Monday, February 26, 2018

Victorian Christmas

Season 2 of PBS Masterpiece's Victoria ended last night in typically British fashion with a Christmas episode. Of course, in the UK, these Christmas episodes are actually shown on Christmas. Here in the US, we have to wait for the series to be finished in Britain before we get to see it. So this "Christmas episode" comes in March, in Lent, when the temperature is spring-like, if not already more like summer!

Personally, I found season 1 of Victoria a bit of a disappointment. But season 2 has more than made up for that. Every episode in the second season has been superb. The distracting "downstairs" subplots are still there, but seem so much less intrusive (perhaps because the "downstairs" characters have become much more familiar and so maybe that much more sympathetic). Also, now that Victoria herself is safely enthroned and married, with the requisite heir and spare (and the odious Duke of Cumberland thus safely far away, reigning as king in Hanover), the series presents Victoria herself as more mature in her rule, more engaged in a positive way with her job, and of course more dependent on Albert and less on Lord Melbourne. (Cumberland's reappearance in the season finale invites one to speculate how different German and European history might have been had the Salic Law not applied in Hanover!)

Obviously, of course, one cannot tell the story of Victoria without Albert. Theirs was the great romantic love story of the 19th century. The way it transformed the queen herself - and thus the British monarchy - would warrant a dramatic series unto itself. Victoria retells that romantic and familial story and at the same time anchors Victoria's personal and family saga firmly in the context of the history that surrounded her.  Whether it was the Irish famine or the repeal of the Corn laws or her first state visit to France, or indirectly in this final episode the evil fo slavery, this season's episodes nicely situate her evolving personal story in the context of the tumultuous transformations that her kingdom and the world experienced during her reign. Like Netflix's The Crown, Victoria effectively uses real historical events to explore what can only be surmised. 

Inevitably, for drama's sake there are fictional elements introduced. In real life, presumably neither King Leopold nor Duke Ernst would have been able to spend so much time in Britain - away from Belgium and Coburg respectively.  But Leopold and Ernst were important to Victoria and Albert, and their Coburg dynasty sub-plot is a good way to highlight the fundamentally continental character of the British royal family at that time and its close connections with other continental families. Likewise the frustrated love affair of Lord Alfred Paget and the unfortunate Edward Drummond, while perhaps fictional (although they were real historical figures), serves to highlight a dimension of Victorian sensibility that a less adventurous series might ignore. 

Which brings us back to Christmas! The Victorians did not invent Christmas, of course. But Prince Albert's Germanization of the British Christmas did largely invent much of what we consider Christmas "tradition." Growing up in an immigrant family, I knew that there were other Christmas traditions. I had relatives who had grown up without Christmas Trees, but who nonetheless had celebrated Christmas. They had happily adopted Christmas trees and other Anglo-American Christmas customs without automatically assuming that that is all there is to Christmas! Even so, this season finale does highlight how Prince Albert really has enriched the English-speaking world's experience of Christmas - albeit at the risk of turning it into a middle class family feast rather than what it is in truth supposed to be.

Although the episode ends with a suitably sentimental, happy family Christmas dinner (even including Uncle Cumberland), everything leading up to that moment has challenged everyone - especially Albert - to see through the false familial sentimentality that the modern bourgeois Christmas has come to foster, a recognition that leaves all the characters - royal and not - better off in the end and more ready fro whatever lies in store next season.

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