All eyes are on Ireland’s less fortunate
Victoria this week takes a very somber turn. A combination of drought and fungus has wiped out the potato crop in Ireland. Thousands of farmers and their families can’t afford rent and are starving because their source of income and nutrition is ruined. This episode of Victoria might be the most relatable for American audiences. Millions of Americans have descended from the 2 million Irish who emigrated to America in search of a new life as a result of the potato famine. Dr. Traill (Martin Compston) is the rector of Schull, a small slice of the larger spread of the crisis. He can see how troubled the farmers are and can’t stand that the Church of Ireland refuses to do anything about it. He writes to Queen Victoria (Jenna Coleman) persuading her to take action.
There are two smaller subplots in action while the famine unfolds. Ernest (David Oakes) returns to England in order to treat his case of syphilis Prince Albert (Tom Hughes) works to modernize the plumbing in the castle. Both of these plots take a backseat to the political bickering around the potato famine. Sir Robert Peel (Nigel Lindsay) and many in Parliament subscribe to Malthus’ theories about overpopulation resulting in calamities such as famine. Within the castle, Miss Cleary (Tilly Steele) can feel the rising hostility many have towards the Irish. She has relatives suffering and she is struggling to send all the money she has to support them. Mr. Penge continues to prove he is a raging jerk and piles on the ethnic and religious bias.
What do our guests think about the characters’ inhumane and charitable reactions to the famine?
Shannon (@Endy_92) – Cosplayer, Writer, Anglophile.
Melissa (@immelza)- Lover of period dramas, PBS, good books, kind people and all things Poldark.
Katherine (@Lady_madchan) – Period drama lover. Anglophile. Poldark super fan.
Irene (@petitesoeur) – A lifelong fan of moving pictures, on big and small screens, particularly indie film and all things sci-fi. Irene writes for agnès films, a community that supports emerging and established women filmmakers.
Jan (@total_janarchy) – author and podcaster on a variety of pop culture subjects (Doctor Who, Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, RuPaul’s Drag Race), cosplayer, Anglophile, and lifelong costume drama junkie.
1) Before watching the episode, how much did you know about the Irish Potato Famine?
Shannon (@Endy_92): The basics you learn in history classes plus some more in-depth information I learned while writing some “Gone With the Wind” fanfiction a few years ago. I don’t think anything drives home how bad it was more than seeing firsthand the ruins of houses that are still standing. I took a school trip to Ireland/Wales/England a few years ago and those houses are still everywhere in the countryside- left as monuments. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.
Melissa (@immelza): I actually did some research on the Potato Famine because I wanted to make sure I remembered it as accurately as I could.
Katherine (@Lady_madchan): Probably just the gist. The Irish were able to support their large families when the potatoes flourished and were decimated when the crops failed. A huge percentage of their population died, and another huge percentage fled to America.
Irene (@petitesoeur): I knew it had happened and that it brought a major wave of Irish immigrants to the United States. I read up on it before the episode as I knew it was going to be the crux of its action. I was not prepared for how somber and disturbing it would be. The parallels to contemporary self-righteous and self-interested political machinations are striking.
Jan (@total_janarchy): I knew something about it, but not nearly as much.
2) What was your reaction to the cinematography and soundtrack during the Irish scenes?
Shannon: I quite liked the way it was done. It showed the story without making it seem as if they were being pitied.
Melissa: I thought it was very moving and poignant. The dark grey and black tones used to show Ireland contrasted with the brighter colors, especially the golden wheat Dr. Traill touched before he entered the palace was a really strong metaphor for what happened.
Katherine: It was chilling, haunting and quite unforgettable. So very different from the usual episode of Victoria.
Irene: Both were haunting and dismal. The long-distance scenic shots were eerily beautiful as well as aptly invoking a sense of gloom and also that the famine is far away from Victoria and the government officials in London. We’re brought closer and closer to the horror of what’s going until we’re peering over the shoulder of Dr. Traill at a mother “who won’t wake up.” Shout-out to director Jim Loach for his tight pacing and deft management of the intricately interlaced storylines.
Jan: It was very beautiful and very, very evocative.
3) If Dr. Traill wasn’t present to give his observations, would Queen Victoria have made the same decision?
Shannon: She’d have heard about it sooner or later surely but it would have taken longer, I think. She was stuck in a rather closed circle no matter how much she cared about her people. Albert, bless him, is still on his one-track mind idea about fixing the sewers. Victoria is suffering from Marie Antoinette Syndrome again. She doesn’t have any control over what is happening with her own people. It’s not a lack of desire to help, it’s a lack of ability and that’s really sad. When she does know wrongs are being committed, she tries, which is more than can be said for a lot of people.
Melissa: I think it would have taken longer, the personal perspective that Dr. Traill offered seemed to guide Victoria, as she was surrounded by men who viewed the Famine as a purge.
Katherine: I don’t think so. His first name account made the tragedy all too real for Queen Victoria and helped put a face on it. She is far more of an emotional person than Prince Albert. I don’t think she would have been swayed by an argument about numbers alone, in a relatively far off place.
Irene: Goodwin’s invention of having Victoria write to Dr. Traill asking him to appear in person at court is an excellent dramatic choice. The scene of him watching loads of food being shipped out of Ireland was heartbreaking. I liked how Goodwin used his presence in the palace to entwine Miss Cleary’s story with Victoria’s. Goodwin’s Victoria does seem to need a foil for her to make decisions – Melbourne, Albert, now Traill. It could have been Albert’s role but I think it was more effective for it to be Traill’s.
Jan: Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Peel, Trevelyan and even Albert were keeping her in the dark about how bad the situation was. She had no way of knowing the extent of the devastation.
4) Do you believe Queen Victoria sees motherhood as a potential strength in leadership or is it still a weakness?
Shannon: Strength. No doubt politicians would say using the baby is “low” but she’s doing what she has to and drawing on the strengths she has.
Melissa: I think she sees it as a strength and probably as part of her job as she’s bound to produce heirs. I also think motherhood has made her a more compassionate person as she has always lived a very sheltered life.
Katherine: I think she sees it as a strength, a reason to care about issues that others would overlook. I think others would see it as a weakness.
Irene: How fantastic is it that Victoria used her role as a mother to tug at Sir Robert Peel’s heartstrings and his conscience ~ very! Coleman’s acting was brilliant in the scene where she brings Peel into the nursery. It was a powerful moment. Unfortunately, the dramatic build of the scene was slightly marred by a jarring cut back to Traill in Ireland. I get the intention of intertwining and juxtaposing the two different households but it spoiled the emotional momentum Coleman and Lindsay had going.
Jan: I think she sees it as both. She clearly takes strength from being a mother and sees herself as the Mother of her Nation, but it also holds her back because men in that time period didn’t really have the responsibility of dealing with their children, esp. if they were upper class.
5) Has your opinion on Sir Robert Peel changed as a result of his position on the crisis?
Shannon: Nope, I still think he’s just a jerk politician. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do. If the party is willing to let people starve when there is food they need to be destroyed. As a person, I honestly admire Traill more and we’ve seen him in less than a full episode.
Melissa: No, I think Peel was a heartless man who lacked compassion and empathy. I also thought this episode was sadly timely as we, unfortunately, see these same attitudes in today’s politicians and their constituents.
Katherine: Yes. I actually didn’t think he would try to do anything to help the Irish until I saw it happen. It was also surprising to see him oppose most of his party.
Irene: Yes. You’ve got to admire a person who puts principle over party. The historical Queen did: “I am sure poor Peel ought to be blessed by all Catholics for the manly and noble way in which he stands forth to protect and do good to poor Ireland. But the bigotry, the wicked blind passions it brings forth is quite dreadful, and I blush for Protestantism!” Queen Victoria wrote in a letter to her uncle, the Belgian King, on April 15, 1845, the first year that the blight destroyed the potato crop.“
Jan: Yes. I knew something about his background and his involvement in police reform (hence the “Bobbies”), but not his hand in the Corn Laws and the Potato Famine.
6) Miss Cleary went through a lot of character development during this episode, do you believe there’s more to come from her?
Shannon: Yes. I honestly figured something was going to come of her being Catholic and Irish when she was first introduced. Given the time period that was too much to leave hanging in thin air. There will be more of her in the future I think.
Melissa: Ms. Cleary is definitely one of the characters being featured from the downstairs staff. I definitely think we will see more of her and possibly a love storyline.
Katherine: Probably. I think it was just the tip of the iceberg, her real introduction in a way.
Irene: The only question I have about Miss Cleary is: Will she follow her family to the United States? I have more questions about Francatelli. Having turned down his shot at a new life in the ‘new’ country: What’s in store for him?
Jan: I haven’t read any spoilers so I honestly don’t know, but I suspect we will see more of her along with some of the other domestic staff.
7) Based on your prior knowledge of the history, were you surprised by how Daisy Goodwin portrayed the roles of Queen Victoria and British government during the Famine?
Shannon: They’re far more sympathetic than they really were but that’s hardly the first time Goodwin has done that over the course of the series. By the same token, it’s hardly the first time Queen Victoria period was made more sympathetic than she really was in history.
Melissa: I think it’s tremendously difficult to tell this part of the story in one episode and get every single angle accurate. I think Daisy Goodwin did an excellent job in telling the absolute horror of this without it turning into a historical documentary. I found the music in the last scene, the fade to black, and the facts shown to be very moving.
Katherine: Yes. I know very little about this. What I’ve heard, mostly comes from the North American perspective. I was actually under the impression that that UK government’s response was nearly tantamount to genocide.
Irene: Good on her for not shying away from the calamitous nature of the potato famine nor the role that the confluence of politics and religion played in treating it as a “Malthusian catastrophe.” The opening is a subtle indictment of the Anglican clergy antipathy towards the Irish Catholics in its suggestion that the blight is like the plagues of Egypt, a punishment of faithless and profligate humans. I do wonder if Victoria was truly quite as enlightened and compassionate as Goodwin writes her. As much as I enjoy Coleman’s portrayal of Victoria, she does seem to me to think, speak and act more like a 21st-century woman than a Victorian monarch.
Jan: I was surprised that Goodwin portrayed Victoria as so sympathetic to the plight of the Irish and as part of the reason that anything was done to help the Irish. I only knew that the British Government turned a blind eye to what was going on because wealthy British landowners were more important than poor Irish peasants, and that many Irish families emigrated to the US and elsewhere in order to survive. Also, many of them went to the north of England where they weren’t treated much better.
Dr. Traill is the real MVP of this episode
Many elements came together to make this episode a fitting memorial to the victims of the Irish Potato Famine. The absence of light and the blue-toned filters in the Schull scenes were a stark contrast from the light of the castle. Martin Compston was the clear scene stealer this episode. In a way, it’s completely fitting as Dr. Traill is actually Daisy Goodwin’s great-great-great grandfather. Although he was a Church of Ireland rector, he worked hard to help all of the needy in his area until his death. We cheered for him as he spoke up for the needy and shot down his very un-Christlike colleagues. In terms of the recurring characters, fans were also happy to see Miss Cleary’s complete transformation during this episode. We didn’t expect her to be the one to snatch Mr. Penge’s (Adrian Schiller) weave but she did it. You go, girl!
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The overall pacing of this episode was very good. One scene that had a slightly jarring transition was the cut to Dr. Traill in the middle of Victoria’s plea to Sir Robert Peel. Some fans on Twitter also pointed out that for the Irish and Irish- Americans, this episode has a similar issue to Episode 1 “A Soldier’s Daughter” in which the pro-Queen Victoria point of view slides into coloring her actual decisions as better than the historical record. In reality, she did donate some of her own money to famine relief, however, she was not as sympathetic to those who refused to convert to the Church of Ireland. In this case, more people do believe Victoria did not sugarcoat the extent of the suffering in comparison to previous productions depicting this era.
Next week’s episode features a trip to Scotland! Fans are already on the lookout for low-key Torchwood, Doctor Who, and Outlander references. Prince Albert in this episode was too busy smelling Roman era sewers for much interaction with Victoria or anyone else. Maybe the change of scenery will give him more screen time as well. We’re also very concerned for Ernest. Will he tell Harriet or Wilhelmina the truth about his condition?
Victoria returns next Sunday, February 11th at 9/8c on PBS