This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
Photo: Courtesy of PBS.
I hope no one else made the same mistake of binge-watching The Crown shortly before sitting down to Victoria. It put me in the absolutely wrong frame of mind. Yes, they are both about the first years of the reign of a young British queen, and both are rife with political lessons that come in conflict with the personal lives of the monarchs. But while the Netflix series is a complex, intellectual character study, Victoria is much more in the vein of traditional period costume dramas, brimming with visual splendor and barely repressed passion. It’s best to calibrate our expectations accordingly. Also, Doctor Who fans, Jenna Coleman’s blue contacts are going to take some getting used to.
We meet Victoria (Coleman) on the morning after the death of her uncle, King William IV, when she was still called Alexandrina Victoria, in 1837. She seems rather unsurprised, but very excited about the news, as she fixes the crown on her doll’s head. She’s 18 years old, and the Queen of England, and she still plays with dolls. Not quite the way a regular little girl would, we later learn, since she calls this one “Number 123” — and made its crown when she was 13 and realized she would one day be queen.
Here’s some helpful historical background for my fellow Americans: Her grandfather was King George III (you know, the tyrant colonists revolted against), who had 15 children. He lost his sanity in 1811, and his eldest son, George IV took over as regent for the last nine years of his life. Both George IV and his brother William IV died without legitimate heirs. Victoria’s father, Edward, married her mother, Princess Victoria (a widow with two children), when he was 50, and he died when she was just a year old.
Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent (Catherine Flemming), and her mother’s advisor, Sir John Conroy (Paul Rhys), would like to rule instead of “Trina.” They’ve kept her isolated from society and dependent on them for everything, and plan to continue that way. They try to tell her what her new name should be (something queenly, like Elizabeth II, not the strange Victoria), and Conroy is pissed that she has met the archbishop without him. Too bad little Victoria — and she’s holding firm to the name — is a headstrong teenager. Her first big move: Making her governess, Baroness Lehzen (Daniela Holtz) the head of her household.
Photo: Courtesy of PBS.
Lehzen is our ambassador into the downstairs element of the series. This part seems a bit too much like a Downton Abbey rip-off. Head steward Penge (Adrian Schiller) and head dresser Mrs. Jenkins (Eve Myles) do everything to make a quick buck selling the queen’s used candles and gloves. Outlander fans may be suspicious to see actress Nell Hudson, a.k.a. traitorous Laoghaire MacKenzie, arrive on the scene, but as the dresser’s assistant Skerrett, she’s the young innocent whose story will parallel the queen’s. She has to learn how to make allies and stand up for herself in this strange new job, and the possibly creepy interest of the chef, Francatelli (Ferdinand Kingsley), who recognizes her from the whorehouse where she grew up.
Back upstairs, a dashing hero sweeps in to help Victoria maintain her independence from her dear mama and Conroy: Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), the prime minister. He immediately offers to be her private secretary and guide her through all the proper protocol — which, was being prime minister such an easy job back in the day that he had time for this other gig? No matter, I’m ready to melt into his eyes as much as Victoria. Only because of Sewell, mind you, because when you fact-check this particular point of history, Melbourne was in his late 50s at the time.
As much as I’m rooting for this to be the story of an independent lady ruling the country, in this first installment, it’s much more about a girl’s total reliance on an older man. Lord M is good looking and nice, and he doesn’t make fun of Victoria’s short stature. That makes him better than Conroy in most respects. He doesn’t want her to fail, and often brings up the fact that others will think he’s influencing her too much. Still, he remains at her side, so he’s not protesting all that much. Meanwhile, it’s obvious that she’s falling in love with the guy. Given how isolated she’s been her whole life, who can blame her? Conroy, your isolation plan backfired, big time.
At every turn, there are men working to undermine the queen. Her uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, suggests to anyone who will listen that Victoria shows early signs of taking after her grandfather, as in, “Her wits are fragile.” That would have nothing to do with the fact that he’s next in line for the throne, would it? Doesn’t the accusation of “hysteria” ring familiar to every woman watching this? Not helping matters: The disgusting rat infestation that ruins her birthday cake. Conroy says you could hear her screams throughout the palace — and you maybe, possibly could have heard some in my house, too. What a coincidence that the rats were there as part of another man’s (Penge) plot to undermine the authority of another woman (Lehzen), who just wanted to make things a little modern by bringing in gas lighting. The question is, which makes your skin crawl more: the sexism or the rats?
(Side note: Did you catch Penge’s use of the word “emoluments” when he was talking to the exterminator? Yes, it did exist before everyone was talking about Trump’s conflicts of interest!)
Victoria herself isn’t completely innocent of harming her fellow women. She’s a veritable Mike Pence, forcing her mother’s lady in waiting to undergo a doctor’s inspection to prove she isn’t pregnant. Poor, virginal Lady Flora (Alice Orr-Ewing) is instead carrying around a giant tumor. It’s pretty hard to side with the queen on this one.
The two-hour episode ends on a high note, though. After all her immature pouting and crying over the prospect of Lord M stepping down from the post of PM, Victoria discovers her inner politician. The presumptive Tory prime minister, Sir John Peel, asks her to replace some of her Whig-associated ladies in waiting with Tory wives, as is the custom. She denies the request. This isn’t more pouting; it’s a strategic move that prevents Peel from forming his government and places Melbourne back on top. Aw, our girl is growing up!
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