We asked Dr. Dina Copelman, a British history professor at George Mason University, to preview the first season of Victoria and give us her thoughts on how well it captured the age of Queen Victoria. Read below and learn a little something!
Downton Abbey is gone! How does it feel to watch Victoria instead?
Let’s face it—it’s not the same. Though everything seemed to be wrapped up so neatly (too neatly?) in Downton Abbey’s finale, fans want more. And they may get more since rumors of a movie abound. But we’ve got Victoria, a show everyone is judging not just on its merits, but to see if it’s an appropriate replacement for Downton. Well, no, it’s not. Not because it fails to engage, but, I think, because it should be viewed differently, at least from a historical vantage point. Victoria is historical in a way that Downton was not—she really existed.
So what’s the verdict on Victoria?
Shows about actual persons will inevitably contain a significant amount of imaginative material, simplification, and face challenges providing appropriate contextual information. However, we should still expect them to stay true to the spirit if not the letter of the historical record.
Let’s dispense with simple things first. And the answer is NO! Lord Melbourne was not the hunky gentleman portrayed in the show. He was a portly man 40 years older than Victoria, and there’s no indication that she harbored romantic feelings for him (and her attraction to Albert was clear from early on). That she may have been looking for a father figure is certainly plausible. Also true that contemporaries might seek scandal with or without evidence. Another question swirling about is whether Victoria looked like Jenna Coleman, the actress portraying her in the series? Yes and no. Victoria was shorter than Coleman and not as conventionally pretty–the stout matron of later years always had a tendency to carrying some extra pounds. But her early portraits depict an attractive and lively young woman.
Also on the list of inaccuracies, there was no cake full of rats, though many thought human vermin might be lurking in the palace. And, speaking of cake, the whole “downstairs” plot is baffling; is it an effort to make the show more like Downton? The palace would have had a large staff, and they would have been part of a hierarchical structure. The kitchen scenes of everyone pondering the meaning of life at a leisurely pace are fabrications. Plus, from what we know about the real life Marianne Skerrett, Queen Victoria’s dresser from 1837 to 1862, she was from a respectable background and unlikely to engage in any of the adventures the show puts her in. Outside the palace walls, many have complained about the artificial look of the computer generated bird’s-eye views of London.
What does the show get right?
The show gets a lot of things right. The portrayal of the servants and aerial views of London may not be convincing, but I appreciated that the palace is not overly glamorized. The windows probably were dirty, as Albert notices at one point, in frustration. And the lighting is effective. Perhaps that seems like a minor issue, but I don't think it is. In a period before electricity, when gas lighting was new, one did not have the bright interiors we are used to today. So, the somewhat filtered and even slightly blurry lighting of many interior scenes reminds us that among the many significant ways the past differed from the present was in the sensory realm—the past looked different. And it certainly didn't smell like the present—just think of all those horses outside, and the very different laundry technology!
In terms of the ways Victoria is portrayed, they also get many things right. For instance, she really was a sheltered girl, attached to her governess, and not very close to her mother. The show’s depiction of a spirited and willful young woman is also accurate. According to Victoria scholars, versed both in contemporaries’ accounts and Victoria’s own voluminous diaries, she was headstrong, often irritatingly so. The show also captures the high level of political intrigue surrounding the young queen-to-be. Her mother’s brother, Leopold, was supportive and trustworthy. But the influential Sir John Conroy, who ran her mother’s household, was no friend. Her British uncles were much worse: dissolute and disreputable, their main goal was to have one of their direct descendants ascend to the throne and to keep Victoria off of it. The show captures all of this.
Was there opposition to having a female monarch?
Again, the answer is yes and no. There was no lack of misogyny and it was over 100 years since the last female monarch, Queen Anne, who reigned from 1702 to 1714. And over 200 years since the long reigning and memorable Elizabeth I. An 18-year-old female made many nervous. But this, paradoxically, also worked in her favor. The evil uncles were very unpopular and had dragged the monarchy down. The prospect of having an innocent young woman as monarch, by all reports responsible and moral, likely to make a good marriage and produce an heir—these were all assets. The nation could hit the “reset” button with her. And, overall, that turned out to be the case.
Victoria became queen at a politically volatile time. Her predecessors left her an unpopular institution and republican sentiment—the desire to abolish the monarchy—ran high. Over the course of her reign there were 7 assassination attempts. During the 1830s and 1840s, in addition to the social costs of industrialization, the nation was wracked by intermittent economic crises. Though the 1832 Reform Act expanded the electorate, it still left the vast majority of men without the vote. This was the terrain that bred the Chartist movement, which produced massive petition drives to further reform Parliament and was accompanied by large demonstrations and disruption in many parts of the country. Queen Victoria was hardly a Chartist supporter, but the movement died out by the end of the 1840s and the subsequent two decades are considered ones of relative stability and improvement (emphasis on “relative”). And she can be credited with helping establish that sense of stability.
How did she do that?
First, by not being like her uncles, especially in her marriage. Scholars agree that Victoria and Albert were bound by love and had a passionate marriage. There were tensions over Albert’s allowance, his role in the affairs of state and even where he fit into the ceremonial order of precedence; they often clashed and neither gave in easily. But they also generally worked well together. This assuaged anxieties about a female monarch by placing her in the reassuring context of domesticity. Second, she and Albert consciously cultivated the impression that they were a more exalted version of the bourgeois family archetype that was increasingly dominant. Paintings and many other images of her, especially in the 1840s and 1850s, depict a happy (and growing) family, in luxurious but not ostentatious domestic settings The irony is that though Queen Victoria was probably the most powerful woman on earth at the time, busy with the public life of the nation and ruler of domains all over the world, she was also a model of the increasing “separation of spheres” where women were to be nurturing wives and mothers, responsible for the private realm, while men toiled in the public worlds of business and politics.
Was Queen Victoria a feminist? Was she a Victorian?
Those are tough questions! She was an active, involved monarch but no fan of women’s suffrage or other efforts to expand women’s opportunities. She had 9 children between 1841 and 1857 but would have preferred a smaller family and hated being pregnant. She and Albert closely monitored their children’s progress, but she was not very sentimental about them. She did want to ease women’s pain in childbirth and made public her use of chloroform (an anesthetic) for the last births, hoping to make that an option for more women. And she was not a sexual prude. When her doctor suggested she avoid further pregnancies, she reputedly responded “Oh Doctor, can I have no more fun in bed?”
Is there a particular historical point you’d like people to take away from the show?
Yes, and it’s related to the points above regarding the stabilization, even the rehabilitation, of the monarchy, which the early episodes address by portraying the intrigue around Victoria, but viewers may not be fully aware of. When we watch a royal wedding or other ceremonial events, part of the pleasure is the sense that we are experiencing ritual that represents centuries of tradition, the persistence of something meaningful and lovely. But these traditions are actually relatively new. Early Nineteenth Century royal occasions were not very grand—a contemporary cartoon depicted Victoria’s “shabby coronation”—and many scholars highlight the celebrations of Queen Victoria’s 50th and 60th years of rule (the Golden and Diamond Jubilees of 1887 and 1897) as the time when royal occasions were elaborated and took on their more modern form.
The timing is significant on a number of levels. Most immediately it showed that Victoria had returned to public life and her long disappearance after Albert’s death was behind her (things that will be covered and analyzed in future seasons, I hope). At a broader level, we might see the elaboration of royal ritual as an effort to present the might of Britain as the dominant European imperial power—a position Britain certainly held, but one that produced tension and concern alongside the flexing of muscles. Domestically, the Jubilees occurred at a time of worsened economic conditions, when class divisions were more acute and Britain faced competition both in Europe and from the United States. And the monarchy, though still powerful and certainly rich (and costly to the nation) was nonetheless no longer a significant political threat. So, it’s not a stretch to say that the elaborate rituals we know today were developed to make the monarchy, reduced in power, a symbol of unity at a time of political and social anxiety. During the early years covered by this season, the royals may have had more power, but were rather less regal.
Oh yes! The show has already been renewed for a second season. Victoria’s reign was so long, her personality so complex and the history of the time so fascinating—I’m looking forward to the rest of this journey.