As we find ourselves in the middle of the second season of Victoria, it seemed as good a time as any to take a look at Queen Victoria’s relationship with her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. The ITV/PBS show has depicted a dynamic in which the young queen was in love with her PM – at one point even proposing marriage. And by all appearances, the affection was mutual, at least on our television screens. The reality was obviously by far different, but this storyline is grounded in a kernel of truth – the relationship between the two always prompted some raised eyebrows.
A few months ago we took a look at the courtship, engagement and wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and so today we’re taking a closer look at their first three years of marriage. In short, they were dramatic, surprisingly so given the domestic bliss for which they would later be known, and for which Victoria spent several decades mourning after Albert’s premature death.
But the Victoria who married Albert in 1840 was not the Victoria who was left a widow in 1861 and it took the couple a few years to establish what their dynamic would be. More specifically, what were their roles in public versus private and to what extent was Albert meant to bow to the will of a wife who outranked him?
Despite having read nearly every available biography of Queen Victoria in the early aughts, I realized when watching and recapping the new series based on her airing on PBS that it had actually been a few years since I had sat down and read a biography based solely on her. So this past week, that’s what I did.
And it was pretty fun – kind of like looking at a high school yearbook. The broad strokes have stayed with you, but you’re reminded of some of the smaller personal details that you know you once knew well.
Since today, February 10th, marks the anniversary of Victoria and Prince Albert’s 1840 wedding, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at the real events behind their story. After all, though they would become one of history’s most famous couples, with Victoria remaining in intensive mourning for nearly 40 years after he died, their early years show two people very much figuring out how to live together, how to communicate, what the power dynamic was going to be and how they would raise their family. Like any young couple, except, you know, they did it in Buckingham Palace.
But you may want for a lot of other things, Albert. Anyway, look, I’ve warmed up slightly to our second favorite German prince since last week. And I say second favorite because I think we can all agree Ernest is first, from his unsubtle ruses to let his brother and Victoria have alone time to taking Albert to a “house of ill repute” in the lead up to the Great Royal Wedding of 1840. #ForGodandCountry
Episode 5, “An Ordinary Woman,” opens with some stilted conversation between Victoria and Albert before Ernest leads away the Queen’s lady-in-waiting and our future figureheads for propriety make out behind a random sheet hanging inside a rotunda. But the bliss is short-lived, because inquiring minds want to know: How much money will Albert be given? What will his title be? Who will make up his household? I don’t want to have to ask for money every time I need to buy a handkerchief, Albert says. But the Palace has loads of handkerchiefs! Victoria is bewildered, quite possibly because when she turned 18 she was handed the British Empire, but who’s to say?
Same, Victoria, same. Well, it’s happened. In the span of one episode Albert went from her rude, dull first cousin to our favorite British queen’s fiance. This episode also served as a good reminder of why I really don’t like Prince Albert, so, in that sense, well done Victoria – you’ve captured his essence perfectly.
Let’s get into it, shall we? Episode 4, “The Clockwork Prince,” begins where the last one left off, in the drawing room with Prince Albert walking up to the Queen to turn the page of her piano music for her. Dash immediately starts barking to which I say, good for Dash. He is a rival for Victoria’s affection and maybe also a tyrant. Dogs are never wrong. Anyway, Victoria isn’t feeling it, so when it’s suggested that she show Albert and his brother, Ernest, around she uses Lord Melbourne to get out of it with some urgent dispatches that require her “full attention.” I like this excuse. I’m going to use it going forward.
On Sunday night, the first two episodes of Victoria, “Doll 123” and “Ladies in Waiting,” premiered on PBS, filling the time slot left over when Downton Abbey ended last year. And it makes sense – both are British period dramas centered around a young, beautiful brunette who has no problem telling off the men that surround her. Only here, the main character is based on the very real Queen Victoria and not the fictional Lady Mary Crawley.
There’s been renewed interest in the early days of Queen Victoria’s reign, which began in 1837, most notably 2009’s The Young Victoria starring Emily Blunt. These depictions seek to humanize a figure that has become best-known for being an overweight senior citizen shrouded in black, and whose reign has become synonymous with prudishness, longevity and the expansion of the British Empire in ways we now find politically and racially uncomfortable.
But, as these depictions want to remind us, before she was a grandmother and a widow, she was an 18-year-old girl who left an overly sheltered existence as a princess in Kensington Palace to become the British queen, expected to go head-to-head with prime ministers, run a royal household and embody the institution of the monarchy. She was also – though the show hasn’t gotten there yet – a young woman desperately in love with her husband, who had a complicated relationship with motherhood. She was also jealous, domineering, stubborn and passionate. A lot to unpack there, and it’s not difficult to see why it’s tempting to want to take another look at her through a 21st-century lens.