The episode “A Coburg Quartet” crescendos to a huge head trip for our royals, which includes the question of literally what’s on people’s heads: the crown that gives Victoria authority; the satisfaction Feodora takes in her mysteriously acquired tiara; that bump on Bertie’s skull, for which fake science could ruin his future.
The genetically intertwined Coburg gang is back together again in this emotionally explosive episode: Uncle Leo, his nephew Albert, his niece Victoria, and the niece he totally forgot about: Feodora.
The Face Value of Money
There’s a clever nod to today’s Brexit tension in the quibbling over a new British coin’s value. By making it 1/10 of a British pound, it’s a step towards a decimal currency system (the U.K. won’t submit to that until 1971).
To Albert – from Germany – the value is logical. Lord Pam argues it’s easier to divide by 12 than 10 (there are 12 pence in a shilling). PM Russell declares the decimal system works perfectly well on the Continent. Uncle Leopold, a.k.a. King of Belgium (you know, the seat of the European Union), suggests calling the coin a florin and PM Russell agrees that works “both at home, and abroad.”
Victoria and Albert also argue about this money; but unlike most other married couples, they are arguing about the picture of the wife on the money.
The PM agrees to let Albert design the coin. After prompting by Uncle Leo, Victoria decides to add a crown to her portrait on it, and unbeknownst to Victoria, Albert has omitted some significant Latin phrases that typically accompany the portrait. When she berates him for it later, he snidely retorts that none of her subjects can read Latin anyway.
FYI: The British florin coin was in circulation from 1849-1970 and worth one tenth of a pound. There was much controversy over its introduction and design. It was the first time in over 200 years that a sovereign was pictured wearing a crown on a coin. It became known as the Godless Florin because the phrase Dei Gratia (By the Grace of God) was omitted from the design, as well as Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith).
Some suspected that the design had been changed by the Master of the Mint, a Catholic Irishman, but it was, in fact, Albert who had suggested the design. The coin was redesigned for its next minting in 1851.
Bertie is No Head Case
Bertie keeps a pet mouse – barely – and he doesn’t control his temper well either, but he is just a boy. Feodora tells Albert that Bertie is “so like Drina,” and brings up the specter of mental illness at every opportunity.
Per Feodora’s suggestion, Albert makes Bertie submit to a humiliating examination of his skull by Mr. Coombe, a quack phrenologist, who deems him feeble-minded, like his grandfather, Mad King George.
This diagnosis could drive a wedge even further between father and his son. Albert, so sure of science and new ways of thinking, appears ready to give up on Bertie. Victoria thinks the assessment is ludricrous and only worries about how Albert is treating him. She doesn’t get to smash the patriarchy in this episode, but she does pick up the porcelain phrenology bust from Albert’s desk and smash it to smithereens.
FYI: Phrenology: Proponents of phrenology used a craniometer (the instrument used on Bertie) to measure the size and shape of the skull. They believed the skull determined personality traits, character and criminality. This pseudoscience was popular in the Victorian era, often mentioned in literature, and taken seriously, even though there were many (even then) who called it bunk.
The leading spokesman of the Phrenology movement was George Combe, a lawyer, who wrote a best-selling book, The Constitution of Man, which sold over 200,000 copies. Combe’s book and lecture tours made it the pop psychology of the day. It has long since been widely debunked, and there are many phrenology head models on eBay.
Feodora Flaunts Her Gains
In Victoria Season 1, the Duke of Wellington drily observed of Albert, “And so the torpid Teuton wedges himself yet further into the sagging cleft of power.”
The same could be said about the half-sister from hell, Feodora. She has got her feet under the palace table, and nothing short of a crow bar will get her out.
While Victoria was in Ireland, Feo figured out how to trade favors for swag, like the high horse she rides this episode, and her new sapphire tiara (which looks a lot like the plastic one I got at the traveling Downton Abbey exhibit).
Feodora has even become a rival for Albert’s confidences and affection – and Victora can clearly see that. To paraphrase Princess Diana, when asked (in that infamous TV interview) about Camilla and her own Prince: the marriage is a bit crowded.
When Victoria reaches her limit with the nemesis-ter, Albert insists Feodora has brought nothing but sunshine and rainbows to their home and Victoria is cuckoo to suspect her of anything. Feodora can do no wrong in Albert’s eyes. His confidences and respect used to be reserved for Victoria.
Feodora is feeling so settled in the palace that she thinks nothing of playing a game of cat and mouse with Lord Palmerston. They tease each other: he mentions her misdeeds, and she, his. He alludes to her selling favors, and she basically admits it. Maybe she thinks she has enough on him that no one would ever believe Lord Pam if he decided to spill the beans.
Uncle Leo Returns
Bad penny Uncle Leo returns for a visit, contributes his two European cents on the new British coin, and makes the mistake of insulting Palmerston in German, not knowing Lord Pam can Sprechen Sie Deutsch.
Later, when Victoria lines up the children to introduce Uncle Leo, Bertie drops his pet mouse and anarchy ensues. Feodora dismissively refers to Bertie as a Hanoverian – you know, from the nutty side of Victoria’s family – and Uncle Leo looks at her like she just farted. Who is this stranger who dares speak derisively about a royal? Victoria reminds Leo of her long-forgotten sister –who is also his own niece. He is shocked to see Feodora. Does he really not recognize her or is he just pretending?
It looks like Albert has made peace with Leo and they even share a laugh. The only person Albert can’t make peace with is Victoria.
The private family sketches that Victoria and Albert drew in happier times somehow land in The Illustrated London News for all the world to see. It’s the equivalent of a tabloid publishing leaked photos of a celebrity at home with their family – without any makeup.
Victoria is distraught by the illustrations. She fears the public will consider their queen just a woman and that they are laughing at her. Her dresser Abigail tries to reassure her that the public will only see her as a good mother – a queen to be proud of – but her words don’t seem to be getting through the way Skerrett’s could.
It’s Palmerston who is able to get Victoria to understand how these family scenes make her more relatable to her subjects, and, he says, that’s a good thing.
Queen Victoria was present at the birth of image-driven celebrity culture, and her popularity became a double-edged sword. Public fascination is a beast that must be fed. It is not a stretch to say that one can draw a direct line between Victoria and Albert’s wedding of the century to Princess Diana being chased to her death by a paparazzi mob.
FYI: Etchings and leaks. In 1844, 60 private etchings drawn by Victoria and Albert were leaked to a reporter for just £5. Lawsuits and injunctions were brought to keep them private, and those suits were successful. As a result, the etchings are extremely rare. In 2016, a collection of them (one of only three known sets in public hands) came up for auction. Read all about it and see the etchings here.
FYI: First published in 1842, The Illustrated London News was the world’s first illustrated newspaper. Photography had just been invented, but it was artists who were sent to the scene of news events to draw pictures. The first issue covered Queen Victoria’s first masquerade ball (which we saw in Season 2). In 1846 it published the iconic etching of Victoria and Albert and their children around their Christmas tree. Copies of various issues from its 161 year publishing history, including special issues (like the 1901 commemorative issue on Queen Victoria’s reign and the accession of Bertie, a.ka. King Edward, often turn up on eBay and Amazon (among other places).
Trouble in ParadiseSophie’s husband has thought of a fresh way to humiliate her. He suggests she go to the Queen’s costume ball dressed as his grandmother, the 9th Duchess of Monmouth, styled as in a miniature portrait he shows her. The original was painted by Gainsborough and sold off before Sophie’s family fortune saved his bacon.
What do we think is Monmouth’s game in constantly reminding Sophie that it was her family money saved his estate? One would think the situation would embarrass him, but it seems what he wants is to rattle her, no matter the cost.
She thinks his granny looks lovely. As a grocer’s daughter, she has no way of knowing the notorious family history – or his ulterior motive for the costume choice.
When Footman Joe hears about the costume, he clues Sophie in. He knows all about the 9th Duchess because she was a Cavendish from Chatsworth; she had a miserable marriage, took on a lover, and when her husband discovered it, he divorced her and took her children away, causing her to commit suicide.
Monmouth suspects Sophie is having an affair; she looks too damn happy and he prefers to keep her looking like a deer in the headlights. But, as we know (and as Emma knows) he is barking up the wrong tree, believing the rogering cad is Palmerston.
Lords a Leaping and Ladies Dancing
Feodora has been organizing and scalping tickets for the Christening Costume Ball, which has a Georgian theme, named for the era of King Georges dating back to 1714.
The ball itself is splendid proof that it had to be those Georgian dandies who invented the glam squad. There is simply no way an ordinary person could dress themselves in those towering confections of yak hair, powder and bows. It took a village.
Victoria and Albert lead all assembled in a Jets/Sharks mambo dance-off, though some in attendance seem to think they are at a hootenanny. This includes infamous swindler George Hudson, who was behind the family pictures turning up in the tabloids – and he is quite friendly with Feo who happens to have a new tiara, jewelry, a horse, clothes, and a partridge in a pear tree.
When Victoria voices her suspicions about why some guests were invited, Albert defends Feodora – why shouldn’t she accept gifts? When he walks away, Victoria tells Feodora she thinks it’s time she went wee-wee-wee-wee all the way home to Langenberg. But this little piggy doesn’t want to leave the banquet table just yet. She smugly tells Victoria that Albert wouldn’t like that.
FYI: The term “bigwig” comes from the 18 century, coined to describe the rich people who could afford gigantic, poofy wigs. The combination of big wigs and lighting by candlelight was dangerous; there are many reports of people being killed when their wigs caught fire. In France, the powdered wig went out of style after the revolution, and in England, after a tax was levied on hair powder in 1795. Natural hair became the new trend.
Single White, Powdered Female
Still in their costumes, Victoria pulls Feodora into a private room where she goes all single white female on Her Majesty. She could have been queen if Uncle Leo hadn’t schemed with her mother to shove Feo out and away from the old King who wanted to marry her. Years of resentment comes tumbling out; she coulda been a contender. She coulda been somebody – she could have been Queen but not for little Drina being the favorite. But she ended up in a leaky castle in Germany with an alcoholic husband. It’s a powerful, tearful performance, but is Feodora gaslighting Victoria?
When Victoria asks him about Feodora, Uncle Leo, King of the Belgians, waffles. Even as he reassures Victoria that there’s nothing the Queen has to fear from her penniless sister, he is concerned about the easy relationship Feodora and Albert share. Uncle Leo disposed of Feodora once. Will he (can he?) do it again?
Showing her merchant class pride, Sophie decides to wear a costume that represents her grocer grandmother, so, no time is wasted with a wig or white makeup. When she sees Joseph, she gives him bedroom eyes and tells him her corset is uncomfortably tight. He responds with, “May I be of assistance, your grace?” Despite both their layers of clothing, a quickie is accomplished between ballroom dances.
I’ve started to wonder, is Footman Joe using Sophie just like her husband has? Joseph did say he offered her love, but after he told Abigail he won’t be a wig-wearin’ servant forever – just before answering this booty call of nature – is he is actually selling that love to the grocer’s daughter for a price that might be too high for even her wealthy daddy to cover?
Meanwhile back at the ball, the Duke of Monmouth is asking guests, “Have you seen my wife…or Lord Palmerston?” Emma sees all and sets out to find Sophie before her husband does. The two women re-enter the party together, but when Monmouth spots his wife across a crowded room, he can’t help but see she’s glowing, and he knows it sure ain’t from him.
The Thrill is Gone
To top off all the fights, resentment and Albert’s dismissing of Victoria’s concerns and siding with Feodora, he tells Victoria that her intellect is over-taxed, and Victoria slaps him across the face. The greater blow comes next when she corners him with the question, “When did you stop loving me?” The words hit them both like a wave on Osborne beach. He avoids the question by saying of course he loves her and the children (as convincingly as when he congratulated her on pregnancy #7), and that it’s his duty to do so. She says that’s not what she meant. He knows, but it’s all he has left. He exits the room.
Victoria walks off in a stunned state and comes across Bertie on the floor, who is sobbing because his mouse has run away and he thinks his papa doesn’t love him anymore because he’s stupid. Victoria sits down and pulls him in for a cuddle to reassure him. She tells him – as much for him as for herself – that it is impossible to stop loving someone.
FYI: Victoria and Albert (reportedly) had a loving but stormy relationship, often arguing about who was running the country. When Victoria lost her temper, Albert would walk away and write to her instead of fighting. After one argument he wrote, “I do my duty towards you even though life is embittered by ‘scenes’ when it should be governed by love and harmony. I look upon this with patience as a test which has to be undergone, but you hurt me desperately and at the same time do not help yourself.”
Top We Are
Not Amused Moments
6. The fabulous camera work on the triangle formation dance sequences at the ball definitely heightened the drama. The dance seemed to stir passion in Victoria as she gazed at her husband opposite her.
5. The way Lord Palmerston so deftly saved the christening from anarchy by scooping up Bertie’s runaway mouse and placing it on his shoulder.
4. Wait, was that a chamber pot that Bertie was wearing on his head at the ball? Yes, and when the dynamic duo told her he was wearing it to change the shape of his head (to get rid of the “naughty bump”) so he could be a proper king (and papa would love him), I wondered if it reminded Victoria of her own miserable childhood at Kensington.
3. The best quote of the night came from Uncle Leo, regarding the British people and their affinity for grumbling about change: “It is the weather. It is hard to lead a revolution in the rain.”
2. The looks on Alfred and Emma’s faces when they spotted Feodora’s tiara as she entered the ball.
1. Alfred and Emma’s faces at the christening, as their eyes darted between Sophie and Joseph and Monmouth and back again. It looked like they were watching a very high-stakes tennis match – and they were! Is there anything they can do to save their friend Sophie from impending doom?
In this entire series, creator Daisy Goodwin deftly bends the space and time continuum to both capture historic truths and convey the spirit of Queen Victoria’s story. She leads Victoria to cross paths with notables and events of her day whenever it serves the dramatic narrative. If the year is inaccurate, or a character is a composite inspired by others, we are not going to quibble. We simply say, pass the popcorn and give us more!
Join the conversation in my recap – posted every Sunday evening after the broadcast – in the comments, below. Please share this recap with your fellow Victoria fans! Also, see our History Tidbits to learn the truth of some of some of the characters, places and issues that are featured in Victoria.
On Twitter you can use the hashtag #VictoraPBS and follow @THIRTEENWNET and me at @E20Launderette. On Instagram, find THIRTEEN at @THIRTEENWNET and me at @GothamTomato and also use the hashtag #VictoriaPBS.
Watch episodes for two weeks after broadcast, and continue streaming on demand with the member benefit THIRTEEN Passport.