Know Your 'Victoria' History: "Comfort and Joy"

(Photo: Courtesy of ©ITVStudios2017 for MASTERPIECE)

Our new series runs down the truth behind the popular period drama Victoria and asks how accurate each week's episode is. This week, the show's first Christmas Special - and Season 2 finale - "Comfort and Joy."

Was Victoria Gifted An African Child?

The main plot of "Comfort and Joy" is one that's based in history. However, as this season has been wont to do, it's once again shuffled in out of order, timeline-wise. Princess Aina was the daughter of the ruling family of the Egbado clan of Yoruba descent in West Africa. In 1849, her family was slaughtered and her people conquered by the army of Dahomey. The only survivor, she was taken by King Ghezo, who kept her as a slave, with the clear intentions of selling her to the highest bidder once she was of breeding age. She was rescued from this fate by Frederick Forbes of the Royal Navy. Forbes convinced Ghezo to turn the child over to him and he would present her as a gift to Victoria on Ghezo's behalf.

I get on Victoria a lot for making the central character too much of a modern feminist figure, giving her credit for ideas she wouldn't have had. But in this case, they are extraordinarily unfair in taking things in the other direction.  The show portrays the Queen as accepting the renamed "Sarah" as a gift and keeping her in the palace like another exotic pet to put next to her parrot, and only slowly wakes up to what a horrific thing that is over the course of the child living with them.

In reality, when Forbes arrived with Sarah at the Palace in 1850 and explained how he promised the King to "give" the child to Victoria, the Queen understood at once that this was a sham to keep the child safe. She was deeply impressed by how intelligent and cultured Sarah was and, thinking fast, declared she would become the child's godmother. Thus she "accepted" the gift, appeasing Ghezo, without actually taking her. Sarah continued to live with the Forbes family until the Captain died, whereupon Victoria made arrangements for her education, found a middle-class family to stay with during her debutante London season, and approved of her marriage to Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, another refugee of Yoruba descent who had become a wealthy businessman.

 

Did Albert Bring The Current Christmas Traditions To The UK?

In a word, yes, though how accurate Ernest's statement was that Albert's memories that he's recreating are rubbish is subject to debate. Most modern-day U.K. and U.S. people take for granted the traditions of sending cards and bringing a nice tree inside to help keep it warm and looking pretty over the holidays. But prior to the 1840s, this was not a thing in either culture. (In fact, in the U.S., Christmas was not even considered a national holiday until after the Civil War, when leaders were looking for ways to help make the country feel like one nation again.)

Prior to the 1840s in the U.K., people decorated but they did so in a more pagan fashion, with fruits and pungent herbs like lavender, along with sprigs of mistletoe. The holiday also started on December 25 and ran deep into January (the actual "Twelve Days of Christmas.") All that changed when Albert brought over the Germanic traditions of his home of Saxe-Coburg in the Austrian empire. It was the Germans who started decorating ahead of the 25th, brought in giant trees and decorated them with toys and gingerbread, lit candles on Christmas Eve, and sent cards to their families.

Victoria embraced all this with gusto and had portraits of the family around the tree commissioned to show the people how they celebrated Christmas, while Albert had trees delivered to schools and army barracks to help cheer up the less fortunate. The queen was also big on giving "end of the year" presents to her staff and to her loved ones, which then became associated with her already over the top Christmas celebrations. Thus, our modern Christmas was born.

(Photo: Courtesy of ©ITVStudios2017 for MASTERPIECE)

Did Victoria Have Herself Painted In A Risque Manner For Albert?

Victoria did indeed have a portrait of herself painted for Albert. Albert did give her that very tiara with the giant emeralds, which remains a part of her royal jewelry collection to this day. (The show uses a replica of it for filming, the real one is going on display this Spring at Kensington Palace.) As Albert had it made personally with his own money, it is not considered part of the Crown Jewels, which are owned by the state. But these were not the gifts they gave each other on Christmas 1843. 

The portrait is in fact as risque for the time period as the show makes it out to be. (Click here to see it.) But it wasn't a Christmas present. Victoria had it painted for him for his 24th birthday. So yes, he did get it in 1843, but in August, not December. And while Albert was prudish in many ways, according to Victoria's diaries, this portrait with her shoulder exposed and her hair down was "his favorite." As for the tiara, Albert did give that to Victoria for Christmas...in 1845, two years later. He did design it himself (in fact, he designed and had many jewelry pieces made for Victoria), and it was indeed one of her favorites.