Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Comment: Letter from London

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Comment: Letter from London

Article excerpt

Dear H,

A feeling of unease lies over Britain at present, with great uncertainty about how leaving the European Union will work out, especially since the prime minister is playing her cards very close to her chest before she formally applies to depart at the end of March. Over that looms very grimly the horror in the Middle East and the threat of terrorism that hangs over practically the whole world. Trump's presidential victory may not have caused quite as much unease, but it adds distinctly to the uncertainty.

However, British people have not yet experienced much financial impact from Brexit and actually have (perhaps foolishly) been borrowing and spending more since the referendum. At the moment, one can say, not a great deal seems to have changed in the country.

There has been a BBC television series that has given a great deal of pleasure-a dramatization of the first few years of Queen Victoria's life after she came to the throne as a girl of eighteen. I can go further and say that it provided a convincing picture of happiness, without any troublesome feeling of implausibility.

This was due above all to the performances of Jenna Coleman as Victoria and Tom Hughes as Prince Albert. Victoria was seen as brimming with love for Albert, alive with desire, profoundly happy with him. No attempt was made to hide the fact that she could be headstrong and willful, nor that there were many uncomfortable moments for him, deeply in love with her though he was too. She was slow to grasp that he longed for some responsibilities in the country he now belonged to and for a chance to bring his talents to its service, as he eventually did, while Victoria at first wanted just to keep him to herself. Yet, as we saw them portrayed here, such tensions took no edge off their joy in having each other.

This seems, in the light of modern knowledge about Victoria, to be a true account. Historically her vitality and taste for fun has been overshadowed by such stories as that of her famous rebuke, "We are not amused." But now it is known that by "we" she did not mean herself. She meant both she and the other people present at a dinner table where one man was making rude jokes about her daughter Louise.

Apart from simply enjoying the series, however, I was delighted to see a serious dramatic programme in which the idea that people could be happy-especially a queen and a prince-was permitted to be heard. Contemporary intellectual culture seems hardly to allow any art or literature that does not question whether humans can be happy. Any suggestion that they can be is seen, in most modern criticism, as just a cover-up of wrongs that need to be righted-or, still worse, on an existential plane, never can be righted. "Call no man happy," as the Athenian poet said in 600 BC, seems to be the prevailing slogan. That this tale of happiness got a very good critical reception seemed like a miracle in our present cultural climate.

Another BBC television series is worth mentioning. This is is The Great British Bake Off, in which amateur cooks competed to bake the best cake. The series achieved an audience, at its highest, of over 15 million viewers. The cakes were frequently condemned by the judges for their "soggy bottoms"-which became a catch phrase used in every sort of joke throughout the land. Viewers particularly enjoyed the by-play between the two judges, the 81-year-old TV chef, Mary Berry, and a professional baker, Paul Hollywood. One reviewer praised the "sweetness and taste" of the series-as in a good cake.

However, many people thought it utterly absurd to watch amateur cooks baking cakes, week after week, and they would not watch it. It seemed particularly pointless in a country which, as surveys show, has largely given up cooking that requires any effort, though it never seems to tire of reading about and watching programmes on the subject.

But there was another series running concurrently with Bake Off- a series of straightforward cookery programmes by that same Mary Berry. …

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