) and is a thinly disguised account of the Christmases that she experienced at Lyme Park, the Legh family residence in Cheshire. It’s a charming and affectionate look at Christmases past and would not look out of place as a Downton Abbey Christmas special with the big house being readied for Christmas, as well as the rituals and traditions that underpin Christmas at Lyme. The narrative is written in the third person, and while a few names have been changed Lyme is renamed Vyne Park while the author’s parents the 2nd Baron and Baroness Newton are Sir Thomas and Lady Vayne, but it’s easy to pick up that the author is describing her parents and home.

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However while what we see in Downton Abbey’s celebration of Christmas is pretty much a pastiche, A Country House Christmas while short delves into detail about how Christmas was celebrated in a house like Lyme Park before World War I. There are the family theatricals, the visiting relatives, the exchange and giving of presents: not just between the family but the annual distribution of beef to the tenants and presents for their children presided over by Sir Thomas and Lady Vayne. Phyllis’s anticipation of the big day jumps off the pages of the book as does her passion for the house and its history and contents. There are more than enough descriptions of the house which despite the absence of any photographs allow the reader to imagine Vyne Park and its inhabitants, upstairs and down.

Apart from the description of the house and the rituals associated with the festive season there are affectionate portraits and characters sketches of the servants: Truelove the butler, Fraulein Thur the governess, Perez the chef and Mrs Campbell the housekeeper. These sketches are woven into the descriptions of the preparations for Christmas and the acknowledgement that the servants are the engine that keep the house running. Prominent among the servants of course is Truelove – defined by Phyllis as “unquestionably the ‘Eminence Grise,’ the power behind the throne, holding the reins of government; with the ear of the queen, the confidence and (albeit reluctant) admiration of the reigning monarch, and with both titular rulers dependent on him and knowing it.” There is also a description of the wider community outside the confines of the house and the relationship between the Vaynes and the estate as demonstrated by Sanderman’s description of the present giving to the children of tenants presided over by Lady Vayne:

“When the children of the estate employees came up on Boxing Day to have tea and receive their presents, it was he [Truelove] who acted as master of ceremonies. After tea in the servants’ hall, it for the occasion with Chinese lanterns, they would troops upstairs in the Long Gallery, where the tree in all its glory for the second day in succession provided, except for the blazing fire, the only light in the room…..Then when everyone had walked around the tree and admired it thoroughly, Truelove would read out from a list, not the children’s names but their parents’ names and their respective ages – a nice distinction.

‘Jim Bowden’s little girl aged six years’ – and a small girl in her best frock and button boots would clatter across the shiny boards to where Lady Vayne stood beside the tree, received her gift with a bobbed curtsey and clatter back again……the same ceremony again, till from the youngest to the eldest they had all their presents. Then Truelove would make a speech.

It was the same every year – ‘I’m sure we’re all very grateful to Her Ladyship for providing this beautiful tree and presents. When I was a boy and Christmas came round I was pleased if I got a monkey on a stick. But of course times have changed. Now I want you all to give three hearty cheers,’ etc.

There was always the loyal response. Then the gallery would resound to the blowing of tin trumpets and whistles, the clicking of pistols and popping of crackers, and the broad North Country accents of excited young voices.”

The narrative is set in 1906, five years before the passage of the Parliament Act and eight years before the outbreak of the First World War; both of which would deal a death blow to the power and prestige of the aristocracy. Superficially, this account can be seen as a paean to aristocratic life with its unchanging routines, deferential servants and tenants, dressing up for dinner and the entertaining demanded of a house like Vyne but it goes deeper than that, as there is also the self-awareness that this aristocratic world and lifestyle could vanish.

And vanish it does. The narrative fast forwards to and ends in 1946, when as an adult Phyllis returns to Vyne again as the house has been given to the nation because the Vaynes, harassed as they are by rationing and rising taxes, can no longer afford to keep the house as it was during that Indian summer before 1914. One would have thought that Sanderman would be nostalgic for the “good old days” but clearly she isn’t as she writes in the introduction to the 1981 reprint of her book:

“The hard fact must be accepted that houses such as Lyme are now anachronisms, no longer able to fulfil their original function, namely that of dwelling-houses for the leisure class. They must either fall into decay or be turned into institutions – hospitals or schools – or become museum pieces, visited and enjoyed by the public at large.”

I would highly recommend this book, not just as a charming story of Christmases past but also a more thorough look at how the festive season was celebrated in a country house in a way that period drama such as Downton Abbey have never quite managed to capture.

 

 

 

TV Review: Victoria (ITV) series 2 part 3 – Pomp and desolation

Still reeling from the revelation that his father might not be his actual father at all, Albert is out of sorts even when the issue of the proposed Franco-Spanish alliance through a marriage between Queen Isabella II of Spain and Prince Antoine, Duke of Montpensier (one of the sons of King Louis Philippe of France) is raised. Sir Robert Peel informs Victoria and Albert that such a match will upset the balance of power because it could lead to a union of two crowns under one eventual ruler. He also reminds Victoria and Albert that their uncle Leopold is hoping that their cousin Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha will marry the Spanish queen. Victoria initially proposes to write a letter to dissuade the French king from pursing such an alliance then decides to pay him a visit in person.

The visit takes place in the Chateau d’Eu in Normandy where Victoria and Albert are received by Louis-Philippe (Bruno Wolkovich) and his family with pomp and ceremony. While Victoria is enchanted by what she sees and the hospitality laid out in her honour, various members of her entourage aren’t as impressed – the Duchess of Buccleuch views the French court as like Sodom and Gomorrah while Albert is dismayed at what he sees as the loose morals of the French and the women wearing make-up. Some of these feelings are reciprocated, for instance the ladies of the French court find Victoria’s dress sense wanting; especially upon her arrival where she is carrying a handbag embroidered with the image of a dog.

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While in France, Albert finally reveals to Victoria what has been troubling him and she sweetly reassures him that any niggles about his parentage do not matter to her, what is important is the life they’re building together and his support for her role as monarch. Once reassured, Albert and Victoria set about trying to persuade Louis Philippe to abandon the proposed marriage and it seemed like the royal couple succeed – until they later learn that they didn’t. The episode ends on a happy note when Victoria tells Albert that she’s expecting again.

In contrast, episode 6 deals with the Irish Potato Famine and Victoria, who is concerned about its effects on the populace, runs into indifference from Sir Robert Peel – who seems to be more concerned with keeping his party united – and Albert who is preoccupied with modernising the drains and sanitation at Buckingham Palace. Frustrated, she comes across a series of letters written by a Dr Traill (Martin Compston) published in the papers, which describe the scenes of devastation and desolation that he encounters and Victoria invites him to Buckingham Palace (which did not happen in real life) to enlighten her on what is really happening in Ireland. Following the visit, she implores Sir Robert to act on his conscience (knowing well that he is opposed to the Corn Laws) showing him her new born daughter Princess Alice and reminding him of the reports of mothers dying because they are unable to feed their children. The famine too has hit close to home, when assistant dresser Miss Cleary (Tilly Steele) having already sent all her savings to help her family, is aided by Francatelli who gives her his watch, tells her to sell it and not to accept any amount below £50. Unfortunately, the money she raises from selling the watch proved to be too late as her family is evicted and they decide to move to America.

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Episodes 5 and 6 are a departure from the usual fluff, romance and soap opera fare that have  characterised Victoria, with emphasis on the actual history (with some liberties taken, of course). The state visit to France demonstrates Victoria and Albert’s interest in foreign affairs and foreshadows the “family diplomacy” that Victoria would deploy later in her reign especially in her dealings with her grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II; and the attempts by Dr Traill to alleviate the Irish famine and the government’s inaction over the crisis demonstrates that disasters of national proportions are too big for one man and pave the way for greater government action during the late 19th century and especially into the 20th and 21st centuries.

Although the purpose of the visit was with regards to the proposed Franco-Spanish royal wedding, the marriage in question was actually NOT between Queen Isabella and Prince Antoine but rather her younger sister the Infanta Luisa Fernanda and Prince Antoine. Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was never really seen as a possible consort to the Spanish queen; instead he ended up marrying Queen Maria II of Portugal. In addition, the episode ignored the close ties that already existed between the House of Bourbon-Orleans and the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha – Louis Philippe’s daughter Louise was Queen of the Belgians while one of his sons Prince Louis, Duke of Nemours was married to Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and another daughter Clementine married Prince August of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The relationship between the two monarchs was close and cordial enough for Louis-Philippe and his queen Marie-Amelie to undertake a state visit to Britain in 1844 and Victoria and Albert to take on another visit to France in 1845. When the Revolution of 1848 forced the French royal family to flee, Victoria offered them asylum in Britain where Louis-Philippe and his family took up residence at Claremont House in Surrey.

Both episodes were excellent in terms of providing the sharp contrast between royal pomp and the desolation in Ireland. The depiction of Victoria and Albert’s arrival on French soil and the crowds and guard of honour that greeted the royal couple at the Chateau d’Eu was well done and its seemed to me that production took great pains to study contemporary records of the event such as this painting by Eugene Louis Lami  and recreate it to the best of their ability. The same is true with the scenes of the lavish dinners and garden parties laid out by the French court in honour of their British guests.

Contrasting with the sunny skies of France was the bleak desolation of Ireland. The Irish Potato Famine is still a fairly controversial and contentious topic and episode 6 handled it in a delicate and sensitive way. The scenes where Dr Traill encounters a group of children whose mother has died was poignant, as is those of farmers continuing to till their land only to find that the potatoes they have planted are useless and can’t be eaten much less sold. One aspect that this episode gets right is the prevailing prejudice demonstrated against Catholics by all classes high and low – from Sir Charles Trevelyan (Edward Bennett) who doesn’t believe that the government should do anything to help, asserting that the Irish should learn to live within their means and that the famine was simply a way of checking population growth,  to the Church of Ireland bishops who only favour helping if the Catholics agree to convert to the Anglican faith and refusing to receive a Roman Catholic priest that Dr Trail has been working with to alleviate the effects of the famine; down to Penge refusing Miss Cleary’s request that she be paid earlier so that she can send it to her family in Ireland.

Another was with regards to Victoria’s lack of prejudice. Although episode 6 depicts her as someone very concerned about the effects of the famine, the real life Victoria really didn’t share the same concern as her reel counterpart although she did give roughly £2,000 out of her own funds to the famine relief, which was a very huge sum at that time. The scene where Miss Cleary approaches the Queen to thank her for sending for Dr Traill and revealing that she is a Roman Catholic shows Victoria’s lack of prejudice and social snobbery – a trait that would manifest itself with regards to the Munshi, approving of Princess Helene of Orleans as a bride for her grandson the Duke of Clarence and her dealings with the more status conscious royals from the continent.

These two episodes show the heights of what Victoria could achieve without the soapy storylines and the emphasis on romance and the shenanigans downstairs. It’s a shame that it wasn’t like this from the very beginning.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity review

On paper, the artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was part of the art establishment – a Royal Academician, a knight of the realm and a member of the Order of Merit, with a lucrative career that brought him fame and substantial financial rewards. Scratch the surface however and you find a Dutchman (born Lourens Alma Tadema), whose artistic career took him from his home country the Netherlands through Belgium and finally to Britain where he spent the last 40 odd years of his life.

The exhibition Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity is a comprehensive survey of his life and career and using the Leighton House Museum as a venue was an inspired choice as it gives one an idea and feel of the studio-residences that Alma-Tadema created in London with his family. The ground floor rooms display paintings from the beginning of Alma-Tadema’s career, where his early paintings were heavily influenced by artists from the Golden Age of Dutch art such as Rembrandt, David Teniers the Younger and Nicholas Maes, as exemplified by portraits that he painted of members of his family. In the 1850s, he turned to historical painting, specialising in medieval subjects. Following his marriage to a French woman (Pauline Gressin Dumoulin) and during their honeymoon in Italy, the places they visited such as Rome and Pompeii provided new inspiration for his art – everyday life set in ancient Rome with titles such as Pomona Festival and The Flower Market. While Alma-Tadema ensured that his rendering of the interiors and clothing were as accurate as possible, some details especially the faces are very contemporary, as if the people depicted are playing at dressing up.

Alma-Tadema’s development as an artist is chronicled in the upstairs room. In 1869, his wife Pauline died and while in London seeking medical treatment he was invited to the home of the artist Ford Maddox Brown where he met Laura Theresa Epps and promptly fell in love with her. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War and his growing feelings for Miss Epps influenced his decision to settle in Britain permanently and he married her in 1871; following which they acquired their first marital home near Regent’s Park (Townshend House). Laura became an artist in her own right and throughout the second floor there are paintings by her which show the influence of the Dutch masters and her specialisation in genre painting. There are also portraits that Alma-Tadema did of his wife and children that underscored them as a close and loving family unit.

Once Alma-Tadema settled in Britain, he became acquainted with artists from the Pre-Raphaelite movement and his colour palette changed; the darker tones of his Dutch and Belgian years giving way to the light hues influenced by his trips to Italy and his association with Pre-Raphaelite artists. By the 1880s, he was well established in his adapted country – garlanded with honours and awards as well as his paintings being well-received. In 1883, the Alma-Tademas bought a large house in St John’s Wood (located in Grove End Road) which also housed his studio. The interior of the house was done in the Roman style which served as his backdrop for many of his paintings.

During this period, Alma-Tadema also was commissioned to paint portraits and his portrait of the Polish pianist and future prime minister and diplomat Ignacy Jan Paderewski is a stark contrast to his historical paintings. While the colours are unmistakably Alma-Tadema, the rendition is almost impressionistic which showed that Alma-Tadema was more than a painter of scenes from antiquity. The same versatility can also be seen in the few landscapes that he painted, mostly while on holiday in Italy and from the view of his house in Grove End Road. The Italian paintings especially are notable for the skill with which the painter depicts the sunlight on flesh, marble and sea: paintings such as A Solicitation emit a tangible sunlit warmth and ease.

Sir Lawrence AlmaTadema Coign of Vantage 1895 Collection of Ann and Gordon Getty

Despite his dabbling in portraiture and landscape painting, Alma-Tadema was primarily known for his historical painting. There were recurring elements in his work such as the prevalence of blue skies, white marble and vistas as exemplified by A Solicitation and Pleading. By the later phase of his career, Alma-Tadema had crystallised the elements that characterised his work: the sea, alluring women, classical sculpture, rich textures and flowers. He was known for his attention to detail and accuracy to the best of his ability (which was aided by trips to Italy and Egypt as well as informing himself of new developments in archaeology) all of which are evident in his most famous works such as Coign of Vantage, The Triumph of Titus: AD71 and The Roses of Heliogabalus. The latter is particularly interesting as it pretty much encapsulates almost all of Alma-Tadema’s elements and USP. However, I find the study much more interesting and convincing than the finished product; while the actual painting is technically accomplished and aesthetically pleasing there is none of the sense of urgency and panic as the guests are being suffocated by the avalanche of the flowers streaming over them: they seem to be wholly relaxed about their fate.  In contrast however, the study for The Roses of Heliogabalus has more of the sense of the violence and suffering inflicted on the guests as demonstrated by the contortions of the body as the guests struggled to escape the shower of rose petals that threatens to engulf them.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Roses of Heliogabalus 1888. Perez Simon Collection

By the time of Alma-Tadema’s death in 1912, his paintings and style had fallen out of fashion, supplanted by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, post-Impressionism and Cubism. For most of the 20th century he fell into obscurity but while Alma-Tadema wasn’t exactly a household name, his paintings gained a second lease of life in cinema. They became influential in how filmmakers brought the ancient world to life in cinema; one look at The Death of the First-Born and I was immediately reminded of the same scene in Cecile B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) where the same muted colours and subdued lighting used by Alma-Tadema found its way into the film. More recently, Sir Ridley Scott was also influenced by Alma-Tadema for his film Gladiator (2000) where the scenes of gladiatorial combat are reminiscent of A Pyrrhic Dance and the costumes worn were inspired by the women depicted in various paintings dotted around the exhibition.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema A Pyrrhic Dance 1869 Guidhall Art Gallery City of London

While some might think that Alma-Tadema’s paintings are clichéd and only fit to decorate biscuit and chocolate tins, this exhibition shows that he was more than a painter of scenes from antiquity. That said, his main body of work was all about the ancient world and the way he brought it to life does show that Alma-Tadema was indeed an artist “at home in antiquity”.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Finding of Moses 1904. Private Collection

 

Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity is on at the Leighton House Museum until 29 October 2017. For more information please visit the website https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/museums/leightonhousemuseum/almatademaathome.aspx?gclid=CIWW4KCZ8tYCFeaT7QodjWsNxg

 

The bloggers visited the exhibition on 4 October 2017. We would also like to thank Ana Garcia of the Marketing and PR Department of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for permission to use the images in this blog.

TV Review: Victoria (ITV) Series 2 (Part 2) – Life, death, trust

Bloggers’ note: We would like to apologise for the delay as real life has intruded and meant that there is a delay with publication of our reviews

 

In the last episode, Victoria learns that she’s pregnant again and unsurprisingly she’s not happy as it is very soon after the birth of the Princess Royal. She is soon distracted, however, by a visit from a silk weaver from Spitalfields, seeking her help against competition from imported silk, especially from France. When Victoria raises the issue with her Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, he advises her that it would be unwise to introduce tariffs against imported silk and in the end the Queen decides to hold a ball where all the costumes should be made of Spitalfields silk. By buying and wearing clothes designed and made in Britain it is reasoned that the Queen and the court will set an example for the rest to follow, hence stimulate demand for the silk and lead to greater employment. Sir Robert isn’t sure it’s a good idea as he reminds Victoria that a ball might not be appropriate given the economic situation, and Albert agrees.

Despite any objections, plans for the ball get underway with the theme being a medieval one. Albert and Victoria preside over the ball dressed as King Edward III and his consort Philippa of Hainault and their costumes based on the tomb effigies in Westminster Abbey. Members of the household and guests are to come in medieval costumes made out of Spitafields silk and there is optimism that the ball will stimulate an industry that is in the doldrums.

Victoria, Series 2 Ep3 - Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes

The ball also gives Victoria the opportunity to see Lord Melbourne again. He has been hiding the fact that he is gravely ill from her and has refused to reply to the Queen’s letters or allow her to visit him at Brocket Hall. He decides to attend the ball and despite his enforced cheerfulness it’s clear he’s not very well and after the ball she pays him a visit with a gift – a mechanical singing bird.

Just as Sir Robert fears, there is public criticism over the ball and on the night itself, an angry crowd marches to the palace to make their displeasure felt. Upset that her good intentions for hosting the ball have not been seen by the public, Victoria has the leftover food distributed to the poor but there is a small ray of light following the event, as a weaver reports that he has been inundated with orders following reports of the ball and description of what the royal couple and guests were wearing.

The next episode sees the birth of a Prince of Wales, the first since 1762, and just like with the birth of the Princess Royal, Victoria succumbs to post-natal depression. She is unable to bond with her infant son and does not understand why Albert is so besotted with babies: she thinks they look like frogs. Her condition is further worsened by the news that her father-in-law and uncle the Duke of Coburg has died and Albert is adamant that he should attend the funeral alone. Victoria insists on going with him but Albert tells her to rest, try to recover and bond with their two children.

Meanwhile, news of the “Boy Jones” incident has made its way to the papers which infuriates the royal couple and Baroness Lehzen is given the task of finding out who in the household has informed the press of the incident. Amidst all this and with Albert having gone to Coburg, Victoria falls deeper into depression. Her mother the Duchess of Kent and the Duchess of Buccleuch try to rally her especially with the latter assuring her that she isn’t the first woman to find herself in “low spirits” and being “out of sorts” (euphemisms for post-natal depression in the 19th century) while Sir Robert asks her to open a new tunnel designed and built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Victoria refuses to attend citing her nerves, and this is a foreshadowing of her reluctance to take on her public duties following Albert’s death in 1861.

Albert’s homecoming gives him an opportunity to reminisce with his brother Ernst about their father and uncle Leopold. The latter is still meddling with his remaining nephews, plotting to marry off their cousin Prince Ferdinand to the Queen of Spain and engineering a marriage between Ernst (who has now succeeded his father as Duke of Coburg) to a German princess Alda, who is invited to the ducal palace to meet with her prospective future husband and his family. The meeting is not a success and it’s clear that Ernst is still harbouring feelings for the Duchess of Sutherland who he last met at the ball in the previous episode.

Meanwhile, still on the trail to find out who leaked the “Boy Jones” incident to the papers, suspicion falls on Francatelli who has been sporting an expensive new watch and new clothes. Mrs Skerrett confesses to Victoria and the Baroness that it was her cousin who leaked the information and that it was she who had told her of the incident. She also mentions that her cousin who sold the story was the real Nancy Skerrett but had fallen pregnant out of wedlock and she had taken her cousin’s place.  The episode ends with Victoria agreeing to attend the opening of Brunel’s new tunnel and Mrs Skerrett isn’t dismissed after all – impressed by her honesty and believing that people do deserve a second chance, she is asked by Albert to stay on as Her Majesty’s dresser.

Overall episodes 3 and 4 do present a few key aspects of the early 1840s such as the overall poor state of agriculture: not just in Britain but in Europe (one of the triggers for the revolutions of 1848) and the continuing technical innovations happening in Britain at this point in time (series 1 saw the railways, now it’s advances in engineering).  A corollary to this was also a revival in the interest in the architecture, art and culture of the medieval era as exemplified by the ball in episode 3 (the costumes were almost accurate replicas of the original as depicted in Sir Edwin Landseer’s portrait recording the event) however the real Albert was enthusiastic about the ball and was heavily involved in its preparation. The ball was, in the words of Ian Hunter, one way of using medieval motifs in order to bolster the position of Prince Albert and demonstrate the historical continuity of the monarchy from the Anglo-Saxon period onwards, as well as encouraging the revival of the ideals of chivalry in an era that was witnessing unprecedented change.

The attitudes depicted towards Victoria’s post natal depression was more or less accurate: while women then were aware that not every mother would bond with her baby and the possibility of feeling low after the birth, PND as a medical condition was not fully understood until the late 20th century –  although I wish that there had been a more thorough exploration of this rather than simply skating over the condition and showing Victoria as “cured” through receiving a gift of a new puppy. The death of Dash and Lord M’s exit from the programme was tastefully done and restrained: mercifully we were spared the hammy dialogue and OTT acting over character and animal deaths that certain programmes have indulged in. Ditto with Leopold’s revelation that he might be Albert’s father. While this could be construed as a classic soap opera plot point, at least it did not degenerate into the whole “Luke, I am your father” spiel.

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However, the whole downstairs storyline was the one glaring weak spot here. While it’s true that confidentiality and security are recurring issues with regards to the royal family and those who serve them, the way Mrs Skerrett has been written is pure soap. As mentioned in an review last series, the real Mrs Skerrett was part of a family that had been in royal service for at least two generations, she was well educated and was not only Victoria’s principal dresser but also liaised with tradesmen, suppliers and even artists such as Sir Edwin Landseer on behalf of the Queen and was in charge of the junior dressers under her. The way Skerrett has been depicted in Victoria shows a striking similarity to Miss Baxter from Downton Abbey, the competent and kind-hearted lady’s maid with a mysterious and shady if not criminal past. The time spent on this clichéd and frankly unbelievable story line would have been better spent on focusing on Victoria’s PND and how it affected her and those around her. It would have been a good way to explore further how attitudes towards female illnesses and childbirth then were different from now but alas, it was not to be.

The Devonshire House Ball (1897): Dressing Up on a Grand Scale

One of the main displays in the current exhibition at Chatsworth House is about the Devonshire House Ball of 1897. The Great Chamber contains displays pertaining to the ball together with life sized images of some of the famous guests at the ball such as the Duke and Duchess of York (the future King George V and Queen Mary), Victor Cavendish (the future 9th Duke of Devonshire) and Mrs Arthur Paget, while next door in the State Drawing Room was a display of some costumes worn during that evening.

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The ball was held at Devonshire House in Piccadilly, London on the 2nd of July, during the height of the London Season. What made this ball special was that it was held in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and as Deborah, the 11th Duchess observed, at a time when there were balls almost every night during the height of the Season, for a ball or event to stand out and generate interest, it had to be special. And indeed it was special – invitations were sent out and the dress code was “allegorical or historical costumes before 1815”. This was an encouragement to the guests to give their imaginations full rein for the costume that they planned to wear that evening.

The hosts of the ball were Spencer Compton Cavendish, 8th Duke of Devonshire and his German born wife Louise. The 8th Duke was a politician: as Marquess of Hartington he served as a Member of Parliament and a cabinet minister as a member of the Liberal Party. He also turned down the opportunity three times to become Prime Minister. By 1897 and now Duke of Devonshire, he was sitting in the House of Lords and had split with the Liberal Party over the issue of Irish Home Rule. With his personal life, the 8th Duke would have made a prime example of the saying “appearances can be deceiving” for his intellect and sense of duty was masked by a languid appearance and indifference towards the social side demanded of his position. He was known to be forgetful, shabbily dressed and had the habit of sleeping anywhere and everywhere. Once, finding the ministerial bench at the House of Lords fully occupied, he found another bench and promptly fell asleep. When he woke up and saw what time it was, he exclaimed, “Good heavens, what a bore, I shan’t be in bed for another seven hours.”

His appearance and bearing also masked a complicated personal life. A bachelor of many years standing, he carried on a long term affair with Louise Duchess of Manchester but during the 1860s was also involved with the noted courtesan Catherine (“Skittles”) Walters who was known for her prowess as an equestrienne and on the hunting field. The then Marquess of Hartington was smitten with her, provided her with a home in Mayfair and together was openly seen out and about in events such as the Derby. As Sophia Murphy observed that, Lord Hartington “made no secret of his love for her” but in the end their affair was mentioned in the papers (albeit in the form of coy blind items) and coupled with the weight of disapproval from the highest echelons of society, the affair ended, but he made sure that she was well provided for. Catherine for her part, left for France, only returning to Britain once memories of the affair had faded, and her discretion was rewarded by the Cavendish family who carried on forwarding the annual sum promised to her until her own death in 1920.

The main driving force behind the ball was Louise Duchess of Devonshire. Known as the “Double Duchess” because until only a few years before, she had been Duchess of Manchester. Born Louise von Alten, she was the daughter of a German count and in 1852 had married William Drogo Montagu Viscount Mandeville, heir to the Duke of Manchester. Three years later they became Duke and Duchess of Manchester. Beginning in the 1860s, she began an affair with Lord Hartington with the full connivance of her husband; their affair followed the usual pattern, it began long after she had provided her husband with the requisite sons to carry on the family line and was conducted discreetly among the whirl of dinners, balls, teas and shooting parties. Louise also maintained her dignity even when Hartington had other women and she never allowed her affair to threaten her own relationship with her husband. Such behaviour today would be seen as hypocritical but they scrupulously observed the rules governing their class and so long as those rules were observed there was no scandal and everything went smoothly.

Louise quickly assimilated into her adopted country and through her entertaining advanced the political careers of both husbands. Although all her life she identified with her first husband’s political party, the Conservatives, her circle of friends and acquaintances was politically diverse. She didn’t hesitate to ensure that her dinners and balls were filled with leading politicians, regardless of their political affiliations and persuasion; her objective was that her home should be a meeting place for politicians of all stripes where they could talk in a more relaxed atmosphere away from the pressures of Westminster. Above all, she wanted to be surrounded by people who were interesting and who she liked and to ensure that they had a good time.

She also gained a reputation for being a skilled political hostess who became a sounding board for leading politicians and statesmen, and although she was dismayed that the 8th Duke of Devonshire three times turned down the opportunity to become Prime Minister, his status and wealth as well as his ability meant that Louise could entertain in style and befitting their position in the social and political life of the country. Louise’s marriage to the 8th duke which finally happened in 1891 meant that her position was more secure. As Duchess of Devonshire, she was chatelaine of seven houses (Chatsworth, Devonshire House, Bolton Abbey, Lismore Castle, Hardwick Hall, Chiswick House, Compton Place) and had large funds at her disposal which meant that she had a wider scope for her social talents. Esther Simon Shkolink in her study of late Victorian and Edwardian political wives noted that contemporary accounts were more or less unanimous in their praise of Louise’s entertaining with her “charm and attentiveness as a hostess but also her careful attention to detail.” Her guest list was always eclectic and came from different political parties and social classes as the Devonshire House Ball would later demonstrate.

The Devonshire House Ball in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was part and parcel of Louise’s pattern of entertaining. She and the Duke were fond of horse racing and annually held a dinner and a ball during and after Derby Day, regularly entertained the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) and gave lavish parties for special occasions, but the Diamond Jubilee gave Louise the idea to push the boat out – throw a ball but with a twist in the form of a fancy dress party.

Fancy dress balls had been a fixture at least since the sixteenth century; costumed masked balls were popular in Italy, particularly Venice, from where they spread to the rest of Europe. During the eighteenth century, they became popular at the various royal courts, especially in France, while in Britain costume masked balls were ticketed events held in pleasure gardens and assembly halls in major cities such as London and Bath. In these balls, attendees would usually be cloaked and masked (either with one covering half their face or one trimmed with silk or lace to cover the whole face) or dressed as characters from the past or from popular entertainment such as the commedia dell’arte. In the nineteenth century, theme balls became popular – Queen Victoria and Prince Albert threw three lavish themed costume balls during the 1840s and 1850s. The first was a medieval ball where the hosts and their guests were dressed in the style of the court of King Edward III; the second featured a Georgian theme while the last, held in 1851 had the court of Charles II as the subject. As Queen Victoria withdrew from social life following the death of Prince Albert, the mantle of royal entertaining passed onto her oldest son the Prince of Wales and his wife Alexandra, and during the 1870s they hosted a lavish costume ball at their London home Marlborough House which was heralded as a success and ensured the continued popularity of such events.

For her own ball, Louise decided that the theme would be “court or allegorical costumes before 1815” and as a later Duchess of Devonshire, Deborah mused in an article she wrote:

“It was not difficult for Louise Duchess to mobilise her female guests – they can have had little else to do but arrange themselves for such an occasion and one can easily picture the excitement and pleasure it gave. But even clever old Louise must have been surprised at managing to persuade a lot of middle-aged men to order their costumes and suffer the tedium of trying them on.”

Fortunately help was at hand. Due to the popularity of fancy dress balls, there was a plethora of books and specialist hire shops on hand to offer advice. One such book was entitled Fancy Dress Described or What to Wear at Fancy Balls by Ardern Holt and it went through several editions. It gave descriptions of the most popular costumes which ranged from historical personalities to characters from fiction, myth and legend down to allegorical and national costumes from various parts of the world. In addition, the book also gave recommendations of what costumes would suit a particular hair colour, skin complexion and age.

The ball was eagerly anticipated and as Sophia Murphy observed that “[a]n invitation to the fancy dress ball confirmed membership of the ‘smart set’, and was therefore much sought after. Apart from this, everyone was eager to witness what promised to be one of the most lavish spectacles of the century; since it was the main subject of interest that season, everyone wanted to have the fun of trying to keep their outfits a secret while at the same time trying to discover what the others were wearing.” Many of the guests came together as a group and organise a procession and in the end five main groups or courts were organised: Elizabeth I of England which was led by Lady Tweedmouth; Maria Theresa of Austria under the Marchioness of Londonderry; Queen Guinevere & the Knights of the Round Table led by Lady Ormonde (she ended up being unable to attend due to bereavement so Lord and Lady Rodney went as King Arthur and Queen Guinevere); Louis XV & Louis XVI of France under Lady Warwick (as Marie Antoinette) and the court of Catherine the Great of Russia led by Lady Raincliffe.

Three other groups more loosely defined were categorised by the costumes they were wearing such as the Italian, Oriental and Allegorical. Many other guests however decided not to join any group or procession as they went in an assortment of costumes ranging from their ancestors to those modelled from famous paintings or historical figures that did not fit into any of the groups or courts organised. With her customary attention to detail and zeal, Louise planned everything down to the last detail and even the servants on duty were in costume – the men were dressed in in Devonshire livery from the 18th century while the female staff were dressed in costumes from the Elizabethan period. Due to the large number of guests, it was necessary to hire outside staff for the night and Louise had them dressed in either Egyptian or Elizabethan dress.

On the night of the ball, the guests were greeted by Louise herself and her costume was described by The Times in great detail:

“The Duchess of Devonshire, as Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, wore a magnificent costume. The skirt of gold tissue was embroidered all over in a star-like design in emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, and other jewels outlined with gold, the corners where it opened in front being elaborately wrought in the same jewels and gold to represent peacocks outspread tails. This opened to show an underdress of cream crepe de chine, delicately embroidered in silver, gold, and pearls and sprinkled all over with diamonds. The train, which was attached to the shoulders by two slender points and was fastened at the waist with a large diamond ornament, was a green velvet of a lovely shade, and was superbly embroidered in Oriental designs introducing the lotus flower in rubies, sapphires, amethysts, emeralds, and diamonds, with four borderings on contrasting grounds, separated with gold cord. The train was lined with turquoise satin. The bodice was composed of gold tissue to match the skirt, and the front was of crepe de chine hidden with a stomacher of real diamonds, rubies and emeralds and jewelled belt. A gold crown incrusted (sic) with emeralds, diamonds, and rubies, with a diamond drop at each curved end and two upstanding white ostrich feathers in the middle, and round the front festoons of pearls with a large pear shaped pearl in the centre falling on the forehead.”

One of the guests Margot Asquith (wife of the future Prime Minister Herbert Asquith) expressed surprise at her host’s choice of costume. For her, Zenobia evoked beauty and romance but Louise in her view was neither. In her youth, Louise was known and praised for her beauty but as she grew older, her looks faded while her features became coarse and her figure grew rounder. As Duchess Deborah wrote: “The ‘Double Duchess’ was considered a great beauty, though with her frizzed up hair and short, thick neck it is hard to recognise her beauty in most of the likenesses we have of her. The people I have talked to who saw her only remember the crazily cracked make-up plastered thickly over her face, which made a bizarre effect on this grande dame receiving at the top of the staircase at Devonshire House.” Her costume was designed by the House of Worth and such was the skills of that venerable fashion house that they managed to make Louise a stately and imposing Queen of Palmyra rather than fat and coarse.

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The Duke of Devonshire was dressed as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V based on his portrait by Titian and keeping up with his modest tastes, the Duke’s costume was simple and the only adornment was the badge of the Order of the Golden Fleece which had been lent to him by the Prince of Wales for the evening and which the duke wore around his neck.

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Among the guests were Lady Randolph Churchill (nee Jennie Jerome) as the Empress Theodora, Mrs Arthur (Minnie) Paget went as Cleopatra, the Duchess of Sutherland was costumed as Jane Seymour, the former Prime Minister the 6th Earl of Rosebery who was dressed as a gentleman from the 18th century (he wasn’t amused when some of the papers said that he was costumed as Horace Walpole), Lord Rownton who went as an archbishop and Arthur Balfour (future Prime Minister) as a Dutch gentleman. The Cavendish family meanwhile was represented by the Duke’s nephew and heir Victor who was costumed as Jean de Dinteville from Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors while his wife Evelyn went as a lady from the court of Maria Theresa.  Consuelo Duchess of Manchester, Louise’s daughter-in-law from her first marriage went as Anne of Austria “in a very striking gown of white and silver satin, decorated with swags of gold satin. On her head she wore a diamond crown with a large single pearl ornament in the centre of her forehead.”

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As the ball was in honour of Queen Victoria (who did not attend), she was amply represented by members of her family. The Prince and Princess of Wales (who were costumed as a Grand Prior of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and Marguerite de Valois respectively) together with their children and in-laws attended as well as the Duke and Duchess of Teck and Prince Alfred of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Foreign diplomats such as the Portuguese ambassador the Marquis de Soveral (a close friend of the Prince of Wales) and the Austrian ambassador Count Albert Mensdorff were also present and it’s no wonder that with such a guest list, the Devonshire House Ball was seen as the event of the 1897 London Season.

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Many guests did take much time and effort with their costumes. It was said that one guest who wore an Oriental dress wanted to make an entrance via an elephant and enquired London Zoo about the possibility of borrowing one. The zoo authorities however refused on the grounds that the elephant would be unable to cope with the crowds and traffic of London. One can simply conclude that she made her entrance via the usual horse and carriage. Others in their desire for accuracy and to stand out suffered through the evening with uncomfortable headdresses and props – such as the Hon Mrs Reginald Talbot who went as a Valkyrie and who developed a headache due to the metal winged helmet she was wearing but refused to take it off as it might ruin her hairdo. There was the Countess of Westmoreland costumed as Hebe cupbearer of the gods who was restricted with her movements the entire evening due to the huge stuffed eagle on her shoulder: while Lady Wolverton who attended as Britannia would have had to contend with not only a feathered helmet but also a triton and shield.

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While some male guests such as Herbert Asquith went to the ball grudgingly and made little effort with their costumes, others threw themselves wholeheartedly into the spirit of wearing fancy dress sometimes with even more enthusiasm than their wives. One of the most expensive costumes was worn by the 9th duke of Marlborough who went as the French Ambassador in one of the courts. It was made by House of Worth, a confection of velvet embroidered in silver, pearls and diamonds with a waistcoat made out of white and gold damask. The whole costume was mostly embroidered by hand as well as the pearls and diamonds and cost 5,000 francs. As Jean Philippe Worth later recalled, even he was shocked by the bill as he presented it to the duke.

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Outwardly the ball can be seen as the pinnacle of aristocratic dominance both in the political and social scene but in reality, the ball reflected the gradual changes happening in society. It was observed that society was “less clearly defined than it had been twenty years before” and the guest list reflected Louise’s wide circle of friends and acquaintances that crossed the political divide. More crucial however was the presence of men and women whose origins and occupation would have barred them from other aristocratic homes but who were invited to the Devonshire House ball while most of the aristocratic old guard were not. Examples of these were Ernest Cassel and Alfred Beit both of whom were Jewish and were in banking; the Earl of Iveagh and Lord Rothschild both of whom made their fortunes in commerce and finance; the actor Sir Henry Irving and the American born singer Mrs Ronalds who appropriately came as Euterpe, “the Spirit of Music” in a costume decorated with the musical score from Verdi’s opera Un Ballo in Maschera.

The ball in 1897 was the last major event held in Devonshire House and with the 8th Duke’s death in 1908 followed by Louise three years later marked the end of an era for the Devonshires. The 9th duke was faced with crippling death duties from his predecessor’s estate as well as debts from the 7th duke’s failed investments. In order to economise, the 9th duke accepted the position of Governor-General of Canada where he served from 1916 to 1922. While in Canada, negotiations for the sale of Devonshire House had begun and it was finally sold in 1920. Not long after the house was demolished and an office block now stands in its place.

The sale of Devonshire House showed that following the end of the First World War not even the grandest and wealthiest of the aristocracy were immune from the changes sweeping through the aristocracy as well as feeling the financial pinch. In the years following the sale and demolition of Devonshire House, other aristocratic townhouses were sold to be demolished, converted into office spaces or museums. At the same time, aristocratic entertaining also changed – many in the aristocracy could no longer afford to entertain on the same scale as their predecessors and balls and dinners were ceasing to become extensions of cabinet meetings and parliamentary sessions. The Devonshire House Ball of 1897 would certainly be the last of its kind and one that would never be repeated.

 

Note:

Photos from the House Style exhibition at Chatsworth House taken by blogger

Further Reading:

Deborah (Cavendish) Duchess of Devonshire. Home to Roost and Other Peckings (London, 2009)

Deborah (Cavendish) Duchess of Devonshire. Chatsworth: The House (London, 2002)

Ardern Holt. Fancy Dress Described or What to Wear at Fancy Balls (London, 1881)

Sophia Murphy. The Duchess of Devonshire’s Ball (London, 1984)

Sophia Topley. ‘The Devonshire House Ball’ in Laura Burlington and Hamish Bowles (eds) House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth (New York, 2017) pp. 123-139

Esther Simon Shkolink. Leading Ladies: A Study of Eight Late Victorian and Edwardian Political Wives (New York and London, 1987)

David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990)

http://www.npg.org.uk/blog/from-downton-abbey-to-devonshire-house-american-heiresses-at-the-devonshire-house-fancy-dress-ball.php

https://fromthebygone.wordpress.com/2015/11/12/late-victorian-fancy-dress-the-devonshire-house-ball-in-1897/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/fancy-dress-1897-the-duchess-of-devonshires-diamond-jubilee-ball/

http://www.thecourtjeweller.com/2017/08/jewel-history-hired-jewels-are-much-in.html

http://lafayette.org.uk/dhblist.html

http://www.rvondeh.dircon.co.uk/incalmprose/ball.html

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/back-to-the-party-more-pictures-from-the-duchess-of-devonshires-costume-ball-1897/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/party-time-again-costume-ball-1897/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2014/01/02/costume-ball-4-ladies-only/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/costume-ball-5-more-ladies-more-gentlemen/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2015/12/31/costume-ball-6-mothers-daughters-and-others/

TV Review: Victoria (ITV) series 2 – A serpent in Paradise

Compared to the happy ending of the first series, the second series began on a sombre note – the first episode opens with a shot of the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan then shifts to Buckingham Palace where a few months have passed since the birth of the Princess Royal. It’s clear that her mother is bored, unhappy at the length of her confinement and being treated like an invalid. Finally she loses patience when being towed about in a bath chair: footmen were summoned to carry the chair down and she snaps that she’s more than capable of walking.

In Victoria’s absence, Albert has been deputising on her behalf on top of his own duties and upon receiving the news of the difficulties encountered by the army in Afghanistan resolves to hide it from his wife for fear of “distressing her”. Unaware of this turn of events, Victoria declares that she wishes to return to her duties and take up outdoor activities again which she does after grudgingly having to submit to the ritual of “churching“.

Her eagerness to resume her active life is compounded by her inability to bond with her daughter which is in contrast to Albert’s joy and optimism. Complicating matters is the meddling of her Uncle Leopold (Alex Jennings) and her father-in-law (and uncle) the Duke of Coburg (Andrew Bicknell) with the former already plotting to marry off the infant princess to a Prussian Prince while the latter is expecting that the next child will be a Prince of Wales. The constant pressure of bearing another child grates on Victoria and most likely on the viewer as well. If we are not being beaten over the head with the Queen’s Doctor McCoy-like pronouncement that she is a “queen not a brood mare” there’s also the constant reference to her supposed weak constitution following childbirth when it’s clear that she’s as fit as a fiddle and doesn’t need to be wrapped in cotton wool.

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Meanwhile Afghanistan is fast becoming a disaster and the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel (Nigel Lindsay) believes that Britain has no business being in that area in the first place, something that many people today would agree with in the light of current events. Albert sees this military disaster as an impetus to reform the army from recruitment to promotion and even to the design of the uniforms. In the end, Victoria and the public learns of the disastrous military campaign after the remaining troops are massacred, save for Dr Brydon who managed to escape and return to Britain. Incensed that Albert has kept this information from her all this time, Victoria lashes out, also accusing him of undermining her authority and position as Sovereign.

This tension between monarch, wife, mother and woman recurs in the second episode when Albert expresses his keenness for more children: declaring his aspiration for their offspring to “shine like a beacon of domestic bliss”, a sentiment echoed by King Leopold who seconds the Duke of Coburg’s wish that the next child should be a Prince of Wales. Much like with “Operation Albert”, Leopold’s Wile E Coyote like dedication is now centred on “Operation Coburg” – he hopes that Victoria and Albert’s future children will marry into the various royal families of Europe, thus ensuring that there will be a Coburg on every throne in the continent.

Again Victoria digs her heels in. Apart from the fact that she finds being pregnant, the process of childbirth and child rearing distasteful, she is finding it hard to come to terms with being a mother and finds herself resenting the baby for changing the dynamics of her relationship with her husband. Always intellectually curious and with his interest in science and technology, Albert is invited to a lecture-demonstration by the Royal Society of Mathematics where he’s introduced to Charles Babbage (Jo Stone-Fewings) and the Countess of Lovelace (Emerald Fennell) who have worked together on a computing machine which impresses Albert, who proclaims that such devices could do the work of men in the future. Mr Babbage and Lady Lovelace are subsequently invited to a reception at Buckingham Palace honouring those in the arts and sciences. Victoria also invites Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell) to the event and her delight at his presence is very obvious – much to the alarm of uncle Leopold and Albert – while Victoria feels pangs of jealousy over the rapport her husband establishes with Lady Lovelace.

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Episode 2 concludes with Victoria discovering that she’s pregnant for the second time much to her dismay and she turns to Lord Melbourne for advice. She admits that she finds it difficult to come to terms with being both a queen and a wife and mother and he advises her to look to her husband for support. Albert learns of the news and is happy that he will be a father again but it’s clear that Victoria is not pleased with a pregnancy so soon after her first child, seeing it as another form of prison: much like her childhood.

Certainly a theme is emerging from the first two episodes where Albert notices a change in Victoria especially with regards to their marriage. While it remains as passionate as ever, he bears the brunt of her anger which as his brother Ernst (David Oakes) perceptively points out is directed towards any attempt to control her, and that she guards her royal prerogatives fiercely and resents anything that encroaches on them. Other things this series more or less gets right is Victoria’s inability to bond with her child and her dislike of pregnancy, as well as attitudes towards childbirth and the latent anti-Catholicism prevalent in Britain during that time (as exemplified by the bigotry demonstrated by Mr Penge against Miss Cleary the new assistant dresser). Another bit that the first episode got right was the change in the Mistress of the Robes following the fall of the Whigs from power and Victoria selecting the elderly Duchess of Buccleuch (Diana Rigg) from a list provided by Sir Robert Peel to replace the Duchess of Sutherland. (Nevertheless the real life Duchess of Buccleuch was in her late twenties where she was personally selected by the Prime Minister to assume the post. Victoria thought that she was “an agreeable, sensible, clever little person” who was of great help when it came to helping organise royal tours of Scotland. The duchess’s eldest daughter was named in honour of the Queen who also agreed to stand as one of the godmothers).

However, the romance and soap opera elements never really go away and this is most acute in episode 2 where Victoria and Albert’s mutual jealousy over Lord Melbourne and Lady Lovelace are very much contrived and does not make any sense at all. If the whole point was to show how the dynamics of their marriage would change further with another pregnancy as Victoria feared, there was no need to resort to that well-worn and clichéd plot device of stirring up jealousy. Ironically, the opening episode of Edward the Seventh (1975) presented Victoria and Albert’s opposing attitudes to parenthood and the prospect of a new addition to the royal nursery much better.

Compared to series 1, series 2 so far has shown some improvement. There is far less of the shenanigans downstairs which in my opinion is as it should be because it detracts from the main narrative and further muddles it. Perhaps Daisy Goodwin should do well to remember the cardinal rule of K.I.S.S – Keep it Straight and Simple because somewhere in here is a decent drama that doesn’t need to be padded out with contrived story lines and that bane of historical drama, the importation of 21st century attitudes.