Thursday, 19 March 2009

The Young Victoria

Spring is here. There are massive banks of coloured crocus in the parks and along the coast road between South Shields and Sunderland and by the pavement in North Marine Park there are also clumps of daffodils. There are no formal beds but bulbs sewn under the grass. Elsewhere there are formal beds of spring flowers. There has also been a blue sky throughout the week so far from dawn until late afternoon. The temperature varies subject to the force of the wind and as I write the air appears still and I will shortly go for a walk after recovering from a basic lunch time meal of two salmon fish cakes with baked beans and a banana followed by coffee. Yesterday the increased quantity of ginger with the chicken stir fry made the dish most enjoyable followed with a half of a small melon which I have taken to in preference to grapes in part because they work out cheaper, but having the same fruit day upon day has become wearisome. Alas there are no inexpensive cherries for I never tire of them.

Yesterday I was torn between going to see the latest Clint Eastwood film and the Scorsese- Duchess of York and King produced biopic- The Young Victoria. I mixed up the times between Bolden Cineworld which I decided to visit in order to check if they were showing the Metropolitan Opera new singer of the year competition in April (They are not), with the times at the Empire Sunderland, where a seat would cost a pound less on Tuesday‘s. So there was no choice and I experienced the Young Victoria. I thoroughly enjoyed this film, engaged from start to finish although for me the is the constant question. What is the continuation justification for a monarch in a democracy? What did Queen Victoria contribute back to the people of her country? I will answer that question in that three times in British recent history, that is the past 500 years or so the people and the national as a concept have been fortunate to have three long serving monarchs who were all women, long serving and imbued with a lifelong sense of duty, Queen Elizabeth the First, Queen Victoria and the present Queen Elizabeth. My humble suggestion is that before her time comes consideration should be given not Charles and his wife or the sons of Charles and Diana, but to Princess Anne.

Two recent Prime Ministers have shown that it is possible to run a Presidential system in Britain. Prime Minister Thatcher and Prime Minister Blair while making use of the Monarch as a tourist attraction, to promote trade and diplomatic relations, and help keep the Union from breaking up, also kept Parliament in its place, making legislation which everyone knew would not be implemented as intended and create more or new problems to those it was intended to solve, while they got on with the business of running the country, despite the impossibility of anyone running the country as a separate entity in a global economy, sandwiched between the economic interests of America, Europe and the rest of the world

The focus of the film is the period just before Victoria become joint regent, her first meeting with Prince Albert, her first years as Queen during which she established such a close relationship with Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister that she was referred to by the public as Mrs Melbourne, and then her months of marriage to Prince Albert.

It is a good film which appears to cover all the main events of the years when Victoria adjusted and coped with being Queen, marriage and motherhood and I was grateful that the choice had in effect been made for me. Now I am debating if I can afford to spend time reading part of three books in my Library which should help to establish if the film is accurate and if anything significant was left out or added. I have a hard back 1972 Book Club edition of the life of Lord Melbourne previously published in two volume by Lord David Cecil together with the 1967 World Book Club hardback edition of Victoria E.I by Lady Elizabeth Longford, together with the Book Club Associate’s edition in 1972 of Dorothy Marshall’s Victoria and where the series editor was Lady Antonia Fraser. I mention that the extent of titled involvement in the books because the Duchess of York, previously married to the Queen’s second son Prince Andrew and Duke of York was one of three producers of the film and their daughter, the young Princess Beatrice has a cameo part as a lady in waiting at the Coronation of her ancestor.

I commenced with the Dorothy Marshall work and this suggested some major differences between the characters portrayed in the film and in actuality. The first is the relationship between the King and Victoria’s mother. Apparantly she kept distance between herself, and her daughter with King because she disapproved of the open way in which he lived with his mistress and expected his wife to bring up the children born to the mistress. While it is accurate that Victoria destested her mother’s companion and adviser, Sir John Conroy the film implies that the relationship was more than evidence suggests. His official position was Comptroller of the Household managing the financial affairs of her mother, the Duchess, and he did attempt to bully Victoria in appointing him her private secretary when she was seriously ill with typhoid. She refused. According to Wikipedia there was speculation that the relationship with her mother was sexual, and indeed there was speculation that he was Victoria’s father but he was not in contact during the period of her conception. What is agreed is that he was ambitious and wanted power and social advancement and that he exerted great pressure to make Victoria’s mother Regent as she approached eighteen years and the health of the King failed. Although Victoria did make him a baronet with a pension shortly after coming to the throne dismissing him from her household, he considered this a slight believing he should have become at least an Earl. Lady Longford takes the view that he was no Don Juan and not as bad as painted but he was adventurer and a spendthrift. In wanting to exercise influence over the future Queen and the Monarchy he was no different from her Uncle, the Belgium King or Lord Melbourne, or the royal households of Europe who saw the possibilities of gaining control over Britain through the Queen to be and her husband.

The other aspect of her background which interests is that she was brought up without the company of others of her own age although she had contact with Conroy’s daughter, but his was affected by the dislike of the girl’s father. She was genuinely thrilled when young men of appropriate social standing were sent to call on her and it is understood from her diary that she responded to the visit of Albert and his older brother warmly. The man who first influenced in a positive way was her Uncle Leopold, the King of the Belgiums, the first of five men on whom she came to respect and accept their advice. She followed his advice about the importance of knowing history and read the books he advised. She was self aware of her academic limitations and Lady Longford states that she disliked learning. It is agreed she enjoyed the expected occcupations for a young woman of her class, drawing, painting, singing and dancing and although she enjoyed the Italian composers she disliked she did not enjoy playing the piano. The film emphasised her interest and abilities in drawing and her love of dancing. The king gave her a birth party with other young people when she was fourteen and she is said to have danced the evening arriving home at half past midnight. The other confirmed aspect is that she loved dogs from an early age and this continued throughout her life.

It is of recent significance that as the King beame more ill and the Princess approached her eighteenth birthday the battle between the courts of Windsor Palace and Kensington hottted up and came to a head at the King’s Birthday dinner for 100 guests when he pointed at the Princess expressing the hope he would live long enought for her to become Queen in her right rather than fall under the control of her mother who he accused of steaing the use of an additional 17 rooms at the Kensington Palace. In the film Lord Melbourne sits next to the Princess and offers his support. It is understood that they did not meet until morning after the King’s death although he was concerned about the battle to control her and that the situation would be exploited by the Tories under the Duke of Weellington and Sir Robert Peel.

It is a fair comment, made by the Princess subsequently that she was lonely as a child, but learnt to keep her emotions and her thoughts inside, to observe, to listen and to make her own counsel. Whatever history may have come to criticse her mother, the governess and her tutors for the way she was raised, they should be given credit for enabling the Princess to possess two remarkable qualities, given their short supply in most of us.

She not only knew the difference between wrong and right but she judged everything and everyone in terms of wrong and right and had no time for the grey. She also possessed a sense of duty which was remarkable in one so young.

At twelve minutes past two on the morning of June 20th, 1837, the King died. Archbishop Howley accompanied by the Lord Chamberlain travelled immediately from Winsor to Kensington Palace arriving at about 5 am and met resistance in the Palace to waking the Princess. It was only when they explained they had come to see the Queen that they were admitted, The new Queen put out a single well rehearsed hand for her new most loyal subjects to kiss. She then returned to her room and put on the dress of mourning. She wrote in her diary that she regretted not being able to say goodby to the King. “I am very young, and perhaps in many things, but not in all things, inexperienced, but I am sure that very few have more goodwill, and more real desire to do what is fitting and right than I have” It is known that at least until then what she had written in her jounral was read by her governess and her mother and therefore at an earlier age she had learnt that what she wrote would be read and subsequently interpreted by others in the future to come. But it is also known that whatever she wrote was meant and not just said for subsequent effect. Over the next five hours she prepared for her first meeting with her Privy Council at 11 and during which time she spoke with her Uncle‘s, the King of Belgium’s, emissary, Baron Stockmeyer and the Prime Minister, Lord Mlbourne twice. She is known to have written three letters.

She entered the room where the Council was to be held, alone. and was led by the Royal Dukes of Cumberland and Sussex to the throne where she read the required formal declarion and then received each member as they swore their oaths of loyalty, but she approached her aged and infirm uncle the Duke of Sussex rather than wait for him to approach her, as she also did at the Coronation Ceremony. This was a moment for which she had been prepared as a child, something which the present Queen had never expected until her uncle ran from his duties and obligations for the sake of his love for a divorced woman. Several of those attending this and her second council expressed amazement at the confident manner in which she assumed her new role, Sir Robert Peel wrote about her modesty, firmness and self possession combined with graceful diffidence. Although she mentioned in her journal the meetings she held during that first momentus day, there was just a brief note saying “Went down and said goodnight to mama etc.” She had been kept close to her mother who had shared her bedroom. Resenting the hold Conroy had on her mother, as Queen she could immediately break free. These moments were all accurately portrayed in the film

While she had not been prepared for the politics of government she had been taught how to behave as the Queen by her Uncle Leopold in particular. Lady Longford mentions that he had advised that should anyone speak to her univited or raise personal matters she should change the subject and make them feel they had made a mistake. People would quickly learn when the Queen was “not amused.”

The film makes the point that Lord Melbourne was calculating in his charm offensive to help the new Queen, ensuring that the wives of his political friends formed her houshold and every position went to known supporters of his party. His first mistake was to decide not to pay off Conroy in such a way that he would cease to have any influence. Conroy demanded money, status and continuing influence through memebrship fo the Privy Council. The offer of the Baronetcy and pension was sugared by the offer of an Irish Peerage when one became available in due course and conditional on Melbourne remaining in office.

Lady Longford has brilliantly summed up the attraction which Lord Melbourne was to offer the new Queen, His “fatherly devotion was enriched in her eyes with the wisdom of political genius, the detachment of a philosopher, the brilliance of a scholar, the fascination of a man of the world, the melancholy appeal of a disappointed husband and father, and the glamour of one who had miraculously come unscathed through two divorce suits in which he was named co respondent, He viewed her as someone blind he could help see, someone dumb who he would teach to speak. She made inquires about the man who had been the husband of Lady Carolyn Lamb (who went mad and had a affair with Lord Byron) and the father of a sickly child his son who had died a year before her accession. That these things had been the talk of London society and beyond but she had not known them beforehand is an indication of the extent to which she had been sheltered from the reality of political and social life, restricted to the Palaces and the stately homes she had visited

The film touched on Melbourne (a Liberal Whig) right wing extreme non interventionism when it came to consequences of policies and economies upon the working class. Whenever she raised concerns about their living conditions he told her it was wrong to interfere with the natural order of things. In the Longford book what this meant in practice is spelt out but it is something which the film skates over. She had learnt about Irish history and the plight of the working class. When she asked Melbourne what happened to the poor Irish evicted by their landlords, shortly after he had initiated a policy of coercion and martial law, he told her that they would become absorbed one way or another, adding that they eat too much and that there was not enough for them and you. He was 58 and she 18.

The odd aspect of their relationship is that because Melbourne headed the Whig party full of radicals the Queen became one of them whereas he was in fact a die hard Tory at odds with his own party. Sounds familiar? The problem was that the young Queen was oblivious to the political reality of the majority of her people and something which the film also tended to skate over, This was era of Chartism and the Anti Corn Law League and the fear of revolution following the French Revolution. She disliked Sir Robert Peel who headed a party which had more in common with the views of Melbourne so it was only a matter of time before Melbourne failed to command a majority of support within Parliament.

The film went part of the way to explaining why the Queen suddenly found herself criticised openly by the public. When it was evident that he did not command the confidence of the majority of Parliament Melbourne was prepared to make way for Sir Robert Peel, but was anxious to protect the Queen from a dramatic change which meant she would lose his advice and companionship and the familiarity of other Ministers and members of her Household who were party politicians with some Members of Parliament. He therefore advised that she should keep her ladies in waiting, but this was unacceptable to Sir Robert Peel. Her resistence was discussd at cabinet and her position supported and in the film Sir Robert raised his unwillingess to become Prime Minister over the issue unless the Queen’s consented to some of his nominees replacing those of Melbourne, however token. The outcome was that Melborune remained Prime Minister for a further two years with disastrously consequence on the public attitude towards the Queen and her relationship with Lord Melbourne.

I believe the film also accurately showed the development of the relationship with the husband chosen by her family, She liked the young man when they met, knew she had to marry, and give birth to an heir, but was resistant to the manipulation in which her Uncle’s agent, the Baron Stockmeyer was required to send continuous reports and where the correspondence between Victoria and Albert was monitored. While she first put into practice what she had learnt about the role of Queen she had the emotional support and advice of Lord Melbourne, but he recognised the harm their close relationship was causing in the country at large and encouraged her to marry Albert and not to have a prolonged engagement. She appears to have had mixed feelings at first when a visit to Britain was organised for the young Prince.

The visit took place in 1939, a hundred years before my birth, and after settling the broad terms of the marriage contract, she proposed, as was required by court etiquette, on 15th October 1939. They were married on 10th February 1840.

Several problems made their first months together difficult. It has to be remembered that they were two 20 year olds who had only met a couple of times and knew little of each other. The Queen did not like serious discussion and enjoyed gossip. Albert was studious and enjoyed conversation with the new scientists and other intellectuals. He loved the country and to go to bed early whereas she enjoyed London, its theatres, concerts. parties and balls and liked to go to bed late and get up late in the morning. The both enjoyed dancing although in the film Albert had taken up the dance because it was something the Princess was known to adore. They both loved dogs and in the film Aklbert arrived to greet the Princess with a hound on each hand. They both liked to horse ride. Albert was also a modern husband a century and a half before it became the recommended standard, taking a great interest in the children and personally caring for his wife during her many pregnancies. It was he who brought the festival of Christmas to the UK including the giving of presents.

The film concentrates on the first of what was to become many occasions when the Queen gave way to her emotions and attempted to pull rank over Albert to get him to do her bidding. Less attention is given to her rages, hysterical tantrums and, moods of nervous depression, ourbusts when aimed at Albert that she immediately regretted but could not control. Albert accepted that he could not become involved in political matters but he complained that he was not even allowed to be master of his household, a situation which angered and frustrated him because the Palace was badly run, money wasted and he was constantly told, supported by his wife that things had always been so and therefore could not be changed. In this respect Lord Melbourne supported the view of Baron Stockmeyer that the Prince should have a role and that the Queen was making excuses, ambivalent about his involvement ( the ghost of Conroy?). Through the advice of Stockmeyer and Melbourne The Prince was able to develop a role in terms of management of the household and he was also made a member of the Privy Counsel and played a major role in the organisation of the Great Exhibition of 1851. In the film the change comes about after the Prince was wounded when an attempt was made on the life of the Queen. There are in effect written footnotes after the final scene reminding that the couple had nine children who went on to be part of Royal Households throughout Europe. When the Prince died the age of 42, Victoria went into deep mourning for the rest of life, devastated and never recovering.

I enjoyed the film and its powerful story and which overall and for the most part is an an accurate portrayal of events and their characters.

There was, and remains one question which continues to knaw away. What was, what is, Sarah, Duchess of York upto?

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