This initially looked as if it were going to be same old, same old. Yes, we know that Queen Victoria was a bit of a party girl in her younger days, and that it was Albert who wanted everything to be sober, solemn and studious. Yes, we know that she struggled to cope with having so many pregnancies. Yes, we know that they enjoyed getting away from it all at Balmoral. But some of what was said was different to the usual contents of Queen Victoria programmes, and gave the viewer a lot to think about.
We know that Queen Victoria suffered from what would now be diagnosed as post-natal depression, but, from medical papers discussed here, it sounds as if she also suffered from post-partum psychosis: she was having hallucinations. That would have been terrifying for anyone, and perhaps especially for Victoria, who’d always feared that she’d “lose her mind” as her grandfather George III had done. And it sounds as if Albert, as with so many people when faced by mental illness, didn’t really appreciate that she couldn’t just pull herself together, because it doesn’t work like that.
We also know that she talked about Albert as being a “perfect angel” – but the programme talked about how she kept records of her own behaviour, and kept writing that she had to try to improve and be a better person, whereas Albert had no faults – and that she showed these notes to Albert, who went along with them and even made comments on her “improvement” or otherwise. Even bearing in mind the different views of gender roles at the time, that is extremely creepy. It sounded like some of those awful 19th century religious novels; and even those usually involve a controlling parent rather than a controlling partner, so you can hope that the child will get out of there when they grow up.
The programme then came up with the interesting hypothesis that it was the Crimean War which saved Queen Victoria – that, due to the crises of wartime, and in particular due to the introduction of the Victorian Cross, she became seen as the mother of the nation, and thus regained her confidence.
I’m not sure that I’d really agree with that. The Crimean War was horrendous. So many people dead, and for what? Having said which, there was enthusiasm for the war at the time. And look at all the Balaclava Terraces, Inkerman Streets and Crimea Streets (if anyone’s reading this and doesn’t get the reference, those are the names of streets close to Coronation Street!) around. Even with the Charge of the Light Brigade poem, there was a definite sense of heroism. Those poor men were heroes. But did the war give Queen Victoria her confidence back? Or was that more to do with the fact that Britain was largely unaffected by the 1848 Revolutions? Or was it just that people change as their lives move on?
Did she get her confidence back in the 1850s? She pretty much withdrew from public life after Albert’s death in late 1860. Was it Disraeli who helped her to get her confidence back? Or John Brown? Whatever happened, something did, and I’m very glad about that. The thought of those notebooks and all those comments about needing to “improve” … yes, the Victorians were very into self-improvement, and that was an extremely positive thing in terms of reading, evening classes, discussions at Athenaeums, and all that sort of thing, but, in the context of writing that your partner is perfect and you need to change … that is worrying.
The programme ended by going on about how important the partnership between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert was. And, yes, they improved the image of the monarchy, and remade it, and Prince Albert did a lot of good in many aspects of his work. But the thought of that notebook, and Albert reading it … ugh. That’s really quite upsetting. Interesting programme.