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On a stormy, night on the Isle of Wight in December 1867, the sixth anniversary of her husband Albert’s death, Queen Victoria leaves Osborne House on impulse and has herself driven the seventeen miles to Freshwater, the home of Tennyson the poet laureate, to have him read his work In Memoriam to her. It is after all a commemoration of a tragic death and a life cut short. But the poet is in London arguing about royalties with his publisher. To make matters worse, the Queen’s carriage casts a wheel, meaning that she and her dashing , young equerry, Captain the Honourable Louis Dalrymple, must take shelter until another carriage can arrive from Osborne.
The only shelter to be had is with Tennyson’s neighbour , the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who at that very moment is attempting to photograph her beautiful but rebellious maid and model, ‘Madonna Mary’, as the Virgin. What follows then is the meeting of a woman who would not choose a bonnet without her husband’s guidance, now in retreat from all her public duties, with one who supports an infirm husband, twenty years her senior, by involving herself in a male profession and persuading the highest in the land to trek down to the Isle of Wight to pose for her, an agonising process in the early days of photography. This also meant the photographer mastering the use of some repellent , unladylike chemicals.
The meeting of these four leads to a comic confusion of cultures that examines the power of imagery, here the photograph, to shape not only how others see us but also how we see ourselves, and a prediction of that power exerting political influence on a massive scale, as it does today.
It also leads to questions about the genuineness of Victoria’s life-long devotion to mourning and the real reason for her retreat from the world. (All remarks by her on that and children were actual.) A sub-plot, related to the main theme of the power of the image, is Mary’s expectation that with the young equerry’s assistance, whom she sets about to seduce, she will one day find a place in London society akin to Lady Hamilton’s. In this she is given unwilling inspiration by Julia, who fights against the social tide for her own independence, but has no care for that of other women.
On the basis of a page a minute, a performance would be 91 minutes, but the nature of the action (romantic tussles and chases, setting up and posing for photographs, choosing and putting on costumes, as well as a few awkward pauses) suggests a good 94 minutes, possibly more.