There’s a splashy new television show about the life of Queen Victoria currently airing in the UK—it’s even beating the lately returned Poldark in the ratings. But is it historically accurate? Look out—aggrieved history takes, coming in hot.
The Guardian reports on Victoria: “Of course historians have queued up to pan this latest exercise in popular history. Hackles rise even at the publicity shots of Jenna Coleman’s over-groomed eyebrows, and a tiara that does not appear to resemble anything from the 1830s.” Particularly at issue, apparently: some unlikely and contrived below-stairs drama, the usual TV compulsion to sex up the true story, and a scene involving a rats on a birthday cake, though ultimately that outlet concludes that, “historically speaking, Victoria isn’t that bad,” and “Much of its silliness is down to exaggeration.”
But why simply note the stretches of the truth when you could go hard, perhaps with a headline like this one from the Telegraph?
Critic Jane Ridley harrumphs:
We would certainly know if Victoria was in love with Melbourne. By some miracle her journal for these years escaped the savage editing of her daughter Princess Beatrice, who transcribed the later diaries, cutting the interesting bits and burning the originals.
Victoria’s frank, vivid and detailed account makes it abundantly clear that she didn’t fancy Melbourne, let alone contemplate marrying him. Instead she worshipped him as the father figure she had never had (the Duke of Kent died when she was a baby). Melbourne was urbane and witty, but at sixty he wasn’t nearly as handsome as Rufus Sewell – and he had become enormously fat.
(But who is as handsome as Rufus Sewell, who probably smolders even when waiting in line down at his local Tesco?)
Ultimately, however, once she’s done stressing that Melbourne was Victoria’s mentor, not her love interest, Ridley cuts the show some slack and accepts it on its own terms: “This is an entertaining romp. It lacks the authenticity of Wolf Hall, but it is eminently more realistic than the BBC’s recent adaptation of Versailles.”
Not so, James Delingpole of the Spectator! At issue is nothing less than the honor of history as a discipline.
He particularly disapproves of a scene where Prince Albert splints the leg of Victoria’s beloved spaniel, Dash. Delingpole admits that Coleman and Sewell are attractive and “lawks a mercy, what characters they all are below stairs. But the problem is, it’s all made up bollocks, isn’t it?”
“Taking the odd liberty is one thing but doing so with such brazen shamelessness feels to me like one giant upraised middle finger to all those of us — we’re a minority but we do exist — who value history and who want to be informed at least as much as we want to be entertained.”
Who can we blame for these gross distortions?
I blame the ongoing feminisation of our culture. This may be grossly unfair on all those women out there — the Fawn, for example — who find this MillsandBoonification of history just as irritating as I do. But I suspect it’s probably true that boys, being of a more trainspotterish disposition, more jealous of their facts and their period detail, are more likely to be resistant to Victoria’s ersatz charms than girls.
Who wants to tell him about Braveheart?
“What with Poldark on one side and Victoria on the other, maybe we chaps just aren’t needed in front of the TV on Sunday nights any more,” he concludes. Who will deliver us from these MillsandBoonified times and make historical fiction great again?