I don’t know whose idea it was to put New Year at the beginning of January, but it seems like an odd one. Why not begin each new year on, let’s say, the first of April or May? It might bring at least a dash of new dawn-ishness — a flicker of sunlight, scampering clouds, hello birds and a hey nonny no — to New Year’s Day. There’s no spring in the step of 1 January. She has neither the time nor the inclination for good cheer. She is as tired, headachey and whey-faced as if she had stayed up half the night dancing to ‘Yes Sir, I Can Boogie’ with 31 December and had woken to find him — Oh God! Not again! — snoring in her bed.
On New Year’s Day — a handover day, rudderless and ungoverned — we don’t want ‘new’, we want familiar: tea, toast, television, baked potatoes and the threat of work in the morning. People will say in hopeful voices, ‘Is there a post tomorrow? Will the bin men come? Is everything going to be normal?’
The New Year’s Day TV schedule is merciful. It feeds us prescription television: medicine for an overtired and overhung nation. Celebrity Mastermind, Celebrity Who Wants To be A Millionaire? New Year Special, Come Dine With Me Celebrity Christmas Special (x 5), Celebrity Deal Or No Deal, Christmas University Challenge, Mary Poppins, Ben Hur, The Wizard of Oz …it’s a delicious, enveloping nest, as familiar and shimmering as a tin of Quality Street.
Queen Victoria’s Children (BBC2) was one of the few new programmes offered up on Tuesday night (by which I really do mean ‘new’, as opposed to ‘new episode of familiar series’). The programme began with a rather distracting instruction: ‘Think of the worst row you’ve ever had with a partner and then magnify it.’ What an exciting challenge! How could anything that followed outstrip such a vision? It was only with the greatest of difficulty that I dragged my mind back to Victoria and Albert, whose squabbles, we were informed with considerable relish by a queue of eager historians, were many and magnificent.
A chatty narrative (‘They knew they had to find a fresh way of relating to their subjects’) and lots of quotations (some read in theatrical voices) gave this programme a gossipy, febrile character, but its subject was perfectly serious: the cruel and miserable treatment of Queen Victoria’s children by their parents. This being the first episode of three, we rootled about in Albert and Victoria’s marriage, looking for clues, before we moved on to examine what we might call their ‘parenting skills’ but what Albert called ‘training to obedience’. Marital detail was characterised by that sickly Victorian mixture of primness and passion which is always so hard to take seriously: ‘He was so cold, dear angel,’ wrote the Queen. ‘Being en grande tenue with tight white pantaloons — nothing underneath them! — and high boots…’ Sickly, yes, but horribly more-ish and soon — albeit in a rather guilty, furtive manner, as if I had been trying to read someone else’s Daily Mail on the Tube — I was hooked.
Plucked from his ‘rather obscure Duchy’ and posted to Windsor Castle, Albert was ‘daunted by his role as subject to his feisty Queen’. (‘Feisty’, eh? The word that means so little yet says so much.) ‘I am only the husband,’ he fretted, perhaps rather stating the obvious. ‘And not the master of my house.’ He was frustrated: he could not make himself master of Victoria and he could not, as her husband, compete with her responsibilities as Queen.
If, however, he could generate a national interest in his domestic circle — the place where he held influence — he might increase the relevance of his role. If he and Victoria could turn ‘happy family’ into an asset — the asset that sold the royal couple to a sniffy middle-class — he would turn himself into a person of significance: the nation’s best-loved father figure.
This ideal would, in due course, characterise the monarchy and captivate the public. The presentation of Victoria and Albert’s ‘respectable, close-knit, loving family’ became its standard image and has defined the Victorian age. Paintings such as Landseer’s ‘Windsor Castle in Modern Times’ (1841) encapsulate Albert’s vision: a depiction of the monarchy was not just a portrait of the Queen but of a family, perfect and united: devoted father, adoring wife, obedient children and well-behaved pets.
Albert and Victoria’s vision of a domestic utopia was, for their children, an impossible and punishing reality but their blueprint altered ideas about family, and the royal family (not to mention Christmas) for subsequent generations. Given his loathing of parties — ‘looking like a cowed and kept pet: frightened to sit; frightened to stand’ — we should perhaps be grateful that Prince Albert never got his hands on messy old New Year’s Eve.