Behind every successful queen there is a man wondering what the hell his job is. Well, not Elizabeth I, mind you, but certainly our favorite 19th century monarch, Queen Victoria. The honeymoon is over and it’s back to Buckingham Palace they go to be interrupted by Baroness Lehzen in bed, separated by blood princes walking into dinner and lampooned by political cartoons depicting poor Albert as a German sausage.
Episode 6, “The Queen’s Husband,” does an excellent job of expanding upon Albert’s character and portraying him, rather gracefully, attempt to build for himself a meaningful place in an environment that has no idea what to do with him and little interest in figuring it out. I suspect, however, that my sympathy for him only flourished by the lack of Lord Melbourne this episode, which is an absolute crime and shouldn’t be tolerated. I might take it harder than Victoria does when he loses the election.
Anyway, right out of the gate Albert makes it clear to Victoria that he can’t wait to have kids. He wants his own family, he wants them to make up for their own poor parentage, and more than anything else he wants something to do. Fathering the next king is as good a step as any. Victoria is less keen, which makes sense given that three months ago she wasn’t sure she even wanted to get married, but fate wouldn’t be patient with her on this front. Presumably this episode is meant to take place in the span of a couple weeks at most, because in reality, Queen Victoria was pregnant with her first child within two to three weeks of her wedding.
Victoria’s ambivalence accurately captures the real Queen’s feelings towards motherhood, as does her fear of childbirth and the allusions to Princess Charlotte. Charlotte’s death, 18 months before Victoria was born, was the primary driver behind her parents’ marriage and her own birth – she would have grown up knowing how she died, why it was significant and understood that had it not been for complications during labor, Charlotte would have been queen. She would also, in later years, warn her own daughters against having children too quickly, though what she would have had them do about it is anyone’s guess.
The show depicts Victoria seeking out old wives’ tales methods of contraception from Lehzen, which come in the form of advice to jump up and down 10 times after having slept with her husband. So, young Victoria sneaks out of bed, followed by her trusty Dash (the real hero of the show) and jumps up and down on a couch until she is caught by Albert. He watches her rather passively before asking her what she’s doing, and when she tells him, he corrects her, informing her that the only real way to prevent pregnancy is abstinence, a fate worse than motherhood to Victoria. I think the real takeaway here is that this scene could play as a political ad in both red and blue states, albeit with very different conclusions drawn.
Moving on: Victoria’s real victory here is letting Albert walk her into dinner. Since he’s not a prince of the blood (a phrase still used today that feels wildly out of date even in the 19th century), the honor of escorting the Queen into the dining room falls to her Uncle Sussex (aka Prince Augustus, Duke of Sussex, son of George III). This is the moment he lives for, apparently, because he has little interest in giving it up for his niece’s new husband. Victoria arranges for his wife, Lady Cecilia, to be received by her at court as the Duchess of Inverness, bringing her out of the shadows as his embarrassing (for the Royal Family) morganatic wife and into the fold as a respectable aunt to the Queen. In exchange, Sussex defers to Albert in all matters of escorting Victoria to dinner. One small step for man, one giant leap for German princes married to British sovereigns.
But Albert is less enthused, reminding Victoria it is her victory, not theirs. And Albert needs a win, guys. When Victoria declines to open a meeting of British abolitionists because of her need to remain neutral in all things political (except, of course, blatantly favoring Lord Melbourne and blaming the Tories for “everything”), Albert steps into the breach. Working with his private secretary, Anson, who was forced on him and yet is slowly growing on him thanks to a mutual interest in referencing Shakespeare (the root of all bromances, I hear), he delivers an impassioned speech that slavery is the stain of civilized society.
This plot line gave us my second favorite quote of the night when abolition was presented as a moral cause Britain had a responsibility to lead the way in, providing an example for “less enlightened nations – most notably, America.” I’ll allow it.
But what did this plot line did best was express the power and great hypocrisy of the institution of the monarchy itself. An escaped slave from Virginia attends the meeting and is given the chance to meet Albert beforehand. He is instructed on how to greet the Prince, being told that, “It is usual to not speak to royalty until you’re spoken to,” and responds that he understands that dynamic well. The irony is lost on his host, who fails to see the contradiction between a country and society premised on birthrights and subservience to a monarchy instructing the rest of the world on freedom.
And yet when Albert does come face to face with the man, who sincerely thanks him for showing up and paying attention to the cause, it illustrates the still existing power of the Royal Family. What they say and what they do are closely watched – they have the ability to shine a light on darkness, whether it’s Albert criticizing slavery, Prince Charles calling attention to climate change or William & Kate advocating for mental health resources.
Victoria shows up to the speech in a thin black veil, pleased with herself for concocting a way to enter the meeting “incognito.” But when Anson gently says, “Forgive me, ma’am, but your disguise is not impenetrable,” she gets the hint and returns to the Palace. As she tells Albert later, “This was your victory, my angel, not mine.”
Now, for my favorite quote of the night, I give you Prince Albert summarizing his new British home: “The dogs wear jewelry, the pianos are out of tune and all anyone talks about is the weather.” Welcome to England, doll.