Oh, Channel 5! You’ve reverted right back to type with this – dragging out a load of very old chestnuts, exaggerating them wildly, and only going a very slight way down several roads that were potentially very interesting, such as the mental health issues in the Hesse-Darmstadt line and the row over the use of chloroform in childbirth. Dear oh dear!
The programme seemed to aim to show that Queen Victoria had ruined the lives of all her “tragic family”. (We’re just talking about her children here: it would take a very, very long series to discuss all her grandchildren!) That’s very unfair. Yes, they did have their share of tragedies. Leopold died young, of a fatal haemophiliac bleed. Alice died young, of diphtheria. Vicky (I’ve read so many books about Queen Victoria’s children that I think of them by their nicknames, sorry!) and Beatrice were both widowed young – and, in Vicky’s case, it was a tragedy for the whole world, because her husband’s premature death meant that her son was able to set Germany on the militaristic path that would eventually lead to the First World War. Louise’s marriage was unhappy, and Affie’s wasn’t brilliant either. But that was hardly Queen Victoria’s fault! And show me any family that’s never been affected by premature deaths and bad marriages.
This first episode of three never even mentioned any of these genuine tragedies – although, to be fair, it was mainly about when the children were younger. But Vicky, Arthur and Affie, with all of whom Queen Victoria got on pretty well for the most part, were barely even mentioned: the programme focused purely on the negatives. All the same old stuff. Queen Victoria wasn’t good with babies. Well, OK, we all know that, but she was OK with the children once they were past the baby stage. And is it any wonder that she was frustrated by having nine pregnancies, especially at a time when upper-class women were supposed to retreat from public life whilst expecting a baby?
Admittedly, she was very critical of her children – the hackneyed tale about how she named a cow after Alice because she disapproved of her daughter Alice breastfeeding came out again, as did various comments about Lenchen (Helena)’s lack of good looks – but that wasn’t uncommon in Victorian times. The cultural and religious environment just didn’t favour praising children.
A lot of comments were made about corporal punishment, too, but that was very much the norm at the time, especially for boys. And surely, certainly by the standards of the time, Bertie deserved to put in solitary confinement after spitting at his tutor and teaching his younger brother how to smoke?! A lot of what was said about the girls was also wildly exaggerated. The palaces were “pressure cookers of sexual tension” … because the teenage Lenchen and Louise eyed up some good-looking valets?! So Victoria pushed them into marriage? What rubbish! Princesses were expected to marry young, and their families were expected to find them suitable blokes. And Victoria never made any of her children marry the partners of her choice. And, guess what, next week they’re trotting out that silly rumour about Louise having had an illegitimate child.
Some of what was said, to be fair, was more valid. Talking about Victoria having “turned her home into a tomb” and “crushing the spirits” of her children was melodramatic to say the least, but, as we’re all aware, Queen Victoria went into extreme mourning after the death of Prince Albert, and that undoubtedly had a significant effect on her children. And, no, she doesn’t seem to have considered that they were also grieving, for the loss of their father. Bertie was certainly given a hard time, because Victoria felt that his fling with an actress, which most upper-class Victorian father would have found amusing and even praiseworthy, had traumatised Albert, and that his illness was due to getting wet in the rain whilst out with Bertie. The younger girls missed out on the dancing and parties that they should have been enjoying in their late teens, and those wedding photos with a bust of the dead Prince Albert plonked in the middle of the family group are ghoulish to say the least. And we haven’t even got as far as the hassle that Beatrice was given when she wanted to get married.
So, OK, Queen Victoria’s children were undoubtedly affected by her very long and – it has to be said, however sympathetic you try to be – excessive mourning, and her undoubted selfishness and self-obsession. But “tragic family”? That’s a bit of an exaggeration. And they didn’t explore some avenues that haven’t been done to death and would have made the programme a lot more original. They did briefly mention the fact that some doctors tried to blame Leopold’s haemophilia on Victoria’s use of chloroform in childbirth, and the opposition to the use of chloroform by doctors and religious ministers (all men!) who claimed that women were supposed to suffer pain because of the sin of Eve or whatever, but it was only briefly. OK, the programme was not supposed to be a history of pain relief, but Queen Victoria using chloroform did – despite the nonsense spouted about a possible link to haemophilia – help to change attitudes.
And they only briefly touched on the life of Alice, who in many ways was the most interesting of Queen Victoria’s children. They mentioned that Victoria relied heavily on her immediately after Albert’s death, both emotionally and in terms of official business, and that Alice may have suffered from eating disorders for a time, as a result of emotional stress, but they said very little more. I don’t know when this programme was actually made, but, with last week having been Mental Health Awareness week and with Prince Louis having been given a name from the Hesse-Darmstadt side of the family, I really got thinking about Princess Alice.
She did find happiness with her husband and children, only to lose one child to haemophilia, another to diphtheria, and to die young herself. Her humanitarian work during the Austro-Prussian War’s interesting too. But I was thinking about the … I don’t know what you’d call it exactly. Alice herself seems to’ve held some quite controversial religious views, in her case mainly a case of denying the “miraculous” nature of some of what’s in the Bible. I don’t think that was linked to any problems she might have had with eating disorders, but two of her descendants, who both shared her name – the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, originally Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, and Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, both seem to have suffered from depression which got tangled up with an interest in mysticism in the Tsarina’s case and a “religious crisis” in the princess’s case. I know, I know – that’s got nothing to do with Queen Victoria, and I’m talking rubbish by saying that the programme should have gone into it all. But I wish it had done. It would have been a lot better than same old, same old, and a load of wild exaggerations!
And, on the subject of Mental Health Awareness Week, was it really appropriate to use the term “go nuts” when referring to the madness of George III. I personally go with the porphyria theory, but people in Queen Victoria’s time would have assumed that it was a mental health issue. “Go nuts”?! Seriously?!
Oh well. Channel 5 has traditionally not been the best of places for historical documentaries. I’d thought it was getting better. Now I’m not so sure!