Time for a closer look at the jewels and the history behind episode six of this season of Victoria, “Faith, Hope, and Charity.” (You can catch up on our previous recaps here!)
We open in County Cork. Anglican priests discuss the increasing problems with local potato crops, but they see a silver lining: their churches are opening soup kitchens, and they’re feeding lots of hungry Catholics — but only if they agree to be baptized into the Anglican faith. One clergyman, Dr. Traill, is a little horrified at this baptisms-for-food scheme. He has seen the consequences of the crisis for everyday people.
Traill was a real person: he was the rector of the parish of Schull, and he was known for his efforts to help the hungry during the potato famine. (His descendants included the famous playwright J.M. Synge, as well as Daisy Goodwin, this show’s writer and creator.)
In England, Victoria and Albert attend church, where they hear a timely sermon about pestilence and plague.
They’re surprised when Ernst suddenly shows up again, because they thought they wouldn’t see him until “after the christening” — which means that nearly a year has passed since the last episode, and little Princess Alice has been born. (That happened in April 1843, and Alice was baptized in June.) Albert and Ernst have a private conversation, and Ernst reveals that he’s been in Baden-Baden for health reasons.
Ernst tries to make his illness sound like no big deal, but the servant who unpacks his bags discovers something unusual: a container of white powder marked “calomel.” This common Victorian medicine was often used to treat STDs, and those of you who’ve read these recaps for a while know that Ernst was suffering from one of those. Calomel fell out of favor as a medicine, though, because it’s really mercury chloride, and it causes mercury poisoning.
Victoria hears about candidates for the position of Archbishop of Dublin. Peel and the assistant secretary to the treasury, Charles Trevelyan, explain that there’s a lot of turmoil in the Irish Anglican church at the moment, including disputes over tithes. (Everyone was required to pay tithes to the state church, whether they were Anglican or not, which made Catholics unhappy, to put it mildly.)
Trevelyan steps in it by offering to explain more about Ireland to Victoria — when her child-rearing duties allow her the time. He should have just called her short, too. (The real Trevelyan was, well, awful. He bore much of the responsibility for the horrific government response, or lack thereof, to the potato famine. He literally thought that God starved the Irish on purpose as a moral punishment. Also, on another note, this was a really good moment of physical casting — this actor looks a lot like portraits of the real Trevelyan.)
Victoria gets curious about Ireland. (I really can’t stand how this show makes it seem like Victoria’s just learning about all of the problems in her empire, as if she doesn’t read government paperwork every day.) She asks the Duchess of Buccleuch about her estates in Ireland. Charlotte explains that she never visited, because there’s simply no society on that island, but her husband kept the land for sporting purposes.
Wearing a large brooch, and holding baby Alice, Victoria looks concerned.
Meanwhile, we get Peak Albert during an examination of the palace’s Roman-era sewer systems. Albert points out that their public sanitation is actually worse than it was during the Roman era. He wants to start working on the problem at home, constructing a new system at the palace that can be used as a model for future reform of London’s sewers.
In Ireland, things aren’t improving. Dr. Traill visits a home where a Catholic mother of five has died of starvation. Mrs. Traill isn’t as sympathetic to the Catholic plight; she remembers when the same Catholics protested tithing by trying to burn down the Traill home years ago. But Dr. Traill has had enough. Famine, he declares, has no denomination. The entire potato harvest has been ruined. (The blight arrived in Ireland at the end of 1845.)
Traill writes a letter about the conditions in Ireland, which is published in the newspaper. Victoria reads it and shares it with Peel and the odious Trevelyan, who blames everything on the Irish themselves. Peel reluctantly tells Victoria that it wouldn’t be “desirable” for the government to offer assistance. Trevelyan interrupts to explain that the population of Ireland has grown too much, and this is just nature’s way of handling that issue. Even seeing this in fictional form, more than a century and a half later, it’s hard to watch.
Victoria is visibly disgusted with both of them. She announces that she wants to go to Ireland herself. Peel is, predictably, against this, because he says that they can’t guarantee her safety.
Meanwhile, Ernst, under a pseudonym, has gone to an English doctor for another examination. He confirms it: Ernst has syphilis. He’s willing to fork over a lot of dough for a cure. The doctor prescribes another mercury-based cure, so Ernst is in for more poison. Good times.
Albert wants to talk about his sewage plans for the palace, while Victoria wants to talk about the horrific situation in Ireland. Albert wants her to trust that the government will do the right thing. (Don’t hold your breath, guys.)
And then Lord Alfred comes in with more distressing news: Harriet’s husband, the Duke of Sutherland, has died in a hunting accident. (Except not. The Duke of Sutherland didn’t die until 1861 — the same year that Prince Albert died. And he died at the age of 75 after suffering from an illness, not because of an accident. But, you know, this show is what it is — a soap opera trying to be a prestige historical drama.)
The next day, Ernst can’t hack it while exercising with Albert, who suggests that he should go back and live a healthy lifestyle in Germany. And marry a wife of Uncle Leopold’s choosing, Ernst retorts. (All together now: Ernst married Princess Alexandrine of Baden in May 1842!) Also, Albert tells Ernst that Harriet’s now a widow. Awfully inconvenient time to catch a social disease, Ernie.
Lord Alfred and Drummond bump into each other in the palace and have a hushed, tortured conversation about Ireland, the Queen, why women are so emotional (sure thing, dudes), and Drummond’s fiancee. They’re setting a wedding date. Drummond apologizes.
Sidenote: these two people are real; I’m not sure that their affection for each other was in line with their real orientations, but that’s not really a historical qualm of mine. Romances between people of the same sex were rarely part of public knowledge during this era, in part because men faced serious, terrifying criminal and social consequences for homosexual relationships during Victoria’s reign (and afterward, too). I am kind of surprised that the writers believe that these two men, both in prominent positions in government/at court, would have these kinds of conversations in a hallway in Buckingham Palace. It sort of undermines the real dangers that gay men faced during this time period, doesn’t it?
Anyway. Back in Ireland, Traill gets chewed out for the letter that ran in the Times. The bishop is ticked; he thinks the people (well, the Catholics, mostly) should be in charge of feeding themselves. Traill reminds him that a loaf of bread currently costs as much as an entire year’s rent. Angry Bishop tells Traill that he better like living in rural Ireland, because he’s never going to get a living back in Dublin if he keeps it up.
Peel is grilled in the House of Commons about the potato blight. He argues that he can’t give relief to Ireland. For one, it would make the Irish gentry angry. For another, then every working class person in the country would want some charity, too. At that point, they might as well repeal the Corn Laws, too. (Those laws artificially controlled the price of grain in Britain by making it prohibitively expensive to import foreign grain, whether the Brits produced enough to feed their own people — or not. Peel really did support the repeal of the laws, starting in early 1846.)
Ernst goes back to the doctor, who tells him that the visible signs of his condition are disappearing. Ernst hopes that means he’s been cured. But the doctor is still concerned. He asks if Ernst is married, and Ernst says he’s not (I won’t bother repeating myself AGAIN here). The doctor warns that an innocent party shouldn’t be exposed — and children who have congenital syphilis can be very badly affected, too.
Predictably, Harriet shortly returns to the palace, a spectral figure in black.
Victoria angrily reads Trevelyan’s book, The Irish Crisis. (It was published in 1848.) She decides to write to Traill, telling him how moved she was by his letter to the Times. She asks him to come to Buckingham Palace, so that they can talk about the crisis in person.
He arrives at the palace and describes the conditions in Ireland in stark detail for Victoria. He’s especially bothered by the fact that Irish grain is still being sent to England, when so many of the Irish people are absolutely starving. Albert arrives and asks Traill if the fact that the Irish rely so heavily on one crop isn’t part of the problem. Traill diplomatically replies that the laws that keep many Irish people from owning their own land has also kept them from innovating within their farming practices, because they’re forced to produce a reliable crop to pay their rents. Victoria wants to know how they can help. Traill says that she needs to convince the government to send relief, or the people in his parish will continue to die.
The effects of the famine are being felt by Victoria’s servants, too. Her assistant dresser, Miss Cleary, is Irish, and her family is being threatened with eviction and starvation. The palace chef gives her his expensive gold watch so that she can sell it and send more money to Ireland. Turns out Miss Cleary is from the same small parish as Dr. Traill, and he encourages her to help educate Victoria about the Irish people.
Cleary does just that, taking an opportunity to speak to Victoria about her family — and revealing that she’s a Catholic. Victoria doesn’t care about that, and she inquires about the rest of Cleary’s family. She reveals that it was too late to help her family avoid eviction, but that they’re using the money she sent to sail for America.
Back home in County Cork, Traill has decided that he’ll take an important step, turning his house into a soup kitchen. When his wife argues against the plan, he asks her to take their children and go stay with her mother. (Traill really did start a soup kitchen in his house during the famine.) Later, he also upsets the bishop when he invites a Catholic priest to a meeting.
But sadly, Traill isn’t long for this world. We see him serving food to hungry parishioners alongside a priest, but we also see him showing signs of illness himself. He died of typhus in 1847, during a major epidemic that happened right in the middle of the Great Famine.
Victoria talks to Peel, Drummond, and Trevelyan again about help for Ireland. Trevelyan is adamant that providing relief for the Irish will turn them into a “country of dependents.”
Victoria abruptly dismisses him, and she tells people that she will not stand by while the Irish die of hunger. This depiction is indeed basically in line with the real Victoria’s attitude toward charity for Ireland, but as always, reality is more complicated than fiction.
A.N. Wilson writes that there “was great unfairness in calling her ‘the Famine Queen,’ as the Irish did, since she was one of the greatest single contributors to famine relief, and she was criticized by the rest of Britain for encouraging others to do the same.” Julia Baird notes that Victoria also “published two letters urging the public to donate to Ireland; rationed bread in her household; ordered swaths of Irish poplin; and agreed to order that days of fasting be observed in support of the poor,” but adds that “she could have done much more for what had become an unpopular cause, and several of her public gestures were made at the insistence of” members of the government.
When Peel doesn’t immediately agree to provide relief, Victoria fairly drags him to the nursery, where baby Alice is squalling. She basically asks Peel if he’d feel comfortable if a baby like Alice starved, and she tells him that she can’t let any of the people of Ireland die from hunger, imploring him to act. But Peel is at a crossroads. He tells Victoria that following his conscience will lead to the destruction of his party. She begs him to follow his conscience.
Peel makes a case in parliament for famine relief, arguing that the country should always be prepared to handle a disaster. (Peel’s reaction to the famine was also much more complicated even than it’s presented here, as you might have expected.)
We end the episode on a particularly sad note, as Victoria learns of Traill’s death. Overall, I think the episode did a decent job of detailing some of the real-life issues surrounding the famine, but I wish the crisis were given more than one episode’s worth of attention. Condensing a crisis that unfolded over years into one episode makes it seem like an isolated thing. It wasn’t — the events depicted here happened over a lengthy period of time, and I wish we’d seen them woven throughout the season rather than just spotlighted here. At least it was covered at all, I guess?
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