Masterpiece’s “Victoria”: I Am Not Amused

I like historical fiction.  I write some, so I have a fair idea of the challenges.  It’s well to be as accurate as possible, not only to be faithful to the actual facts, but out of respect to one’s readers, since even if other people do not notice or even care about errors of commission or omission, the writer should demonstrate her integrity to herself as well as her audience by doing her homework–at least, that’s my philosophy.

Regrettably, the producers and presumably the writers of the PBS Masterpiece miniseries “Victoria” seem not to be held (or to hold themselves) to these same standards.

I have now watched all eight episodes of the first part of the series, and I have to say that it’s visually appealing.  The costuming is exquisite, though not as gorgeously realized as the outfits in “Shakespeare in Love.”  The sets are nicely done, with camera angles and lighting that show off the rooms and their furnishings to good effect–the ranks upon ranks of flaming tapers are particularly nifty, though candlelight illumination of the interiors lacks the dramatic chiarscuro of “Wolf Hall.”  The principals are attractive and the supporting cast suitably British; one thing I really appreciate about the Brits’ work in film and TV is that people look like people, not like models–less eye candy, more wrinkles and sags, more blotches and bags, and the makeup is understated.  People  appear to be wearing the proper undergarments and hairstyles. But visual treats and harmonious design are not sufficient of themselves; this is supposed to be a narrative, not a set of tableaux vivants.

This is supposed to be a story about a woman whose public life was of major significance, while her private life was a construction of a very different kind.  It would have been interesting to see a series that showed, accurately and dramatically, this contrast and how it was played out on the world’s stage as well as in the privacy of the Queen’s marriage and family, in the politics of the day and in the reactions of ordinary people.  Instead, we have a series of trite images and cardboard characters rotating around various sets of predictable, unoriginal, and mostly undramatic OR obviously contrived events.

The thing is like movie theater popcorn: seductive, even (momentarily) delicious, but neither nourishing nor authentic–not just in terms of accuracy, either.  As pure story, the series lacks much narrative oomph.  As for a faithful and reasonably compelling treatment of an extremely well-documented life, well, every single instance of inaccuracy would be tedious both to write and to read, but here are just a few of the more glaring examples:

  1.  Victoria knew quite well that she was expected to marry either Prince Ernest of Coburg or his brother Prince Albert.  The idea of Albert as a husband for Victoria was first noted by Albert’s grandmother in 1821, when V was only two.  By 1836, V’s Uncle Leopold, King of Belgium, was openly and firmly supporting the match, and Victoria wrote him a letter in which she thanked him for the prospect of such “happiness” with Albert for a husband, which crrtainly suggests that she had pretty much made up her mind.  (Both boys had been visitors to England when she was fifteen, with Albert settled on by then as the more compatible march; she was not terribly impressed with him on their first meeting, but liked him rather better the second time, and her letters after that refer to areas in Albert’s education that would be of benefit in his future role as her consort.) Politically, or rather dynastically, she was committed to their marriage before she actually became Queen–and certainly she did NOT decide to propose to him (she had to do the proposing, thanks to royal protocol!) after a completely fictional  romp in the park together (alone!–see below, respecting servants) during which Albert in a fit of extreme manliness ripped off part of his shirt in order to render first aid to V’s conveniently-injured spaniel, Dash.
  2. Lord Melbourne was forty years older than Victoria and definitely NOT the object of a teenaged crush on her part, nor would he ever have been considered a suitable match even by a besotted young queen, for political as well as personal reasons.  (The actor who plays Lord M is very good, though, and quite  sexy in an avuncular way.  If he had been cast to resemble the actual Lord M.,  nobody would believe this plot point for a nanosecond.)
  3. Baroness Lehzen, V’s erstwhile governess, was at odds with Albert from the beginning, and her exit from the royal household was the object of a protracted siege; Albert detested Lehzen and thought her influence on Victoria was pernicious.  Lehzen had been installed as overseer of V’s household prior to the Queen’s marriage, and her tenure was a stormy one. She was dismissed after the baby Princess, whose staff Lehzen had selected, became seriously ill.  Albert blamed Lehzen. Victoria capitulated to him and Lehzen “retired.”
  4. Victoria’s uncle the Duke of Cumberland, who also became King of Hanover early in her reign, DID have a strained relationship with his neice, and DID think that he, as a son of the King of England (George III), should take precedence over Albert (whom he referred to as “a paper Prince,” but he did NOT plot to have his niece assassinated by a crazy man.  (The actor who plays Cumberland is wonderfully sinister, however.)
  5.  Victoria was NOT  known to be unduly frightened of rats (even queens had to know that rats and so forth were a commonplace in those centuries before truly effective rodenticides),  AND it is nowhere related that she had a hissy fit when rats came swarming out of a cake, NOR did people immediately assume whenever she got flustered that that was clear evidence she’d inherited the Madness of King George.
  6. The number of servants and other functionaries shown is far, far too few.  The Queen had literally hundreds of staff, throngs of whom were very much in evidence at every royal residence, except briefly, much later in V and A’s married life, when Albert purchased Balmoral; however, the original house was too small for the family and entourage, so it was demolished and a much larger residence and auxiliary buildings were constructed.  (Actual records of Victoria’s Household, its constituents and expenses, etc., are quite extensive, so we do really know this stuff.). To believe that she and Albert enjoyed anything like what we, today, consider privacy is otherwise contradicted by not only extant data but by the well-accepted, even mandatory practice of treating one’s servants as if they were not only invisible but also blind and deaf.
  7. Prince Albert WAS a fan of railways, but he had already made several journeys by rail before his marriage, and so he did NOT have his first experience on Robert Peel’s private locomotive (!); neither did Victoria, who, urged by her spouse, made a well-publicized trip with him on the Great Western Railway in 1842; the GWR, by the way, opened in 1838, a year before Victoria became Queen, having been founded in 1833, when she was fourteen years old. (Peel did support railways and other aspects of trade, and created the first modern metropolitan police force, known thereafter as “bobbies” or, briefly, as the series does note, as “peelers,” though Peel’s role in this effort is not remarked.)
  8. Victoria’s uncle the Duke of Sussex was her favorite uncle, in contrast to what the series depicts as a rather aloof relationship on both sides.  His marriage to his second wife was invalid under the Royal Marriages Act (as his first had been), and thus her rank, or rather her lack of it, precluded her reception at court as her husband’s spouse and at her husband’s side, and the Queen DID grant her aunt-by-marriage a discretionary title to remedy this situation, but Lady Cecilia’s surname at that time was Underwood, not Buggin; more importantly, there is no support for the series’ assertion that the title was granted as a quid pro quo for Sussex’s giving Albert precedence.

I will stop here, though I could go on (and on).  These are errors and omissions of historical fact, and may not matter much in the retelling of Victoria’s early reign years as a historical romance, which this series is.  What matters much more to me is the way the series has been constructed: the actual story of Victoria and Albert, their marriage and family life, is pretty boring.  Yes, she was queen at an extraordinary time in Britain’s history.  Yes, many events in her life had major impact not just on Britain but on the world.  Yes, she was the monarch and her actions had meaning politically and  is socially.  But here is the basic outline: she married her cousin for dynastic and political reasons, as she was expected to do; the marriage was happy, luckily for everyone; they had nine children, all of whom survived (a miracle, in those days); they lived, despite incredible wealth (and those legions of servants), very much as a middle-class English or German family, with regular routines of lessons and exercise, family outings and celebrations, and strict  attention to proper behavior in public and in private.

How do you make a 16-part miniseries out of a set of protracted episodes of what is, essentially,”Leave it to Beaver at Buckingham Palace” or “Father Knows Best,Victorian Style”?

You tart it up, basically.  Insert a lot of smoldering looks and meaningful glances; design and decorate the thing in splendiferous detail; ignore historical fact when it is inconvenient or contradictory; hire capable actors and give them really good costumes to make up for the stale and predictable dialogue; magnify and embroider any events that might possibly be mined for plot; and, finally, in desperation, create a kind of parellel track running belowstairs, a la Downton Abbey.

The servants’ activities are a kind of funhouse mirror: there are several subplots of failed romances, juxtaposed with Albert’s courtship of Victoria, or is it vice versa? Then there is Ernest’s doomed (if fictional) and unconsummated passion for a married duchess–which passion interferes not a jot with his trips to fancy bordellos.  In a parallel presentation of corruption in high and low places, the rapaciousness of the Court (all those parasitical Royal Dukes and nobles, on the one hand; all those squabbling Tories and Whigs who are actually, if we can believe it, engaged in the serious business of government) is paralled by below-stairs finaglings with the selling of candle stubs and the Queen’s used gloves; threats to the Queen’s person are presented alongside the housekeeper’s family connections with dangerously rebellious Chartists, whose actual aims, together with their reasons for rebellion are, by the way, never explained.

The writers make much heavy weather of Victoria’s alleged reluctance to get pregnant in the first year of marriage (not historically verifiable, by the way: her diary reflects appropriate concern for her physical wellbeing but no reluctance to doing her duty and providing the heir-and-several-spares).  This is presented alongside the fictional dresser’s, Miss Skerrett’s, being warned by her cousin (abandoned to to poverty and single motherhood) to leave men alone and concentrate on her good job and her freedom; Victoria passionately cries that SHE wants to be free, and Miss Skerret repulses Chef Francatelli’s suit, believing he just wants a fling, only to find, too late, that his attentions were honorable after all.  Then we are treated to yet another tasteful sex scene (no nudity, though) between V and A, consisting of torrid glances and a few languishing caresses(but only above the bosom)  whilst the two recline gracefully and photogenically amongst enough pillows and lace and satin quilts for a high-end home goods catalog.

Victoria DID have uncomfortable pregnancies and difficult deliveries, until she was given chloroform with her eighth child (and drew upon herself much criticism for thereby going against Holy Writ–God, in Genesis, having consigned Eve to pain in childbirth).  She DID think that breastfeeding was too nasty for words, but was it necessary for the writers to devote ten minutes to the suggestion and procurement of a wet nurse?  Unless, as I suspect, there will be a Downstairs plot element exploiting the wet nurse’s grief and resentment at having to be parted from her own child in order to nourish the infant Princess Vicky.

Well, let’s see what Part II brings . . . I’ll pause here for now.