What are we to make of ITV’s Sunday night drama, Victoria? We are three weeks in and the young Queen has married Prince Albert. Lord Melbourne is still Prime Minister (he resigned in August 1841) so we are not yet into the fifth year of the Queen’s long 63-year reign. It seems that there will be a second series, so there is a real prospect that we will follow the great Queen right up to the end of her reign. Whether the delightful Jenna Coleman will play Victoria as an eighty-year old matriarch, I am not sure.
I am greatly enjoying the series, and even if it does take a few liberties, these are done at the service of the drama rather than detracting from it. While it is absolutely clear that Lord Melbourne did not look anything like the suave and charming Rufus Sewell – or for that matter the young Victoria was hardly as pretty as Jenna Coleman – yet these two good looking actors do convey an important truth, namely that the young Queen was besotted with the elder statesman, even to the extent of precipitating a political crisis and keeping Peel out of government.
What makes Victoria such an attractive and fascinating figure is that she was capable of passionate attachments throughout her long life. Her greatest love was of course for Albert, but let us not forget Melbourne and Disraeli, Prime Ministers with whom she had deep personal relationships, and the servants such as the Munshi and John Brown, the latter relationships which generated some resentment and even scandal.
These passionate attachments were mirrored by equally passionate dislikes. We all know that she could not stand William Ewart Gladstone, and her letters show an equal impatience with, for example, the Tsar of Russia, of whom she wrote: “He may be an emperor, but he is certainly not a gentleman.” As for Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, she was dismissive: “He is most dreadfully short.” (She wasn’t tall herself, but that did not stop her.) Queen Victoria remains, much more than many of her descendants, a character.
What she was not, of course, was a model constitutional monarch, like Elizabeth II, whose likes and dislikes are largely unknown. Neutrality was not the Victorian way. Neither was she much of a conservative, or indeed the fuddy-duddy she is often portrayed as. She had a marked interest in spiritualism, which is hardly proper for the Supreme Governor of the Church of England; and she, far more importantly, insisted on pain relief in childbirth, which in those days was most unusual.
Thanks to changing tastes, our century no longer sees the Victorian age as the time of hideous clothes and furniture. Queen Victoria had immense dignity (as Oscar Wilde pointed out) and though never beautiful was of arresting and commanding presence, despite her diminutive stature. Her images on coins, and her many statues, and some of the portraits are wonderful objects. If anyone had a great look, it was her; over a hundred years after her death, she remains instantly recognisable, a sight to stir the heart. She gave her name to an age, and in a sense she dominated that age, being the greatest of Victorians. She had the gift of making herself loved. Let’s hope the millions watching ITV on a Sunday night get something of this Victorian fever. It’s a bug worth catching.