In a bid to keep that sweet, sweet Downton Abbey magic going, ITV has once more dipped into the costume drama well. This time, they’re focussing on one of Britain’s most famous monarchs: Queen Victoria. Long-lived, emotionally unstable, obsessive, determined, tough, enormously self-centred–yeah, I think it’s fair to say there’s quite a lot to mine here. And she ruled over Britain during a time of massive social, cultural, and economic change, as the British Empire reached its zenith and other monarchies started to topple. How’d they handle it? Let’s see.
We kick off right at the death of William IV, when the British monarchy was on fairly shaky ground. Years of Hanovarians, including George III, who tragically went crazy, and his son, George IV, who spent like money fell with the rain, did not do the crown any favours. And within the family, there was a LOT of tension (there always was, amongst the House of Hanover). William IV HATED Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, and was such a dick to her that she hated him right back. The poor woman was pretty isolated in England, having come over from Coburg to marry the Duke of Kent, who then went and died on her. With a hostile brother-in-law and a young daughter, she wound up throwing in with the rather oily Sir John Conroy, who, it seems, saw his relationship with her as a stepping stool to greater things once Victoria came to the throne. He and the Duchess created a fairly punishing upbringing for Victoria, known as the ‘Kensington System,’ that seemed designed to keep Victoria utterly helpless. She wasn’t even allowed to sleep in her own room or walk down the stairs without holding someone’s hand.
Now, some people might have turned pretty meek and pliant under this sort of tyranny and insane level of control, but Victoria was a tough cookie. Once her uncle died (he grimly hung on until juuuuust after Victoria’s 18th birthday, so there would be no regency under the Duchess of Kent) Victoria seriously asserted herself, meeting the ministers alone and immediately moving out of her mother’s bedroom.
And that’s where we catch up with her. Victoria, at this point, is an interesting mix of steely young woman and very girlish girl. She shouts at Conroy and plays with dolls, sends her mother packing to the farthest reaches of Buckingham Palace and throws a tantrum that involves a shattered vase. She messes up a fair bit. She’s 18, what do you expect?
And the poor thing’s stuck in a terrible power struggle. On the one side are her mother and Conroy, constantly harping on about how she simply can’t handle the responsibility of being queen. She doesn’t know enough, she’s too flighty and unstable. On another side is her uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, who seems to be angling to take over the throne himself, even though he has a throne of his own (he’s King of Hanover) and that’s just not how these things work. He’s a jerk, is what he is. One of those people who think that the mere fact Victoria is a woman should preclude her from doing anything more complicated than watercolours.
So, there are people tugging Victoria from that side. There’s also her mother’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Flora Hastings, who can’t seem to keep her mouth shut or read the damn room, because no matter how many times Victoria shuts her down, she keeps coming back with more unsolicited advice. We’ll get back to her.
With all that instability and stress, it’s no wonder Victoria leans heavily on the few people she can trust: her German governess, Lehzen, and the charming, fatherly Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. But Lehzen is dealing with drama of her own–some belowstairs bullshit so tiresome that just thinking about it makes me do this:
But here goes: the chief steward is basically Thomas but without any redeeming qualities. He’s the sort of childish, obnoxious jerk who makes you wonder how the hell he manages to keep his job, so outrageous is he. He’s not only incredibly disrespectful of Lehzen, who’s in charge of the household now, but is also making a handsome side profit by selling the palace’s beeswax candles every single day to secondhand shops. Lehzen quickly realises they’re spending an absurd amount of money on candles and tells him to cut the budget, so he retaliates by lighting the queen’s coronation ball with disgusting, dripping tallow candles. Because he’s petty, stupid, and apparently 5 years old. Why he didn’t get into a huge amount of trouble for that is anyone’s guess. Just like Thomas, he has a ladies’ maid crony. She’s selling Victoria’s gloves to the same secondhand places, and making a tidy profit of her own. When Lehzen catches her, however, the woman’s young assistant (Laoghaire from Outlander) takes the fall for it, and because she’s good with hair, Victoria lets her off the hook. Whatever.
And then there’s Lord M, Victoria’s first mentor and, this show suggests, her first love as well. She’s rather creepily shown as being totally infatuated with the charming but rather tragic Lord Melbourne, though in real life she viewed him as more of a father figure. And that’s how he appears here as well, helping her out, giving advice, and definitely steering her away from romantic thoughts. Good for you, Lord M. The girl’s 18, and you were 58 at the time. Creepy! Also, I’d like to point out that Lord Melbourne is played by Rufus Sewell, whom I’m now convinced is an actual vampire, because the man never ages. Seriously. Here he is starring in Dangerous Beauty in 1998:
And this is him now:
Almost 20 years have passed! That is not normal! (At the same time, though, woo hoo! Rufus Sewell!)
Anyway, Victoria starts screwing up almost immediately. She accidentally turns her back on some troops, which is a no-no (and is Lady Flora ever happy to point that out). She trusts her PM too much. She gets drunk on about two glasses of champagne at her coronation ball, during which a Russian Grand Duke feels her up all over the dance floor, which…no.
And worst of all (we’re told), is her fumble with Flora. See, Lehzen notices that Flora, who is unmarried, is suddenly looking kinda sorta pregnant, which is quite the scandal. Victoria immediately suspects Flora’s had an affair with Sir John, and she orders the woman to undergo a medical examination. Flora agrees, in order to clear her name. The exam is intercut with scenes of Victoria’s coronation, which baffles me a bit. What parallels or connections am I supposed to be drawing there? Flora is found to be a virgin, and the sudden tummy on her is, in fact, a giant tumour. Oops! Word of this gets out and the public does not take kindly to it, though why the man on the street should care so much about Lady Flora is anyone’s guess.
Victoria goes to visit her on her deathbed and offers up a, ‘Sorry I subjected you to a humiliating and rather traumatic medical procedure for no reason. But, you know, we had to prove you weren’t a slut.’ Flora’s basically like, ‘Yeah, that sucked. Get your act together, child.’ After she dies, Victoria’s mother accuses her daughter of having driven Flora to her grave. Jesus, lady, come on. Victoria loses her composure and screams at her mother for never taking her side and for basically being complicit in her life of emotional abuse, then goes into a deep funk from which only Melbourne can rescue her, with his pep talk about her basically being a replacement for his tragically dead young son. Hey, you’ve got to get those paternal feelings out on someone, right?
And that is where we stand. The servants suck, Victoria’s mother sucks and is looking for her to fail, and pretty much the only person she can rely on is Melbourne, whose government is looking a bit shaky just now. Good times!