Rebecca Fairbank (University of Oxford)
UK readers can still watch this programme here.
The story of the human struggle of royal figures has captured the imagination recently, as films such as The King’s Speech (2010), and the less successful Diana (2013) attest. Channel 4’s Queen Victoria and the Crippled Kaiser reiterates this trend on the small screen. This engaging documentary probes the hidden disability of Queen Victoria’s grandson, Wilhelm II, born to her eldest daughter Vicky with a paralysis of the arm today known as Erb’s Palsy. The fraught mother-son relationship, caused by his condition and her attempts to correct it, is explored using that illusive pot of gold that historians dream of finding: a hitherto undiscovered bundle of letters.
The tension between private life and public duty is nicely captured, especially in a sequence of photos of the young Kaiser where his withered arm is camouflaged with accruements of manly power such as guns, helmets and uniforms. They powerfully illustrate the premise at the heart of the programme: nineteenth-century masculinity depended on independence and strength, and so was seen as inherently incompatible with disability. The problems created by Wilhelm’s condition were compounded by the need to fulfill royal duties and exhibit strong leadership. The latter demand resulted in a literal propping up of royal power, again shown succinctly via a baby photo in which supporting hands were cleverly disguised as a decorative chair (see Susan Cook’s post on hidden mothers in Victorian photographs). Punctuating the programme, such photography serves as a reminder that the traditional, visual statements of power remained important, despite Queen Victoria’s portrayal of royal domesticity.
This contrived image of power is vibrantly contrasted with the honesty and intimacy of letter writing, as the action cuts between grand panoramas of royal places, and shadowy reconstructions of the royal correspondents. Contributor British historian John Röhl claims he could reconstruct the early life of the Kaiser from the letters between him and his mother. However, probably due to the limitations of time and format, the letters are used too selectively to create a true profile of this relationship. Contradictions and hasty conclusions arise from the extracts used. From Vicky’s letters to her mother about the boy’s violent passions, the phrase: “the idea of his remaining a cripple haunts me” is isolated dramatically on screen. The commentary attributes this quote to her failure to produce a royal heir; the lineage is depicted as the specter in question. In a documentary trying to locate the personal in the political, one cannot help feeling that this conclusion is missing the point. The leap from anxious mother to calculating politician needs justifying.
Wilhelm was, after all, a suffering child. Painful electrotherapy, traumatic ‘animal baths’ (where the boy was forced to watch a hare being slaughtered and then wear the carcass on his arm) and other imaginative ‘cures’ were inflicted. Low-level shots of sinister medical instruments go some way in recreating the trauma from a child’s point of view. Empathy is likewise engendered by Paralympic Erb’s Palsy sufferer, Rachael Latham. Her perspective acknowledges the huge difference in the modern perception of disability compared with Victorian Britain’s. The tone of injustice throughout the programme carries a powerful relevance which is key to successful documentaries.
There is a fine line between relevance and anachronism. The latter is realised when a midwives’ teaching aid from the 1920s is used in explaining the cause of Wilhelm’s birth defect. Interesting, yes, but is this really applicable to labour in 1859, where the lack of such training was a factor? This artefact, alongside modern terminology and references to Freudian theories, conflates Victorian and Edwardian ideas. The result is a programme which is pacy and striking, but lacks grounding in the context of Victorian medical discourse.
The most problematic victim of this snappy programming is World War One, which is essentially reduced to a family feud on a grand scale in an ‘abused child turns dictator’ narrative. It is a compelling conclusion, but, in contrast with the earlier demonization of Vicky, the personal forfeits the political. This being said, Victorian contemporaries may have agreed with the premise that childhood suffering drove the Kaiser to his later actions, in accordance with the Lockean concept of the lasting impact of early impressions. This possibility is the closest the programme gets to its aim of recapturing the Victorian mind-set towards the troubled King. Queen Victoria and the Crippled Kaiser does engagingly surmise the Victorian reconciliation of masculinity, royalty and disability. However its simplicity prevents the new source material realising its full potential onscreen.
Rebecca Fairbank is a third-year History undergraduate at the University of Oxford, specializing in Victorian childhood. She is currently writing her thesis exploring the imperial identity of girls in Britain. She tweets as @FairbankRebecca