The transatlantic marriage phenomenon – whereby cash strapped British aristocrats married the daughters of American nouveau riche families – has been the subject of novels (The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton and My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin to name a few), period drama (Downton Abbey) as well as academic and popular studies from the likes of Maureen E. Montgomery and Charles Jennings. Studies on the British aristocracy from the likes of David Cannadine have also touched on this occurrence. The latest comes from journalist Julie Ferry with The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau.
Subtitled “Husband Hunting during the Gilded Age”, Ferry examines the motivations and objectives of American heiresses and their families in crossing the Atlantic to find husbands. Her book focuses on the year 1895 which has been generally characterised as the apogee of the transatlantic marriage phenomenon. Consuelo Vanderbilt’s eventual marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough is the linchpin of this narrative and the main focus is on how this marriage came about. And a love match this wasn’t, it was arranged for all intents and purposes with a great deal of calculation, chutzpah, planning, even threats and bullying by Consuelo’s mother Alva Erskine Smith, herself from an old Southern family who lost their money in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Her marriage to William Kissam Vanderbilt, a member of a wealthy family who made their fortune in the railways, bought her wealth but not the social acceptance that she also craved. The Vanderbilts were shunned by New York society for making their money in trade and in order to be accepted by the so-called “400,” Alva planned her assault on society carefully. She persuaded her husband to build Marble Hall, which was to be their summer home in Newport; threw lavish dinners and balls; was seen at the right parties and public spaces and carefully cultivated friends and allies who could help her conquer society and secure the approval of the ultimate arbiter of New York society – Mrs Astor. Despite her efforts, she knew that the best way to secure this entrée to society was through her daughter Consuelo making a socially advantageous match. And not just any husband but a titled one – preferably British – and not just titled but a duke.
Alva turned to two friends to make this dream come true – Mrs Arthur Paget and the Duchess of Manchester who happened to be Consuelo’s godmother. Born Minnie Stevens and Consuelo Yznaga respectively, both women were part of the first wave of American heiresses to marry into the British aristocracy and through their beauty, charm and novelty managed to gain acceptance into society through their friendship with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. Being part of the Marlborough House set placed Minnie and Consuelo in a unique place. Ensconced firmly in the bosom of high society in Britain, they were in an ideal position to help Alva Vanderbilt and other pushy nouveaux riche mothers who were determined to marry off their daughters into the British aristocracy in the teeth of opposition from home grown heiresses and their match making mothers. The American heiresses and their mothers were advised on what to wear, where to rent a house for the season and how to navigate the complex etiquette and rules governing society. Minnie and Consuelo also hosted teas and dinners at their homes so that their fellow Americans could be introduced to eligible bachelors and their families.
Both women were rewarded handsomely for their efforts. It was seen as vulgar to exchange cash outright but gifts, generous discounts and settled bills certainly eased any financial difficulties that Minnie and Consuelo encountered. Helping broker these marriages allowed Minnie Paget and Consuelo Manchester to live and entertain in the lifestyle they were accustomed to and that was expected of the class they married into.
While the book isn’t exactly large, it’s packed with loads of details. Ferry charts the history behind the growth of society in America especially after the Civil War and how a system developed in order to regulate the flow of newcomers who wanted to break into established society. The rules were rigid and those who were unable to penetrate the likes of the New York Four Hundred headed to Europe where the cash-strapped aristocracy, despite prejudices against Americans, were prepared to welcome these interlopers because of the wealth they could bring to shore up their bankrupt and dilapidated estates.
Ferry also delved into newspapers and magazines of the period to demonstrate how these new rich arrivistes became the celebrities in their day. Their activities, homes, clothes, jewels and even their scandals were reported and commented upon: which horrified the old guard and traditional society who believed in thrift, modesty and propriety. Then as now, the papers were not averse to sensationalising stories, while some were embellished in order provide a talking point, other stories were outright lies and fabrication.
The result of these transatlantic marriages was mixed. While there were some who found love and happiness, others simply jogged on for the sake of family and duty. There were couples however who couldn’t simply maintain appearances and in the end decided on a separation or heaven forbid a divorce. The Marlboroughs were an example, after providing her husband with two sons to secure the family line, Consuelo and “Sunny” Marlborough began to lead increasingly separate lives and affairs on both sides led to a formal separation in 1906 and finally divorce in 1921. By the early 1900s, it was clear also that the novelty of marrying American heiresses was wearing off and even in America itself there had long been a backlash against their citizens marrying into the British aristocracy.
The book contains no new or ground breaking research but it makes a good introductory read to an era in history where the British aristocracy attempted to arrest their decline by looking across the ocean for that injection of cash while the American new rich were hungry for social validation. In the end, it proved to be a chimera – the decline of the aristocracy was irreversible while growing influence abroad would make Americans realise that they didn’t need coronets and titles to be accepted.
Despite the sexy connotations attached to underwear, the V&A’s current exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is anything but. As the title of the exhibition goes, it traces the history of underwear from the earliest extant piece dating back from the 18th century to the present as well as examining the reasons and motivation for the existence of underwear. They range from reasons of hygiene to protection down to structural support of various parts of the human anatomy. Underwear also reflects and is also subject to the changes in fashion and what has been seen as the ideal body type and shape. As we’ve come to expect from the V&A, it does all this in an informative and yet visually appealing and interesting exhibition.
Cleverly, the displays are not displayed chronologically but according to themes and there is a wide variety of objects on display: not just underwear but advertisements, photographs, prints, packaging and even cartoons. One of the strongest aspects of the exhibition is examining how the emphasis on hygiene, protection and comfort has led to the development of fabrics and materials in underwear design and manufacture. Before the advent of synthetic fabrics, natural fibres such as cotton, linen and wool were used for underclothes for their ease in washing and durability. Wool particularly was singled out for its health benefits as advocated by Dr Gustav Jaeger for its ability to regulate body temperature. However from the late 19th century onwards, techniques were being develop to bolster the durability of natural fabrics such as for instance there was “Ellico” developed by William Elliot and Sons which was marketed as “unshrinkable wool”. By the 20th century, there was the invention of synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester in the middle of the last century down to today’s lycra, tactel and elastine that demonstrate the main function of underwear that is worn for both hygiene and protection.
Just as clothes and accessories have reflected changing trends in fashion and standards of beauty, underwear is the same and nowhere is this more apparent with the corset. Although its basic shape has remained unaltered, subtle changes reflect changing fashions from the “hourglass” shape of the 1850s to the “S-bend” of the 1890s and by the twentieth century, synthetic and elastic materials have replaced whalebone: beginning in the 1920s when the prevailing fashion for fluidity meant that underwear was used to minimise and flatten the body. What is interesting is the variety of corsets on display such as for horse riding and other sports such as tennis, golf and cycling, for maternity and to wear in the tropics – a very interesting point as even as Western women were becoming more emancipated and physically active they were still to some extent constrained, and up to the first world war were still swathed in their voluminous clothes and layers even in the heat of countries such as India, Egypt and the Philippines!
Of course the wearing of underwear is not only for practical or health reasons but also for comfort, aesthetics, allure and mystique so this is where “lingerie” comes in; underwear that is made of silk, lace, applique, crepe de chine and satin mostly hand stitched and embroidered to be used as a tool for seduction. The upper gallery also features underwear that while ostensibly as for comfort such as tea gowns, dressing gowns, hostess gowns and lounging pyjamas are also by their beauty and informality the means of seduction and allure: and the diaphanous fabrics hint to the male admirer of the delights in store for him and that he’s not going to have to fight his way through layers of petticoats and a corset to enjoy them.
Overall the exhibition is fascinating and carefully curated but especially for the last part of the exhibition there is too much emphasis on prestige brands and not enough of high street stalwarts such as for instance Marks and Spencer or Anne Summers. I believe that’s a glaring omission especially as M&S has arguably been the go-to shop for majority of women for underwear for the last 80-90 years. But apart from that quibble, kudos to the V&A for attempting to present the history of the underwear not only from the woman’s side but also to give equal attention to the men as well.
2016 marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and the anniversary an added dimension as it was also exactly a hundred years ago when a film depicting the battle was premiered to picture houses up and down the country. The Battle of the Somme, featuring both actual and recreated footage was a bold and risky move by the War Office designed to rally support for the war effort and it was seen by many people. For the first time, audiences could see the battle unfolding before their eyes on screen rather than reading about it in the newspapers or through letters from family and friends at the Front.
To celebrate both landmark events the Imperial War Museum has mounted the exhibition Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies which documents the history of war movies through objects and paraphernalia such as props, scripts, notes, costumes, film clips and posters. There are also features of real people who have inspired films such as Adolf Hitler (Downfall) and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) as well as works of fiction and non-fiction that have made it from print to screen for instance Atonement, War Horse, Empire of the Sun and Full Metal Jacket.
Two of the interesting aspects of the exhibition are the enduring popularity of the Second World War for war movies, with many of the films featured such as The Dam Busters, Carve Her Name With Pride and The Bridge of the River Kwai made during the 1950s when the end of the war was barely a decade in the past; while the 1960s and 1970s saw the release of films featuring all-star casts such as The Great Escape and Das Boot. This fascination has endured to this day with films such as Saving Private Ryan and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
The other interesting aspect is the production side of making these films where attention to detail and striving for accuracy and authenticity were emphasised. Here we see story boards; annotated scripts; models and interviews with directors, writers and other production people to talk viewers through the process by which a particular scene was shot and filmed and the issues that are at the forefront of a particular film. One of the most fascinating clips was featuring the real Omaha Beach landings on D-Day followed Steven Spielberg’s version in Saving Private Ryan and it was astonishing to see how Spielberg was able to recreate the actual event almost frame by frame.
The last part of the exhibition notes how war films have been received both by the critics and the public. Films such as Oh What a Lovely War and Casablanca have entered our popular consciousness while the likes of Patton and Bridge of Spies have garnered critical praise and awards. What comes out of the exhibition is that while no film can totally be 100% accurate and portray the realities of war, for better or for worse they shape our perception of a conflict. If a film is done well, it can help broaden our understanding of the conflict and even the times we live in today. However, the film industry doesn’t always get in right – Operation Burma and U-571 are two of the most historically inaccurate war films ever made and have the potential to perpetuate falsehoods and misconceptions. As the exhibition quoted The Times “misrepresentation on the screen can do very much more harm than an article in a newspaper” because it “speaks in a language that can be understood by millions” – a very perceptive comment that sums up not only war movies but period movies and TV programmes in general.
Real to Reel is a good exhibition but understandably it won’t be able to cover all aspects of war cinema and the focus is overwhelmingly on British and American cinema (bar Downfall which is a German film). However, there are more than enough to show why war is a popular topic for film makers and how conflicts such as the two World Wars continue to provide a fresh source for storytelling and film making even long after the real guns have fallen silent.
The bloggers visited both exhibitions on 9 September 2016.
Unsurprisingly given her vigorous marital life with Albert, Victoria finds herself pregnant just months into her marriage and with the spectre of Charlotte looming over the young queen, she is treated as an invalid by her mother which she resents. As childbirth then was seen as a “dangerous business”, the issue arises of who should be regent should Victoria die or become incapacitated due to child birth. She proposes Albert but the Tories are opposed to a foreigner as regent.
Albert meanwhile is still searching for a role especially as his wife still refuses to share her duties with him, and it’s patently clear that her isolated upbringing under her mother’s care has left her ignorant of current affairs and that she takes little interest in the conditions of her subjects. His knowledge of his adopted country is far superior to hers and he uses his enforced idleness to educate himself on the technological advances and changes making their mark. While on a visit to a local squire up north who happens to be a neighbour of Sir Robert Peel (Nigel Lindsay), the arrival of the railways becomes a focal point of conversation: the royal couple’s host is opposed to them owing to their view that the railways encroach on private land. Albert on the other hand welcomes the railways, as he sees them as a vehicle for progress allowing people, products and ideas to travel from one part of the country to another. Much to his delight, he’s invited by Sir Robert to take a ride on the train on the latter’s estate and he accepts the invitation by sneaking out one early morning. This results in another row between Albert and Victoria – sadly we do not see the latter’s famous fierce temper deployed to full effect here but later having taken a ride in the railway herself, she slowly begins to recognise that there are things she needs to learn and where Albert can be of help to her.
Back in London, Parliament approves the motion that Albert is to be regent in the event of Victoria’s death or incapacitation. Victoria spurns the plain food that her mother suggests for her by ordering food that she wants to eat and crucially begins to involve Albert while she works on the red boxes.
The final episode seemed to be a return to the soap opera-like intrigues I thought disappeared with the beginning of this series. Fast forward a few months, Victoria is getting bored and restless, it’s clear she hates being pregnant and she blanches at the thought of breastfeeding so she dispatches Lehzen and Jenkins to search for a suitable wet nurse.
As the first female Sovereign to be expecting, it’s understandable that the atmosphere is very tense and that certain people stand to benefit should something happen to her and the baby. What is maddening is the constant reference and bleating about Princess Charlotte’s death, repeated constantly in the last two episodes; everyone watching knows it by now but it’s easily forgotten that there were other women in the family who survived childbirth, especially King George III’s wife Queen Charlotte who managed to give birth to fifteen children with thirteen surviving into adulthood.
The tense atmosphere is made worse by the arrival of the Duke of Cumberland who taunts his niece in very unsubtle ways especially as she has been the target of an assassination attempt by a young man called Edward Oxford, who attempts to shoot her while she’s out on one of her regular carriage drives with Albert. Suspicion falls on the Duke, especially as evidence seems to point to him being aware of a plot to do away with his niece. (Even though at the time it was later revealed that Oxford was a lone wolf, insane and that his pistol wasn’t loaded, Cumberland’s unpopularity both in Britain and Hanover through rescinding the constitution promulgated by his predecessor William IV as well as his past history – being accused of murdering his valet and suspected of fathering his sister’s illegitimate son, among other things – showed how much people were willing to believe he was behind the plot).
In other developments, the slow burning romance between Francatelli and Skerrett ends on a sad note when she declines his offer to join him after he receives an offer to open his own establishment. As for Ernst, he returns not only to support his brother but also to have a catch up with the Duchess of Sutherland. When Albert remonstrates his brother for what he has done, Ernst sets the record straight by showing him a lock of the Duchess’s hair which he has requested.
The last two episodes also depicted Victoria’s close relationship with Baroness Lehzen who has been with the Queen ever since she was a child. Her role as Victoria’s gatekeeper especially when it comes to her personal correspondence is something that Albert is suspicious of especially as this correspondence nearly led to a security breach (which brings home the point that it’s not only the present British royal family who are the targets of fantasists). Another touching scene is that between the Queen and her uncle Leopold which gives us an insight into his marriage to Princess Charlotte- which by all accounts was a loving one despite being cut short by her tragic death.
The series ends on a happy note when we see Victoria and Albert with their new born baby daughter who Albert suggests be named after her mother. While ITV has already commissioned a second series for next year, there are already new story lines shaping up – most notably a looming showdown between Albert and Lehzen and Victoria’s confident prediction that their next child will be a boy. But we will have to wait until 2017 to see how these and others will play out. Oooh, the suspense – and we aren’t going to check wiki or google ‘Queen Victoria’s children’ or ‘Prince Albert and Lehzen – what happened?’ in the meantime and spoil it for ourselves, are we?
So, all in all what do I make of this series? While there are some good bits and there is a huge effort made to depict as faithfully as possible the attitudes of the time, the rituals of court life and the politicking of the day, they are spoiled by unnecessary padding: especially with the downstairs story lines and the constant beating of the viewers over the head with certain lines and themes over and over again. A major omission was overlooking Baron Stockmar’s role in bringing together Victoria and Albert and his role as their unofficial counsellor in such matters as the way they viewed and developed the monarchy and the education of their children. That was a wasted opportunity, and something that could have been explored instead of all the pointless downstairs scenes.
Crucially any meaningful way of exploring Queen Victoria’s relationship with Lord Melbourne was junked in favour of romance. I can see why the writer took liberties with Prince Ernst and the Duchess of Sutherland as it reveals a kernel of truth about how standards of morality were slowly changing and that Albert was determined to reform the Court and distance the family from the more louche Hanoverians, but with Lord Melbourne it doesn’t make any sense. Instead of using the Victoria/Lord M story line as a way to chart Victoria’s political education and serve as an insight into her personality, the Lord M storyline degenerated into the romance that never was.
Hopefully by series 2 things will be better. Queen Victoria’s own story and her reign are interesting enough. There’s no need to pad it out with downstairs narratives or other flummery; this drama has the potential to present to us those early years of Victoria’s life and reign that have been overshadowed by the Widow of Windsor.
Kermit the Frog used to sing “It’s not easy being green” and hopefully I can be forgiven for thinking that Prince Albert would sing something similar about being German. Once Queen Victoria has declared her intention of marrying her German cousin her meddling uncle King Leopold demands for Albert an annual allowance of £50,000 a year (the same amount he received when he married Princess Charlotte), while goading Albert to petition for a British title and a seat in the House of Lords, telling him that he should use his status as the Queen’s husband to “establish your position”. Parliament digs its heels in, only agrees to £20,000 with the title and a seat in the Lords? Out of the question!
When Victoria finds out the reason why Parliament is only prepared to offer Albert £20,000 and it has something to do with Leopold, she begins to learn things about her family (even her father) that she didn’t know about. And yet again this is another excuse to beat the viewers over the head with constant references to mistresses and marital infidelity which to me is deeply anachronistic. Marital infidelity in those days was not so much a big deal among royalty and the aristocracy, provided that the rules and a certain decorum was observed, (and of course we are looking at an era that was at the tail end of the Regency, a period known for its moral laxness. Victoria’s immediate predecessor had ten illegitimate children with an actress and her own father lived happily for a couple of decades with a mistress, only dumping her unceremoniously when he had to marry). The objection to Albert receiving the same amount as Leopold was because Leopold was still drawing an allowance from Britain twenty-three years after Charlotte’s death and accepting the Belgian throne: not that he was spending it on mistresses. The bigger objections (which at least this series gets right) were Albert’s German roots and Leopold converting to Roman Catholicism in order to become King of the Belgians and marry Princess Louise of France. I found it rather disappointing that rather than explore further the prevalent attitudes of xenophobia and anti-Catholicism of the early 1840s, the constant references instead to the possibility of Albert taking a mistress both rather tedious and tiresome. But of course, sex – that’s what the ITV watchers want, innit? Not that history business.
After a few more tiffs, Albert explains to Victoria why the allowance and having a title are very important to him – that it will give him the freedom to be his own person and allow him to achieve things on his own merit, not because he will be the Queen’s husband. Victoria doesn’t understand this: which is a bit odd considering how she finally broke free of her mother’s control and the hothouse that was the Kensington System. He is also unhappy that he will not be allowed to bring someone from his native Coburg as his private secretary. Victoria raises all these with Lord Melbourne who counsels her that “Parliament needs to be coaxed rather than commanded,” a reference that the royal couple will have to be prepared to be good team players and to compromise.
By the end of episode 5, the couple are finally married and Victoria uses her wedding to signal yet again a break with the past. Instead of wearing the robe of state and a diadem to signify her status as Queen, she decides to wear a white gown of silk and Honiton lace and a wreath of orange blossom atop her head. And much to the surprise of her ministers and courtiers, she decides to retain the word “obey” in the wedding vows.
In the following episode we see the newly married couple return to London after only a honeymoon of two days, and which despite its shortness is notable for the accounts left by the woman herself that survive at the Royal Archives at Windsor. Deeply in love they may be but Albert is frustrated and unhappy at the lack of proper role for him and his inferior rank in court protocol where he is outranked by the Duke of Sussex (David Bamber). He wants to share in Victoria’s work and help affect positive change in British society but is stymied by his wife’s reluctance to involve him in doing the boxes (the documents sent to her in red dispatch boxes) and the continued references to his nationality in the press and sections of society. The opportunity for Albert to carve out a role for himself is presented by a delegation of abolitionists who hope that the Queen’s presence at an international conference they are organising will give the event a wider coverage and draw the public attention to the continued existence of slavery in other countries, particularly the United States. Victoria (and Albert) wholeheartedly support the cause of abolition but she has to decline the invitation owing to the fact that as Sovereign she cannot be seen to be partial (which again made me laugh considering that Victoria throughout her reign could be considered one of the least impartial British monarchs in modern times). Albert suggests that he can attend and even give a speech, as having no formal role he is not bound by the same restraints imposed on the Queen. With the help of Anson (Robert MacPherson), his private secretary, he drafts a speech and practises it all the while being briefed about the abolitionist movement in Britain being supported by several members of the political establishment among them Sir Robert Peel and Lord Palmerston. Albert realises that going to the conference will also allow him to get to know better the people who matter and who could possibly become government ministers, even Prime Minister.
Episode 6 also underlines Victoria and Albert’s differences about their expectations of marriage with Albert wanting to be a father and confident that they will be better parents than their own parents ever were. Victoria on the other hand wants to wait: apart from enjoying the pleasures of married life she dreads the possibility of being with child especially with the spectre of her cousin Charlotte’s tragic end looming over her.
One of the things I noticed with Victoria is that it’s the supporting actors who tend to steal the show with standout performances. In the earlier episodes, it was Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne but with episodes 5 and 6 it was David Bamber as the Duke of Sussex who stood out. The scene where “Uncle Sussex” is invited to tea with his niece the Queen was touching, especially after he recognises that he has a kindred spirit in her with his own wife not received at Court since he married her in defiance of the Royal Marriages Act. Uncle and niece both muse that their respective spouses’ happiness is paramount to them and this realisation paves the way to finding a solution to Albert’s status and the Duke’s wife Lady Cecilia finally being received at Court.
Another standout performance is that of David Oakes as Prince Ernst. As mentioned in part 2, Ernst is the antithesis of Albert and the following two episodes clearly demonstrate this. He takes Albert to a high class brothel to help him with his marital duties, and is smitten with the married Duchess of Sutherland (Harriet Clunie). Despite the two brothers being like chalk and cheese, the bond between them is poignant and serves as a vehicle to tell the audience their background and unhappy childhood. Although a romance between Ernst and the Duchess would not have happened, it’s a convenient tool for Albert to assert himself and impose a more moral tone at Court.
Another thing that frustrates me about this drama is how certain storylines are introduced then fizzle out. This is especially true with the servants, last time it was Miss Jenkins and her nephew -this time it’s Mr Penge and the maid from Coburg. It’s obvious they had a history together but why that’s included is baffling especially as it adds nothing to the narrative over all. The only consistent downstairs story line is that of Skerrett and Francatelli where a slow burning romance seems to be on the cards. I’ve said this previously and I’ll say it again – the downstairs storylines are unnecessary and only distract from the actual narrative, which is a shame.
As mentioned in part 1, I have resigned myself to having low expectations about Victoria and the next two episodes didn’t disappoint. Having ditched the idea of a regency, attention has now shifted to the question of who the Queen should marry. Her Uncle Leopold (Alex Jennings), King of the Belgians arrives to foist his nephew Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Tom Hughes) on her while her other uncle (the Duke of Cumberland) believes that she should marry Prince George of Cambridge (Nicholas Agnew). Of course there is a lot at stake here as everyone knows that a marriage to a foreign prince will be unpopular but the union between the British queen and a British prince would be well received by the public.
Queen Victoria declares that she has “no intention of marrying” and Daisy Goodwin, again echoing Julian Fellowes, can’t resist beating the viewers over the head. It seems that every five minutes there’s always someone mentioning marriage along the lines of “a husband and children will steady her” or variations thereof. As if the constant refrain of marriage needed to be made any clearer, there were obvious and constant references to Elizabeth I with Victoria even costumed as the Virgin Queen during a ball held in honour of her uncle Leopold.
Once Prince George has removed himself from contention, King Leopold launches Operation Albert with the same dedication and cunning as Wile E Coyote attempting to catch the Road Runner: and unsurprisingly Victoria digs her heels in which doesn’t surprise. Having spent years under the control of her mother and Conroy, she resents other people telling her what she can and can’t do. There’s also another reason for her reluctance and it’s to do with Lord Melbourne and this is where my boo-boo radar started to overheat due to its glaring historical anachronism given that the real Victoria and Melbourne’s relationship was more of a father-daughter or teacher and student.
As we move on to episode four, the series veers into romance novel territory where the Victoria and Albert scenes fall into the standard predictable fare that we see not only with romance novels but even with chick lit and romantic comedies. Man meets woman, they take an instant dislike to each other, they dance at a ball and realise that they are falling for each other followed by a scene running and laughing along a forest with a little obstacle in the form of a little tiff and finally when she proposes marriage, he accepts. So far so good, all boxes ticked.
Generally I have no problems with the characterisation with Prince Albert here. He’s depicted as someone who could be stiff and awkward in contrast to his older brother Ernst (David Oakes) who is charming and not at all shy. The Albert we see here is someone who is artistic, cultured, strongly interested in the potential of new technology and new ways of doing things. Crucially and in contrast to Lord Melbourne, he has a strong social conscience and is concerned about the conditions of the poor.
Having reached halfway through this drama, it’s clear that the downstairs side of the narrative is the weakest and yet again Goodwin seems to plunder Downton Abbey for storylines. There’s Mrs Jenkins’s nephew who is involved in the Chartist movement and would have been hanged if it not for some timely intervention. There’s also Miss Skerrett’s private life which is veering more and more into soap opera territory when the real Marianne Skerrett was one of the few servants who was with Victoria from the very beginning until her death in 1887. She came from a family who had been in royal service since the days of King George III and was not only Victoria’s principal dresser and lady’s maid but was also in charge of the more junior dressers and was responsible for liaising between the Queen and tradespeople, suppliers, artists and engravers. In short, she was a highly valued and trusted servant whose role went beyond that of a lady’s maid.
And lastly there’s Albert and Ernst’s valet who constantly complains to Lehzen in German about British food and the way things are done at Buckingham Palace until he is finally put in his place by Mr Penge who answers back at him in his mother tongue. Yet again one wonders why all this padding is needed when there’s more than enough to fill out the main narrative.
My two main issues with these two episodes was first the absence of Baron Stockmar which to me is a major omission. He was Ernst and Albert’s tutor and together with King Leopold was the architect in bringing together Victoria and Albert. He stayed on as adviser to the royal couple and was instrumental in helping Prince Albert develop his ideas about kingship and the role of the royal family in a changing society. The second one is with regards to Victoria and Lord Melbourne which read straight from the Fellowes book of How to Write a Historical Drama. Of course a lot of people are now going to think she wanted to marry Melbourne and proposed to him, when in reality she was quite keen on the idea of Albert especially after meeting him again where she confided in her diary that he was “beautiful”.
Perhaps the only good scene was in episode 3 when after Victoria berates her uncle Leopold for his meddling, she coolly reminds him that whilst that she’s from a long line of monarchs stretching back to a thousand years, he’s king of a country that is barely a decade old. He retorts that while that as much is true, the political and social realities of the present means that not even the British Crown is secure and one false move could render it vulnerable. Leopold should know with his adopted country being forged out of the Revolution of 1830 which saw one king deposed (Charles X of France) and others forced into making concessions with their subjects to keep their thrones.
With the threat of revolution hanging in the air and Britain in late 1830s being on the cusp of social change, it baffles me why the need for the narrative to be “spiced up” with unnecessary bits and pieces. It’s like a stew where the cook can’t resist adding more and more ingredients to the point where it becomes unrecognisable. And this I believe is Victoria’s main weakness. Goodwin seems to have absorbed the Fellowes philosophy that the viewer is too stupid to appreciate real history and wants the narrative in ninety second bursts rather than something sustained yet entertaining without detracting from the main narrative.
The reign of King George V was marked by a world war and tumultuous change, not least in women’s fashions – hemlines went up, many women began to cut their hair short and corsets were gradually being abandoned for brassieres, reflecting the greater freedoms and opportunities women gained after the First World War. Greater disposable income, the expansion of the retail sector and the motion picture industry fuelled a boom in the demand for fashion, accessories and cosmetics on a greater scale than before 1914.
However the King’s wife, Queen Mary remained immune from these changes sweeping fashion. She remained resolutely wedded to the styles of the pre-World War 1 era which to today’s eyes could be seen as a disregard for and lack of interest in fashion. The reality was far more nuanced than that. Born Princess May of Teck, the only daughter of a minor German princeling Franz Duke of Teck and his wife Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge, she grew up in genteel poverty moving from one house to another with her family, even spent a few years abroad to escape their creditors and economise on their standard of living. With her lack of money and her less than royal antecedents (her paternal grandmother was a Hungarian countess who married a younger son of the King of Wurttemberg), Princess May would have most likely seen out the rest of her life as a spinster were it not for Queen Victoria seeing that she would make a perfect bride for her grandson Albert Victor Duke of Clarence. After a short courtship, he duly proposed and she accepted, but not long after he died of influenza and it was then decided that she should marry his younger brother George Duke of York. Their wedding in 1893 was well documented in the papers and magazines that pored over her wedding gown, trousseau and her wedding presents in great detail. Her wedding gown and trousseau was covered extensively and reflected Princess May’s taste and style. The Lady’s Pictorial commented, somewhat truthfully yet disingenuously by claiming that “Princess May, cannot be called a dressy woman and has no extravagant taste in dress, preferring always to look neat, lady-like and elegant, to keeping in the forefront of fashion.”
Photographs of the new Duchess of York showed otherwise depicting her in the styles of the 1890s – all high necklines, leg of mutton sleeves, tight bodices and gored skirts. As the 1890s gave way to the new century, her look also changed with the new Edwardian age but once she became Queen, the dabbling with fashion seems to have ground to a halt. This became even more acute with the beginning of the 1920s as hemlines went up and cuts became looser, but Queen Mary stuck to her look at the King’s instigation despite her attempts to move with the times as recounted by her lady-in-waiting, Mabell Countess of Airlie:
Her style of dressing was dictated by his conservative prejudices; she was much more interested in fashion than most people imagined, and sometimes I think longed in secret to get away from the hats and dresses which were always associated with her.
Having gifted with perfect legs, she once tentatively suggested to me in the nineteen-twenties that we might both shorten our skirts by a modest two or three inches but we lacked the courage to do it until eventually I volunteered to be the guinea pig. I appeared at Windsor one day in a slightly shorter dress than usual, the plan being that if His Majesty made no unfavourable comment the Queen would follow my example.
The next morning she had to report failure. The King on being asked whether he had liked Lady Airlie’s new dress had replied decisively, ‘No I didn’t. It was too short.’ So I had my hem let down with all speed and the Queen remained faithful to her long skirts. (pp. 128-9)
King George V had none of his parents’ taste for fashionable clothing and being very conservative had a deep-seated loathing for change. James Pope-Hennessy in his authorised biography of Queen Mary detected that the King wanted things to be exactly as they were from his childhood and youth – so the “May” he proposed to should remain forever that “May” and so she deferred to her husband’s wishes. Even after his death in 1936, she remained wedded to the Edwardian styles that had long gone out of fashion.
This became Queen Mary’s signature look. By day, she favoured tailored ensembles in dusky pastel colours accessorised with crown like toques (her experimentation with wide brimmed hats was also vetoed by George V), low heeled shoes and an umbrella clasped firmly in her hand. At night and especially for state and official occasions, she wore heavily beaded gowns in the same colours as her day wear and finished off with copious amounts of jewels. Observers noted that “because of her long, graceful neck, her height, her bearing and her instinctive flair for elegance, had always been able to display an extraordinary quantity of jewels on her person.” Upon her husband’s accession in 1910, her jewellery collection was bolstered by those pieces that Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra designated as crown property and to be worn by a female sovereign or consort.
Unlike her mother-in-law Queen Alexandra, Queen Mary had steadfastly always bought British. As Queen, her clothes were mostly made by Reville Ltd who was responsible for her coronation gown in 1911 and was appointed court dressmaker in 1910 and Madame Elizabeth Handley Seymour. Over the years both Reville and Handley Seymour would turn out variations of this signature look that led society diarist “Chips” Channon to describe her on different occasions as “regally majestic”, “looking like the Jungfrau, white and sparkling in the sun” and formidable in appearance “like talking to St Paul’s Cathedral”.
In retrospect, Queen Mary’s unique style was also reflected by the fact that by the twentieth century and especially after the First World War, royalty ceased to be the arbiter of fashion or set trends. However this removal of royalty from the sphere of high fashion had a resulted in a potent symbolism that curiously perhaps was a factor to the survival of the monarchy, as Colin McDowell wrote:
As a result Queen Mary developed a remarkably stable and stylised form of dress which far from seeming eccentric, became the very embodiment of regality. Such sartorial reliability may have even helped the royal family survive the uncertainties of the abdication crisis. As long as the old Queen was around, looking as she always had, the people felt that the monarchy was secure. (p. 14-5)
Her signature look also allowed her to stand out from the crowd and as Norman Hartnell noted “looked well from a distance”, a winning formula that would be adapted by her successor, Queen Elizabeth and to this day remains the standard template for modern royal dressing.
Queen Elizabeth (1936-1939)
Succeeding to the throne in the wake of his brother King Edward VIII’s abdication, King George VI was far from a promising monarch – shy, stammering, not very intelligent and with a heavy smoking and drinking problem. However he had something in his arsenal that would make up for his shortcomings as king: a charming wife and two personable young daughters. While the bachelor Edward VIII gave up his throne for “the woman I love” here was the married George VI with a family that could help restore faith in the monarchy and royal family to a country shaken by the abdication crisis.
“Us four”, as the king called his immediate family were the perfect model for stability and reassurance in a country still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression and the fretting over the gathering storm of the possibility of another war. And fashion again would be one tool to transmit the new king and queen’s message of stability to their subjects.
When Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the then Duke of York in 1923, she was the first female commoner to marry into the British royal family since Sarah Fairbrother married the Duke of Cambridge in 1847. In the wake of anti-German feeling during the First World War, King George V had changed the family surname from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor and after the war broadened the pool in which royal princes could find suitable brides. Instead of being restricted to princesses from other countries (they had to be Protestant), brides could now be chosen from the ranks of the British aristocracy.
The new Duchess of York proved to be a popular addition to the royal family. Charming, adept at making people feel at ease and a good listener and communicator; she was dubbed the “Smiling Duchess” by the papers. Although she was not the typical flapper, her clothes as Duchess were very much of the 1920s – loose, low waisted dresses, cloche hats and fur trimmed coats, ropes of pearls and shoes with their mid heels and ankle straps. She could be described as “moderately fashionable” if dowdy – unsurprisingly as majority of her clothes were made by Madame Handley Seymour.
Her image underwent a transformation when her husband unexpectedly succeeded to the throne. Conscious of the need to distance themselves from the short reign of King Edward VIII, Queen Elizabeth “conveyed notions of tradition, femininity and family mindedness” in contrast to the new Duchess of Windsor who was American and childless. However, Queen Elizabeth realised that she could never compete with the Duchess of Windsor (or even the Duchess of Kent) in terms of high fashion and chic and it’s highly doubtful that she even wanted to.
As Colin McDowell observed, Queen Elizabeth even as Duchess of York preferred softness and this is evident from the very beginning when Handley Seymour designed her wedding dress. Although described by the Times “as the simplest ever made for a royal wedding”, one can see from the Medieval inspired dress clues to Elizabeth’s style as she settled into royal life – the use of silk and chiffon and the beading which was used to greater effect when she became Queen Consort. She had never been attracted to tailoring; preferring fluid shapes, drapes and fluttering panels trimmed with fur and feathers which was flattering to her figure which had become matronly by the time her husband came to the throne. Through these “elements she created a larger than life appearance, as if she were on a stage giving a performance.”
Her transformation was overseen in part by King George VI who was very interested in clothes and fashion and had something of the designer in him. He had designed his daughters’ dresses and coronets for his coronation and took a great interest in his wife’s look, determined that she should dress in a manner befitting her new status and in Ingrid Seward’s words “the role he envisioned for her.”
In 1935, the then Duchess of York was introduced to a new designer Norman Hartnell who was making the wedding dress of Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott, the fiancée of her brother in law, the Duke of Gloucester and her bridal party which included Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret of York. His designs made an impression on the Duchess and upon becoming Queen, although Handley Seymour was still her chief designer she began to order a few clothes from this young designer who had his shop in Bruton Street.
In 1938, Hartnell was given the commission to design the Queen’s entire wardrobe for the state visit to France. This would be the first overseas trip for the royal couple and a politically sensitive one at that given the looming possibility of another war. For Hartnell as well, this would be a challenge – how could he dress the Queen in a way that would impress a country whose fashion industry led the way and dictated trends across the globe?
Again King George VI stepped in and gave Hartnell several ideas by taking him on a personal tour of the state apartments at Buckingham Palace particularly in the picture galleries. Hartnell was shown portraits of Empresses Eugenie of France and Elizabeth of Austria by Franz Xavier Winterhalter and suggested that perhaps they could serve as an inspiration for the gowns for the state visit. Although the visit was only for four days, thirty dresses were needed for the full programme of events from morning until night but just as the clothes were nearly ready, the Court went into mourning for the Queen’s mother the Countess of Strathmore. The visit would be postponed for a month but this gave Hartnell time to rework the clothes. As Hartnell recalled asking Queen Elizabeth, “Is not white a royal prerogative for mourning?” referring to the custom of Medieval and Renaissance queens wearing white for court mourning.
This resulted into the famous “White Wardrobe” which would set the template for Queen Elizabeth’s look as queen consort and beyond. As mentioned earlier, Handley Seymour had taken Elizabeth’s love of soft and flowing fabrics as well as inspiration from paintings to create the clothes she wore as Duchess of York and her early years as Queen. However, it was Hartnell who took this one step further to help facilitate the final transformation from royal duchess to queen. The Winterhalter paintings served as the muse for the Queen Elizabeth’s evening look – grand embroidered crinolines that would serve as a backdrop for the magnificent jewels, orders and decorations that she would wear.
It was a resounding success and demonstrated that not only could a British queen charm a normally ambivalent French public but that a British designer could hold his own against the Parisian couturiers who dominated and dictated to the fashion industry.
Since Queen Elizabeth’s figure has become more matronly, Hartnell came up with an “uncluttered silhouette” to make her look taller and slimmer “with coordinating hats, gloves, bags and shoes. Her coats were usually designed without buttons or visible fastenings to be worn over fitted dresses, sometimes with embroidery or detailed work in the fabric.” Hats were also created in mind to ensure that her face was visible to the crowds and dresses and coats were also designed with unrestricted movement of arms in mind.
Hartnell also created what he would term “diplomatic dressing”. The following year, he and Handley Seymour were commissioned to create Queen Elizabeth’s dresses and gowns for the state visit to Canada and the United States where she and King George VI were the first reigning monarch and consort to cross the Atlantic and visit North America. In his memoir Silver and Gold, Hartnell recalled the considerations he had to bear in mind for the 1939 state visit:
This time I was not controlled in design by white monotone, but there were other problems including what may be called ‘dress diplomacy’. This is, of course, a development that has come with the rapid communications of our modern world, including the transfer of photographs by air and radio. The psychology of a vast public that may not always see the Queen in person has to be taken into account.
For instance, should Her Majesty wear a magnificent dress of white satin and turquoise in Ottawa, she would not appear, even for an exactly similar occasion, in that same outfit in Montreal. The people of Montreal would expect a new and different dress and might consider it a slight if the Queen wore the Ottawa dress which they would have seen in their morning newspapers. So the task for the designer of a wardrobe for a State Visit is indeed a responsible one.
For the prolonged tour I was most considerately given, from Buckingham Palace, a complete and detailed itinerary. For each day there would be six or seven occasions demanding a change in costume.
In one instance a suitable dress was needed for the Queen, while travelling by train, to awake and dress into a four o’clock in the morning when the Royal train paused at some railway station. Her Majesty was expected, with the King, to meet and greet the loyal people ranged alongside the platform. Should this be a grand dress as worn at midnight, or a little dress for breakfast? A compromise was found. It was kind of ‘hostess dress’, as they are known in the United States, a long flowing negligee dress in nectarine velvet touch with a narrow band of sable. Dresses had also to be suitable to every extreme of climate, from the sultry streets of New York in a heat wave, through the damp heat of a garden part at the White House, right up to the icy heights of the Rocky Mountains. (pp. 99-100)
Again the clothes were a success and Hartnell’s formula is one that not only has set the template for Queen Elizabeth’s look but also that of the present Queen and female members of the royal family. As demonstrated by the four royal women featured in this blog, royal dressing is more than fashion and style – it is also a tool of communication and more often than not would have more impact than a speech.
Norman Hartnell. Silver and Gold (London, 1955)
Michael Pick. Be Dazzled! Norman Hartnell: Sixty Years of Glamour and Fashion (London, 2007)
Henry Channon and Robert Rhodes James (ed.) Chips: The Diary of Sir Henry Channon (London, 1967)
Anne Edwards. Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsor (London, 1984)
James Pope-Hennessy. Queen Mary 1867-1953 (London, 1959)
Mabell (Ogilvy) Countess of Airlie and Jennifer Ellis (ed.). Thatched with Gold: The Memoirs of Mabell Countess of Airlie (London, 1962)
Jane Roberts and Sabrina McKenzie. Five Gold Rings: A Royal Wedding Souvenir Album (London, 2007)
Ingrid Seward. The Last Great Edwardian Lady: The Life and Style of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (London, 1999)
William Shawcross. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: The authorised biography (London, 2009)
Deidre Murphy and Cassie Davies-Strodder. Modern Royal Fashion: Seven royal women and their style (London, 2015)
Colin McDowell. A Hundred Years of Royal Style (London, 1985)
Caroline de Guitatut. Diamonds: A Jubilee Celebration (London, 2012)
Hugh Roberts. The Queen’s Diamonds (London, 2012)
Cecil Beaton with foreword by Hugo Vickers. The Glass of Fashion (London, 2014)