Book Review: Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking by Deborah Cadbury

The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014 not only resulted into a deluge of books, films, articles, blogs, exhibitions and documentaries about the events leading to the war but also a reappraisal and revisiting of Queen Victoria’s role as the “Grandmother of Europe.” Eight of her nine children married into the various royal houses of Europe and this complicated network of family ties was intertwined with international affairs, which in some way were one of the causes that led to the Great War.

This network of family ties was part and parcel Prince Albert’s vision of Europe as a family of nations unified by peace and liberalism and held together by Britain and a unified and liberal Germany. This idea was not new however as Victoria and Albert’s Uncle Leopold (later King of the Belgians) always nurtured a dream of having a Coburg on every throne in Europe – a dream which Albert carried on by marrying off his oldest daughter Vicky to Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia. Through Vicky and Fritz, Albert hoped that Prussia and later Germany could be transformed into a liberal state, made in the image of Britain. However this plan unravelled quickly with the early death of Frederick after a brief reign as Kaiser and never came to fruition.

Queen Victoria and grandchildren

Queen Victoria viewed every pronouncement and scheme from her beloved Albert as akin to holy writ and as Deborah Cadbury shows in her recent work, her matchmaking would not only apply to her children but also extended to her grandchildren. Amidst the backdrop of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881 and its aftermath, Cadbury charts the Queen’s machinations as she tried to prop up Albert’s vision through her grandchildren.

These machinations often did not go according to plan as the Queen was frustrated in her attempts to block the marriages of her Hessian grandchildren Ella and Alix  into the Russian imperial family. Victoria was a passionate Russophobe, her view of Russia partly coloured by the two countries’ disagreements over the Ottoman Empire and the on going “Great Game” over Central Asia and India. She also viewed the country as unsafe and admitted to feeling her blood feeling cold over the idea of “gentle, simple Alicky” as tsarina.

Another one of Victoria’s schemes that failed was marrying off one of her grandsons, Prince Eddy the Duke of Clarence. First on the list was his first cousin Alix of Hesse but she refused him, then Eddy himself fell in love with Helene of Orleans, who despite being Catholic was willing to convert to the Anglican faith to marry him. Despite the Queen’s support and her father’s eagerness to see his daughter as a potential queen consort, Pope Leo XIII threw a spanner into the works of the proposed marriage by refusing the princess a dispensation to convert to Anglicanism. Undeterred, Queen Victoria proposed as fiancée May of Teck, a distant relation with a flawed pedigree, but unfortunately it was not going to be third time lucky for Eddy as not long after the engagement, he caught influenza and died. After a suitable period of mourning, May was then engaged to Eddy’s younger brother George, who was also nursing a broken heart after the Duchess of Edinburgh put a stop to any moves to marry off her daughter Marie to the smitten George. Instead “Missy” was married off by her mother to Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania.

Bubbling under the surface of these entanglements was the constant threat of assassination attempts and violence from revolutionary and anarchist groups. Ella’s gilded bubble was shattered when her husband Sergei was assassinated in 1905, while another of Victoria’s granddaughters, Ena of Battenberg survived one as she and her new husband King Alfonso XIII of Spain were in their carriage following their wedding in 1906. These incidents among others were a harbinger of what was to come especially in the wake of the First World War: but Queen Victoria and her son and successor King Edward VII clung naively to Albert’s vision and maintained that peace could be achieved through strengthening the family bonds between the various monarchies of Europe.

Cadbury writes in a brisk and conversational style that is readable and she has helpfully drawn up a handy dramatis personae at the beginning to help the reader through the myriad of names and nicknames that are scattered throughout the narrative. While the popular press then and hagiographers write about these royal marriages as love matches, Cadbury disagrees and presents the reality behind these marriages. The story of Nicholas II and Alexandra (Alix)’s marriage is one of love and tragedy but Cadbury does not ignore the fact that despite their personal happiness both were temperamentally unsuited to the roles they had been destined to fulfill. If Nicholas was not suited to be the autocrat like his father, Alexandra despite her royal blood and impeccable family connections was not the right consort for Nicholas. Her unwillingness to follow well-meaning advice from family and friends not to mention her defence of autocracy with the same zeal that led her to wholeheartedly embrace the Russian Orthodox faith had disastrous consequences for her family and her adopted country.

The same is true with George V and Mary and I wish that the author had explored more of their married life, as there were already signs from the engagement that the marriage was not one of love as presented to the public but more of duty. One can only speculate what the former May of Teck thought and felt as she was shut out of even something as mundane as decorating her own home and her individuality all her life repressed and subordinate to George’s will and limitations. One of her earliest biographers perceptively noted that for May there was no higher calling than to be royal and perhaps that overrode any other considerations for her.

Apart from the narration, this book’s other main strength is with regards to pointing out strongly Queen Victoria’s weakness – her naïve view that foreign policy issues could be solved between families, not really realising that growing movements of nationalism, national identity and national interest were stronger than family ties. This was something her two successors – Edward VII to a lesser extent and George V to a greater extent understood, this played a part with the establishment of the Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia in 1907 and later withdrawing the offer of asylum to Nicholas II and his family in 1918.

In the end, as Cadbury shrewdly observed, royal cousinhood would prove to be powerless against the tide of change and in the end also sowed its own seeds of destruction. After the First World War, the political power of monarchy was all but destroyed and never again would “equal” royal marriages be encouraged and viewed as tools of political alliances. A popular saying goes that “blood is thicker than water” but as this tome demonstrates, blood ties would be meaningless against a cataclysmic world war.

 

 

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Exhibition Review: Royal Women: Public Life, Personal Style (Fashion Museum, Bath)

The strong interest in what female members of the British royal family wear continues with the latest addition in the person of the Duchess of Sussex. The coverage of her wedding gown and the ensemble she wore to her first official engagement demonstrates that this interest in royal fashion has not abated and is exacerbated by the presence of blogs, social media and the omnipresent 24/7/365 news culture.

This interest is not new however as demonstrated by an on-going exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath entitled Royal Women: Public Life, Personal Style, featuring clothes worn by Queen Alexandra, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) and Princess Margaret; each a wife or sister of a monarch. As public figures and being royal there are expectations to be met such as being above politics, so they should be seen and not heard. What royal women wear should be above fashion and be suitable for the occasion and the people they will meet: hence the bright colours in order to stand out, hats must never obscure the face, bags should never get in the way of shaking hands and accepting gifts from well-wishers. Even shoes are selected with comfort in mind.

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The exhibition is a small one with the clothes drawn from the museum’s own collection and loans from the Royal Collection. What was interesting is the information regarding how the museum was able to acquire dresses with royal provenance. Some like Princess Margaret’s were donated to the museum by the princess herself, while others such as a gown worn by Queen Mary were given by one of her ladies-in-waiting. Displayed chronologically, the clothes are a mini-history of royal fashion from the 1860s to the 1950s as well as highlighting how the four royal women featured used fashion and clothes to create their image and assist in their performance of their royal duties.

The women featured fall into two headings. Trendsetters like Queen Alexandra when as Princess of Wales she popularised tailored separates for day wear and jewelled chokers (to conceal a scar brought about by scrofula) for evening, and later Princess Margaret whose fashion choices generated headlines and epitomised glamour, especially after the austerity of the Second World War. Or in the case of Queens Mary and Elizabeth, their style was an integral part of their identity and as such instantly recognisable. Queen Mary remained wedded to the Edwardian styles that went out of fashion even during her lifetime, while Queen Elizabeth, with the help of designer Norman Hartnell, became known for her sparkling evening gowns which were heavily embroidered and beaded and in the distinct crinoline shape.

One of the interesting highlights of the exhibition was how clothes were not only re-worn but even recycled. Queen Alexandra’s wedding gown is virtually unrecognisable in the photographs of her on her wedding day but this is not unusual, as wedding dresses during this period were worn more than once – first on the wedding day and then reworked. As the wedding dress was the most expensive outfit in the entire bridal trousseau, it made sense for the gown to be designed in such a way that it could be worn again and again.

A second example of this clothes recycling was the dress worn by Queen Mary for Princess Elizabeth’s wedding in 1947. Designed by Norman Hartnell and described as “gold lame and turquoise cut velvet”, it originally had long sleeves and a high neck. The gown was later altered with the neckline adjusted and the sleeves cut to create the floaty panels around the upper arms. Both gowns demonstrated how clever alteration can result into a new dress created out of an old one.

Another interesting highlight was with regards to the change in Alexandra’s wardrobe after 1892 which marked a turning point. The death of her oldest son the Duke of Clarence hit her hard and after a period of deep mourning, she decided to wear half mourning for the rest of her life in his memory. This was in marked contrast to her mother-in-law Queen Victoria who wore black for forty years following the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861. Her choice is reflected in two gowns in dusky blue and mauve – two popular colours associated with half mourning, and they give us a good idea of the colour palette in Alexandra’s wardrobe during the last three decades of her life.

While the clothes are well presented, it’s a shame that apart from a hat and two pairs of shoes that belonged to Queen Mary as well as a glove that belonged to Queen Alexandra accessories are absent, which prevents the viewer from getting a more rounded picture of each woman’s taste and look. However this is a minor quibble more than anything. What is disappointing was there is nothing on display from Queen Elizabeth’s famous “White Wardrobe” designed by Norman Hartnell for the state visit to France in 1938. More than anything, the “White Wardrobe” represented a crossroads in Elizabeth’s over all look that marked the beginnings of the popular and iconic images of her as queen consort and queen mother.

The exhibition closes with a surprise loan from the Countess of Wessex which brings the exhibition fully to the present and demonstrate that while fashion have moved on, the demands of royal dressing have not. There is also a film showing the four featured women out and about performing their public duties which gives us a glimpse of them and their clothes in movement.

Certainly this exhibition leaves me wanting more but while small it is packed full with interesting information and trivia and as the surprise loan demonstrates, the public’s fascination with what royal women wear continues.

 

Royal Women: Public Life, Personal Style is on at the Fashion Museum Bath until 28 April 2019. Admission included in the ticket price.

For more information please visit: https://www.fashionmuseum.co.uk/

The bloggers visited the exhibition on 23 May 2018 and photos were taken by the bloggers.

Downton Abbey – an unhistorical historical drama

In his review of the 2013 Downton Abbey Christmas special, the TV critic Jim Shelley wrote that “Downton Abbey was shamelessly, shamefully aimed at the Americans, rather than the British audience that had made it so popular in the first place.” He could have been writing about the whole programme though and it became more apparent from the third series onwards as the history began to disappear and the soap opera aspect took over. It wasn’t helped by the endless junkets to America, where the actors seemed to be subjected to a Groundhog Day of the same chat show appearances, same questions, and same events over and over again.

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As we have said several times in our critique of this programme, Downton Abbey’s main problem is its very ahistoricity: it doesn’t just trivialise and misrepresent history but also the attitudes and behaviours of people during the time frame it was set. All of this despite the insistence that the programme is accurate, well researched and that it’s realistic. It is nothing of the sort, many of the story lines are anachronistic, crowbarred in a way that looks and feels forced; not to mention lacking any logical sense.

One of the main complaints with Downton Abbey and other period dramas in general is what one blogger calls “today’s imposition of 21st-century ideas and concerns on characters placed rather than fully located in [the past].” These dramas make an effort with the costumes, settings and props but that’s where it all ends, the way the characters sometimes behave and with the storylines, they might as well have been set today than say in 1912 or 1925!

We see various examples of these anachronisms in Downton Abbey – such as Robert’s reaction to his middle daughter Edith’s pregnancy which was more in line with a father from the 2010s rather than the 1920s. There’s Rose having too much freedom as an unmarried woman when someone like her would have been strictly chaperoned until she was married; or servants being buddy-buddy with their employers when that would not have been the case. Apart from the anachronistic storylines, there are two major omissions – the first being religion and the second being the empire.

Losing one’s religion:

As another blogger complained, this series projected “secularism back onto a time and place and way of life where it did not yet exist.” In an interview, the programme’s historical adviser Alastair Bruce claimed that the absence of religion was due to “executives in charge of the series had ordered producers to ‘leave religion out of it’, for fear of alienating an increasingly atheistic public.” He added, “Everyone panics when you try to do anything religious on the telly.”

This I believe is nonsense. Another popular period drama, Call the Midwife (BBC) not only has religion as one of the main themes of the programme but also religious people as central characters. Yet this programme time and again has been a hit with both critics and viewers. Although it has its flaws it’s not shy about tacking difficult story lines and depicting attitudes during the time the narrative is set no matter how unpalatable it is to our modern day sensibilities. It also depicts how religion and religious people still played a big part in Britain in the late 1950s and 1960s, even when organised religion was in retreat from everyday life. If Call the Midwife can do all that, then Downton Abbey which is set in the 1910s and 1920s has no such excuse.

Even Victoria (ITV) has featured religion in many of its scenes and one episode in the recent second series had religion as one of its main themes. And while the programme has taken some liberties with Queen Victoria’s life, aspects of religion such as the churching ritual that Victoria had to undergo following the birth of her first child and religious divisions hampering famine relief in Ireland was used with good effect to depict attitudes and customs of British society high and low of the late 1830s and 1840s. (It was as recently as 1979 that the Church of England renamed the rite of the churching of women in the Prayer Book to one of “A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child.”)

Whilst it’s true that in Downton Abbey there have been a few scenes set in the village church and the local vicar has made few appearances in series 2 and 3, there is a complete absence of religion with all the characters lacking any sense of religious belief and practice. Any literature of the period and contemporary accounts demonstrates the importance of religion in people’s lives. Although there were some who identified themselves as agnostic or even atheists, this was mostly confined to the middle class intelligentsia. For the majority, people identified themselves with a particular faith or sect, went to Church or the synagogue every week, and discussed religious issues with some even turning their hand to writing about theology and other aspects of their faith.

Especially in a rural area, religion was part and parcel of everyday life and the local lord and his family were obliged to set an example to their servants, tenants and the local community. It didn’t matter whether they were Church of England, Church of Scotland, Roman Catholic, Jewish or Nonconformist (a shorthand term used for Protestant sects other than the Established Churches) but religious observance either of the strict or nominal kind was scrupulously observed. The majority of the aristocracy belonged (at least nominally) to the Church of England and this was reinforced by the fact that bishops also sat in the House of Lords, that the local vicar was dependent on his living on the local lord and that the Church was an acceptable career for younger sons of the aristocracy and gentry. In effect all these ensured that the unity of Church and State, prominent in British institutions such as the Monarchy and Parliament, was also replicated on the local level; which also meant that the local vicar and his wife were an integral part of the local community’s social life and were often related to the local aristocracy and gentry. They would be regularly asked to dinner and other social events in the Big House, while the vicar’s wife and the chatelaine would regularly work together on a host of charitable endeavours and appeals. Historically there have even been some aristocrats who took an active role in religious life and education, most notably Millicent Duchess of Sutherland with her Bible study groups not just confined to her household but among her husband’s tenants and the local village. There was also Father the Honourable Ignatius Spencer, the younger son of the 4th Earl Spencer, who started out as an Anglican vicar but converted to Roman Catholicism and took holy orders in that church. In light of this, the near absence of religion and its practice in Downton Abbey renders meaningless its claim to accurately represent British life during the early decades of the twentieth century.

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Defenders will point out that showing religion wouldn’t fit the storyline or that there is the religion due to the weddings, christening – and the vicar does pop up in the programme. I find this a spurious excuse – religion was a part of everyday life in the era around the period in which Downton is set, in a way we can’t imagine in our largely secular world.  Faith, or at least lip service to religious observance, was all pervasive, and the Church, along with the Empire and the monarchy, had a deep significance and importance for very many people. Religion and religious teaching was deeply embedded in people’s psyche, church-going on a Sunday was still common, and many children of all social classes attended a local Sunday School.

Churches also undertook a considerable amount of charitable and welfare work and provided a venue for social and community activities as well as spiritual comfort in times of national crisis. National days of prayer were particularly well supported during the Great War, Sunday was generally regarded as a day of rest and all shops closed on Sundays.

In her diaries written during the First World War, Lillie Scales describes the role religion played for her and many other people:

August 1914 – Intercession services are being held in many places…one feels that only hope is in God and that He will defend the right.

  1. On Sunday January 6th we had the national day of intercession and it was a wonderful day. We had good congregations, but one heard everywhere of crowded churches, and even queues.

November 11th 1918 George (Lillie’s husband) had gone to St Giles’s at 11 o’clock, and found people pouring into the church for an impromptu thanksgiving service, and there were services there all morning. There had been an impromptu great thanksgiving service in St Paul’s at 12 noon.

November 17th 1918 – There was a great thanksgiving service in St Paul’s, and churches everywhere were crowded, queues in many places.

 

Church membership (according to faithsurvey.co.uk) peaked in 1900 at 33% of the population, and in 1920 was just under 10 million in a population of around 40 million – and there must have been many more people who attended church because of social, moral or familial pressure or expectation. This aspect of existence – weekly church attendance, the great annual rituals of Whitsun, Easter, Advent and Christmas, the importance in public life that the established church had and the comfort religion gave to many (especially during the war years) are simply ignored – because Bruce claimed that he was told to show it would upset viewers.

To a great number of people in the UK now, religion isn’t important and they don’t realise the extent to which it was in the Downton era. That’s why Alastair Bruce got away with his comment and no-one picked up the logical fail to the claim that this was supposed to be an accurate depiction of life 100 years ago but that a very significant chunk of social existence was omitted. Write a drama that panders to what as writer you perceive to be the susceptibilities and prejudices of your audience instead of depicting historical facts and you end up with Braveheart – or Downton Abbey.

I think a good writer would have found a way to have people going about their everyday life in the background and the storyline in the foreground. I am of the view that one of the whole points of a drama is to show facets of these characters and religion might not necessarily be a major story line but it could be something in the background to give the viewer a picture of what was life then. If religion was depicted as part of everyday life in Downton Abbey, it could have added more poignancy to Thomas’s struggles or Robert’s crises. We could have seen Thomas wresting with the conflict between religious dogma and society’s attitudes against his own sexuality and desires, or Robert with his personal issues having a crisis of faith due to feeling unwanted during the war, realising that his marriage is not what it seemed and the family’s subsequent precarious finances. This is real story telling and not the half-baked and flimsy ones that we’ve seen on screen.

 

Don’t Mention the Empire:

When the TV critic Jim Shelley groused that the programme was pandering shamelessly to the Americans, it was an astute observation. One can see this with the casting of veteran Hollywood actress Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson, Cora’s mother in series 3 then contriving her return in the series 4 Christmas special with her son Harold (Paul Giamatti) in tow. The aforementioned special was seemingly designed to pander to Americans’ fascination with British royalty, pomp and circumstance as well as the endless parade of evening gowns and spectacle that the viewing public had come to expect.

Perhaps surprisingly for the producers and TV executives, the episode was greeted with derision and hilarity with the plot described as “ludicrous” and lacking credibility. Even the much-vaunted research and accuracy was panned, as several viewers pointed out mistakes ranging from the way the presentation was done down to errors in dress and uniforms.

This pandering to the Americans is perhaps one reason why the British Empire is conspicuously absent in Downton Abbey. For sure there are a few fleeting references here and there but it’s very much like Basil Fawlty going on about not mentioning the war. Just like with religion, Fellowes must have decided that the empire didn’t fit into his plot so it’s not mentioned at all. The only obligatory references are with Robert’s cousin the Marquess of Flintshire going to India to become a provincial governor, a fleeting mention of the Amritsar Massacre and listening to a radio broadcast of George V opening the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley (a very convenient prompt to tell the audience that series 5 is set in 1924).

Apart from what I’ve mentioned above, the empire might not as well exist in Downton Abbey. This is despite the fact that historically it was an omnipresent presence in British life and we are still living with its legacy for good or ill to this very day. The popular celebrity genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC) through several episodes featuring the likes of actor Charles Dance, Olympic athlete Sebastian Coe, chef Ainsley Harriott, journalist Natasha Kaplinsky, actress Meera Syal and most recently choreographer Craig Revel Horwood have demonstrated how much the empire is very much interwoven into the very fabric of this country. We can see the empire’s influence in the food that we eat, in our decorative arts and architecture, not to mention that many place names up and down Britain have their origins in places that were part of the empire on which “the sun never sets.”  These influences have been cemented further following the end of the Second World War when immigration grew steadily from countries that comprised the former empire.

During the period in which Downton Abbey is set, the empire featured prominently in national life and everyday life (one example being the annual celebration of Empire Day). The positions of Colonial Secretary and Secretary of State for India were seen as prestigious, news concerning the empire was widely covered and the comings and goings of politicians and famous people from the colonies were headline news. There were also the various events that underlined the bonds between Britain and its colonies through industrial exhibitions held in major cities; the most famous being that held at Wembley in 1924-5. These exhibitions not only presented the best of home grown industry but also products from the empire such as timber from Canada, butter and lamb from New Zealand, cotton from India and others. In short, exhibitions such as those held at Wembley were, in the observation of Anne Clendinning, to “celebrate imperial unity and to increase mutual economic cooperation” as well as highlight the empire which was described by King George V as a “family of nations.”

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This idea of the empire as a “family of nations” isn’t a new one but it was used by Queen Victoria to cement the bonds between Britain and a growing empire during the second half of the 19th century with her sons and grandsons touring India and the white dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) on her behalf. This was further underlined when Victoria’s son-in-law the future 9th duke of Argyll served as Governor-General of Canada. In 1911, George V went one step further by travelling to India to be present at a Durbar staged to mark his coronation as emperor of India; and following the end of the First World War, his sons all undertook tours of the empire on his behalf with the Duke of York (the future George VI) travelling to the Antipodes and Africa while the Duke of Gloucester undertook tours of Africa. However the most indefatigable was the oldest son, the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) when during the 1920s and 1930s he became the first member of the royal family to visit nearly all parts of the empire during his world tours. These tours were so successful that in David Cannadine’s words, “the crown was made truly imperial and the empire authentically royal.”

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Royal tours followed a certain formula as described by Cannadine in his book Ornamentalism whereby “[t]hese were grand progresses by land and sea, lasting for many months and covering many miles, involving countless receptions, dinners, parades and speeches, and all carried on before vast, delighted and admiring crowds.” By the twentieth century, following Edward VII’s dictum that the more people see the royals the better it is for the country, the “arrangement for these tours became even more elaborate, and the tours even more novel, thrilling and spectacular, as the royal lineaments and sovereign symbols were brought vividly and vitally alive.”  There were also the reciprocal visits from African chiefs, Indian maharajahs, and royals from the various Pacific islands and sultans from Malaya where they were treated with the courtesy, deference, pomp and circumstance that their status demanded. All of these reinforced the idea that the empire was indeed a “family of nations.”

On a more personal level, the empire had an impact on huge swathes of the British population not just with what they consumed or bought but the personal and familial level. A huge percentage of the UK population had at least one family member or a friend living and working in the colonies. Thousands of people together with their families emigrated to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in search of a better life lured by the opportunity afforded by huge tracts of land for farming, herding and mining; a cheaper standard of living and the chance to start anew.

A cheaper standard of living and lack of career prospects at home also drove many young men to try their luck in the colonies. The empire provided career opportunities and prospects for advancement that were not readily available in Britain. This was attractive for younger sons of the aristocracy and gentry as well as those from the upper middle classes in straitened conditions – there was the army, the colonial civil service as well as being on the staff of a governor or viceroy which allowed them avenues for promotion, enabling them to marry and provide for a wife and family in a way that would not be possible in Britain. Being an officer in a prestigious colonial or Indian regiment or being an aide-de-camp or private secretary to the viceroy or a governor-general made a young man a very attractive marriage prospect indeed.

There were also opportunities in the private sector for engineers, surveyors, bankers, scientists and the like as British firms and banks also opened branches in the colonies. Others saw the colonies as a way where they could be their own masters whether it be setting up their own business or acquiring land for farming or mining, prospecting for gold or other valuable minerals. For those who were not inclined towards government service or farming, the empire also provided prospects in the fields of religion, education, medicine and the social sciences. In short, the British Empire showed that there were rewards for those who were willing to take risks and leave the comfort zone of Britain.

In light of this, Downton Abbey could have made much more use of the empire with its storylines. For instance it could be used to write out characters such as Sybil after Jessica Brown Findlay refused to renew her contract. It’s true that Sybil, Tom and their baby daughter could have moved to America given they have family in that country but if they really wanted a fresh start and a clear break from their pasts then immigrating to Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa would have been much better as the Bransons could create a new life of their own unencumbered by their backgrounds.

The same could also be said of downstairs, where it would be likely that at least a few of the servants would have at least known someone who had gone to the colonies for better work prospects, and again this could be another way to write out someone like Daisy or any of the footmen. Or even Anna and Mr Bates, the money that they have saved would have allowed them not only to open the guesthouse that they want but also perhaps begin a new life in any of the Dominions or try their hand at running at a rubber plantation in Malaya or a tea farm in India.

Crucially however using the empire would have allowed Rose to exit the programme at the end of series 4. The series 4 Christmas special could have ended with Rose departing for India to re-join her parents following her season. Given her straitened financial circumstances and her less than impeccable moral credentials, she would have had problems finding a husband in Britain especially as after the First World War there were fewer men to go around. In fact India would have been a much better bet if she was looking for a husband. There was the army, the Indian Civil Service, the Viceroy’s office, the staff of the various provincial governors (among them her father Lord Flintshire) and of course those who were working for British companies based in India. Rose would be no different to the numbers of young upper and middle class young British women going to India in order to find an eligible young man to marry. For the women who went to India and who were known as the “Fishing Fleet”, it was an attractive choice – as Anne de Courcy wrote:

“By the nineteenth century, India was seen as a marriage market for girls neither pretty nor rich enough to make at home what was known as ‘a good match’, the aim of all young respectable young women – indeed, perhaps not to make one at all. In India, where European men greatly outnumbered European women, they would be besieged by suitors, many of whom be richer or have more prospects than anyone they could meet in England.” (p. 3)

And that was the motivation to go to India especially as for women, the main goal was to marry and raise a family. For upper and middle class women, the social life such as the London Season and country house visits were all geared towards young women to make a good match but in reality a great number of them didn’t (especially after the First World War when Britain had been denuded of eligible young men). As Mabell Countess of Airlie and countless other social commentators observed, ideally a young woman should have received at least a proposal by the end of her first season and should be married by the age of twenty. A woman who had reached the age of twenty five unmarried was already considered to be an old maid so it’s not surprising that many young women were dispatched by worried parents to try their luck in India – a last throw of the dice before settling into spinsterhood and a future of caring for aged parents and/or nephews and nieces.

But of course, Rose stays on (even when there is no real raison d’etre to her character) and eventually marries the Hon Atticus Aldridge, the son and heir to Viscount Sinderby. Much was made of him being Jewish and while someone like him would have at least five years’ worth of debutantes to choose from with some as rich or richer than he is (thereby cementing an alliance between wealth and wealth) but no, love has to triumph even when it’s crowbarred in as a way of giving a redundant character something to do, and any parental objection to the match is dismissed as bigotry – forgetting that the parents (especially the Sinderbys) would by the standards of the time have legitimate objections to the match and not just with regards to religious differences.

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Once Rose and Atticus are married she is written out of the programme, but they make a brief appearance during the finale and its revealed that they are living in America. As Atticus works in banking and finance it would be more plausible to have based him in the City of London, where a number of Jewish founded banks such as Samuel Montagu might have provided a congenial niche for a rich and personable young man. If they were going to be posted overseas, it would be more likely that it would be Shanghai in China, which despite not being part of the British Empire had a substantial presence in commerce and banking. Why Fellowes had to contrive to say that they’re in America is baffling unless this is him still pandering to the American market until the very end.

 

Conclusion:

In our previous posts on Downton Abbey, we have mentioned several issues with the programme with regards to its writing, plotting and characterisation. Dramatic weight and rhythm has always been a problem with this programme, with trivial and irrelevant story lines being given equal time and importance with vital ones. There is as well no sense of the appropriate time for a story line and the programme itself has been riddled by one delayed action plot after the other; the war memorial; the lavish post-war entertaining after the family has lost its money rather than before the war, when it could be justified by having three daughters to marry off; even the family doing their bit for the war effort but not until the war had been going on for two years – all of these meant that these story lines have been robbed of their historical context and as a result the characters do not behave in a way that is of their time.

The history and its use and abuse as a narrative driver are a major issue. As stated earlier in this entry, Downton Abbey is ahistory not history. It might pay lip service to a few historical events such as the sinking of the Titanic and real life historical figures such as Neville Chamberlain but in the end, the programme portrays a false and incomplete picture of the period, using historical events to forward the writer’s pet agendas when that suits and ignoring them when it doesn’t. It is false because while the drama might be set from 1912 to 1925, the attitudes displayed (at least the majority of them) are more attuned to today’s norms. In many ways Downton Abbey is a classic case of ideas that were commonplace and accepted in 1925 being suddenly being labelled “bizarre”,“bigoted” and plain wrong today to suit the sensibilities of the audience and reinforce a belief that somehow we are so much enlightened than some of the characters we are watching. From attitudes towards gay men and unmarried mothers to men shot for cowardice during the war, it seems that a writer like Julian Fellowes can simply erase history in his mind and convince himself that because he holds one opinion today, anyone who held a contrary opinion in the past (notably, of course, Robert and Carson) must have been some sort of knuckle-dragging, sexist, mouth breathing, ignorant bigot who can be held up to ridicule at every opportunity. No doubt of course there were people like that around in 1925 – the history of the decades that follow amply bears that out – but while people like Robert and Carson may well have held opinions that we regard as odious, they were not alone in that. Prejudice against homosexuality and babies born out of wedlock and men who deserted their posts in war (to name but three stories in Downton) was taken for granted – it is our attitudes that at the time would have been regarded as odd and out of the ordinary. A drama written with no appreciation or understanding that the past is a different country, and that fails to honour that past, good or bad, by imposing contemporary standards upon the standards of another era is one that does not deserve to be dignified with the name of a drama – it is mere pastiche. Fellowes’ historical blindness is amply demonstrated by the descriptions of Downton being set in a “gentler, kinder time” – a time when there was capital punishment for murder, corporal punishment in schools was commonplace, workhouses still operated and the horrors of the Great War were all too fresh in the memory.

Not only is Downton Abbey false, it is incomplete; and it is incomplete because of its omission of major aspects of British life and society during that period. What is worrying is that many people have taken what they have seen in Downton Abbey as gospel truth; as is the deeply damaging notion that people in the past are just like us only in funny clothes. As result it ends up being not only poor historical drama but poor drama full stop.

The programme’s omission of both religion and empire robbed Downton Abbey of any claim to be realistic or well researched. Crucially both could have given more depth to the narrative and added dimension to the characters and added a real understanding of an era. Unfortunately, it was never meant to be and yet again, we have to return to the question of why Fellowes set his narrative in the past when he is patently uninterested in exploring its real story.

Some thoughts on Iolanthe

On the 24th of February, my husband and I went to the London Coliseum to watch the English National Opera’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Iolanthe, which the press release and programme notes mention is the first after 40 years. It was a packed matinee performance and it didn’t disappoint as the audience laughed along to the witty dialogue, physical comedy and catchy tunes with a bit of audience participation thrown in.

Iolanthe

Iolanthe or The Peer and Peri is one of many collaborations between composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and writer Sir W.S. Gilbert which included The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, The Mikado and Patience. In Iolanthe, the title character is a fairy recalled from her exile after breaking the law that forbade a fairy from consorting with a mortal. The sentence was originally death but the Fairy Queen had this commuted to exile on condition that she never sees her husband again. Iolanthe and her husband part but not before they manage to have a son – Strephon – who becomes a shepherd and who has no idea who his father is.

Twenty five years later, Strephon has fallen in love with Phyllis, a shepherdess, and proposed marriage to her but she is ward of the Chancery under the Lord Chancellor  and he has forbidden the match: declaring that Strephon is not a suitable match for Phyllis. There is also the added complication that the Lord Chancellor wants to make Phyllis his wife and further complicating matters is that several members of the House of Lords are also smitten with the young shepherdess. Strephon asks his mother for help and due to mistaken identity, an angry Phyllis breaks off the engagement and declares that she will consider marrying either Lord Tolloller or Lord Mountararat.

More chaos ensures as the Fairy Queen causes the election of Strephon as a Member of Parliament with his proposed bills passing through Parliament. One bill particularly alarms the House of Lords – a bill that would open the upper house based on merit to those who pass a competitive examination. The peers plead with the fairies to lift the curse but love is in the air as the fairies fall in love with the peers. Meanwhile Strephon learns that his father is the Lord Chancellor and Iolanthe risks death by revealing herself to the Lord Chancellor who is surprised to learn to his wife is still alive and that he has a son. The Fairy Queen arrives to carry out the punishment on Iolanthe for having violated the terms of her exile and then realises that she will have to carry out the same punishment on all the fairies. Everyone is saved by the Lord Chancellor who makes a legal intervention by adding a single word to existing fairy law –  “every fairy shall die who doesn’t marry a mortal.” With this, the Fairy Queen agrees and the peers rush off to join the fairies in fairy land.

Gilbert and Sullivan used their operas to poke fun at anyone and everyone in British society and there were no sacred cows for this duo. Everyone was fair game – politicians, the army, the aristocracy, the royals, civil servants, the law, fads and ideologies. With Iolanthe, both men returned to two targets that they had previously lampooned; the aristocracy and the law. One main theme that recurs time and again in Iolanthe is the absurdity of the hereditary system as embodied in the House of Lords. As one of the main characters, Lord Mountararat sings:

When Britain really ruled the waves –

(In good Queen Bess’s time)

The House of Peers made no pretence

To intellectual eminence,

Or scholarship sublime;

Yet Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!

When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,

As every child can tell,

The House of Peers, throughout the war,

Did nothing in particular,

And did it very well:

Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!

And while the House of Peers withholds

Its legislative hand,

And noble statesmen do not itch

To interfere with matters which

They do not understand,

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!

The song itself belies Lord Mountararat’s self-awareness that he has reached where he is due to accident of birth. Not through hard work or pluck but simply because of who his antecedents were. By this point in real life the House of Commons was slowly opening up to men who had reached Parliament due to hard work and merit but the House of Lords remained entrenched in their ways and were resistant to any attempts at reform. When Strephon proposes to open the House of Lords to competitive examination, the number between the peers and Strephon seems to read as a premonition of the showdown between the Lords and the Commons that resulted into the Parliament Act of 1911:

PEERS:

Young Strephon is the kind of lout

We do not care a fig about!

We cannot say

What evils may

Result in consequence

But lordly vengeance will pursue

All kinds of common people who

Oppose our views,

Or boldly choose

To offer us offence.

FAIRIES, PHYLLIS, and STREPHON:

With Strephon for your foe, no doubt,

A fearful prospect opens out,

And who shall say

What evils may

Result in consequence?

A hideous vengeance will pursue

All noblemen who venture to

Oppose his views,

Or boldly choose

To offer him offence.

Of course in the opera, love conquers all as a change in the law allows the fairies and the mortals to marry each other without any fear of death. In real life, the peerage itself – already under assault by financial crises – would be dealt with more blows that perhaps not even Gilbert and Sullivan could have ever foreseen. However if both men were alive during the first half of the twentieth century, they would have certainly have found more material to lampoon the aristocracy and perhaps even P.G. Wodehouse would struggle to compete with Gilbert’s dialogue and Sullivan’s music.

However back to the ENO’s production – the acting and singing were spot on and under the direction of Cal MacCrystal who recently directed last year’s film hit Paddington 2, the acting and singing were anchored by touches of physical comedy, just enough but not overdoing it. This production has also remained faithful to how Gilbert and Sullivan envisioned it and mercifully, we have been spared any references to current events. Instead what we have is simply over two hours of sublime music and comedy. I hope that we won’t have to wait another 40 years for another staging of this classic.

 

The English National Opera’s porduction of Iolanthe is on at the London Coliseum until 7 April. For more information, please click on this link: https://www.eno.org/operas/iolanthe/ and https://www.eno.org/whats-on/iolanthe/

 

 

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.

victoria-christmas-special-jenna-coleman-zaris-angel-hator

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.

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.

Victoria S2 E5

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.