Valerie Sanders, ‘Victoria: as seen on TV’

Valerie Sanders is Professor of English and Director of the Graduate School at the University of Hull. Her research interests include Victorian fatherhood and sibling groups, as well as individual author studies. With Gaby Weiner she has recently edited a collection of essays, Harriet Martineau and the Birth of Disciplines (Routledge 2016).

So, Victoria has ended in the U.K., and so has its arch-rival Poldark, briefly leaving Tutankhamun in sole possession of the prime historical drama spot on Sunday evenings. By all accounts “Tut” was disappointing, without much of a script beyond people walking on and off screen exchanging information. Might the same be said of Victoria, which launched with the first four years of the Queen’s reign, from her 1837 accession, to the birth of her first child, another Victoria, in 1840? Downton Abbey, another Sunday night comfort blanket, was also like this, with people crossing vast drawing-rooms and murmuring a couple of sentences, while below stairs, in Mrs Patmore’s kitchen, horrible histories were unravelling. Not to be upstaged by Downton, Victoria also had its kitchen sink subplot, in the form of Francatelli, the celebrity chef of his day, sidling up to Miss Skerrett, Victoria’s maid, with what may or may not be an honourable proposition.  I can imagine Francatelli having his own spin-off show, a possible Victorian Bake-Off, while there is more than a suggestion of Lady Mary about the petulant young Victoria with her head-tossing refusal to be governed by the grown-ups.

Victoria returns, we are assured, in 2017, so there is plenty more to look forward to. American readers have just started watching the show on PBS. Victoria herself has another sixty years of dramas ahead of her, both small and great, in the transition from the pert and feisty young monarch we saw in the launch series, to the black silk tea-cosy-shaped widow of roughly the last forty years of her life, after the untimely death of the Prince Consort. Perhaps what most intrigues scriptwriters and viewers is the apparently huge disjunction between the young and old Victorias – the beginning and end of Victoria’s reign, the bride and the widow, the new monarch and the ageing grandmother of Europe – not the mid-life, middle-class phase we may be about to enter with Series 2.  Coming on the back of several recent TV documentaries and biographies this is undoubtedly Victoria’s “moment,” but how good, in reality, was Victoria, as seen on TV? And what exactly is the appeal of the monarch’s early years to the general public as well as to Victorian specialists?

I was doubtful at first. There had already been the Young Victoria film (2009) starring Emily Blunt, featuring the frustrated teenager having to hold someone’s hand as she came downstairs. What could the ITV series do that the film had missed? Then there was the problem of the short scenes with people swishing through the palace whispering about the Queen’s competence to rule (as there would be at several other crisis points in her reign). Then there was the famous crush on “Lord M” (did she really call him that, to his face, as well as in her diaries?).  Several people writing to the Sunday Times “You Say” column in the Culture supplement debated whether or not Victoria had a German accent. If so, shouldn’t it have been reproduced? Then there were the annoying Sainsbury’s adverts every ten minutes urging viewers to live dangerously and add an anchovy to their shepherd’s pie. Couldn’t Mr Francatelli have come on instead, with his recipe for mock turtle soup, or whitings with their tails in their mouths, in homage to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?

I know everything that can be said against Victoria as an undemanding soap, a duvet hour on the eve of the next working week. I know there were historical inaccuracies a-plenty, and that Jenna Coleman looked more like Dr Who’s assistant than Hanoverian Victoria, but the series was designed to entertain as well as instruct. It was also, I would guess, intended to surprise the public by offering a different view of Victoria from the stereotyped image of her long widowhood. The Queen was, however, always susceptible to male charm. Twenty-first century viewers seem to have been equally impressionable, temporarily abandoning Aidan Turner’s Poldark for the maturer charms of Rufus Sewell’s Lord Melbourne, though as Jane Ridley has pointed out, Lord M was nearly sixty and past his best when Victoria became Queen, and their relationship more like father-daughter than romantic lovers separated by rank and position.[1] The real Lord M is seen below: older, certainly than Rufus Sewell, but their smiles are similar….



Fig 1: Lord Melbourne, painted by James Frothingham, 1835



Fig 2: Jenna Coleman as Victoria and Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne


With viewing figures neck-and-neck with Poldark we might want to consider what interested the general public in these early edgy days of the new reign. Probably not Lady Flora Hastings and the ‘Bedchamber’ crisis, or Sir John Conroy’s attempts to retain control over the Royal Household, but more probably how Victoria came to marry Albert, or even the possible parallels with another young British Queen, Elizabeth II (now available on Netflix, starring Claire Foy). For me, the interest was in the newness of the reign, and the break with the old Hanoverian regime of Victoria’s uncles, with their large illegitimate families and fading mistresses. Screened just a couple of months after Theresa May took office as Britain’s second female Prime Minister, Victoria foregrounded novelty and uncertainty. How would the new incumbent (in both cases) manage the men and change things? What would happen to those who had previously been in power, and what new faces would appear? Kate Maltby in The Telegraph was quick to suggest that: “May is more of a young Victoria than Queen Elizabeth I…Her refusal to compromise over the Bedchamber Crisis finds echo in the ruthlessness with which May has not accepted even a few token enemies in her Cabinet…she might enjoy reading up on Victoria’s rise to power”[2]

As professional Victorianists we may have reached for contemporary sources to check the facts, especially in relation to Victoria’s appearance and personality as she established herself on the throne.  Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography (1877) provides as good an eye-witness account as any. A populariser of political economy, Martineau became an unintentional, and initially fairly sceptical Royal watcher, as the Queen was often visible in public places. On accession day itself in June 1837 Martineau recalls her mother and aunt joining the crowds at St James’s Palace to see the new Queen presented to the people. “There stood the young creature,” recalls Martineau, “in the simplest mourning, with her sleek bands of brown hair as plain as her dress. The tears ran down her cheeks, as Lord Melbourne stood by her side, and she was presented to my mother and aunt and the other half-dozen as their sovereign.”[3]  So far so Victoria. Martineau was less approving when she observed Victoria laughing and chattering at a production of King Lear, until the fourth Act, when she saw “her attention fixed; and then she laughed no more” (p. 411).  The anxious question was whether this frivolous teenager emerging from her obscure, over-protected upbringing, was fit to rule over a powerful nation. Martineau, examining her closely, thought the upper part of the Queen’s face “really pretty, and there was an ingenuous and serene air which seemed full of promise.”  A year later, all had changed: her face had become “bold and discontented” (p. 412), due, thought Martineau, to the loneliness and uncertainty of those years when her mother’s influence had declined and Prince Albert’s had not yet begun. When all was said and done, Martineau added after witnessing the coronation in June 1838, the small, almost “puny” (p. 415) Queen was only a nominal ruler with no political power. However hard to she tries to retain Lord M by her side he is eventually supplanted by the next Prime Minister, and Victoria has to accept that change of personnel is an inevitable part of the political process.



Fig 3: An Unusual Portrait of Harriet Martineau by James Frothingham (1835)


These are essentially the years traced by the Victoria series so far. In the last two episodes, the focus was on her relationship with Prince Albert (suitably callow and prickly after suave Lord M). Terrified of dying in childbirth, like the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte (who was also “Uncle Leopold’s” wife), Victoria hunkers down into her own frightened world, like any other soap heroine. The issue for scriptwriters for the next series is how will they make the middle years interesting? The indications are her work-life balance will be under strain, what with eight more children, and even more Prime Ministers. Or will they concentrate on the reign’s highlights? I am personally looking forward to seeing her open the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851. Albert’s rows with his recalcitrant eldest son, ‘Bertie’ should be entertaining, and then that momentous deathbed scene, which propelled Victoria into a lifetime of reclusive mourning. I suspect at this point a third series may be more difficult to commission, and while a Hillary Clinton parallel might have been intriguing, I think any analogies with Donald J. Trump may be too much of a challenge, even for the boldest director with a mission to update Victoria to our times.





[3] Harriet Martineau, Autobiography, ed. Linda H. Peterson (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2007), p. 411.

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