What’s Wrong with ‘Victoria’

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been watching Masterpiece’s Victoria. I really love the Victorian era as a historical period, so I ought to love this. But I don’t. It’s not…bad, but it’s not very good either. The actors are good and very well-cast in general, the characters are mostly fairly enjoyable (I especially like the Duke of Wellington, Robert Peale, and Diana Rigg as an ancient battleship of a duchess), and the relationship between Victoria and Albert is played up for all it’s worth. The sets and costumes are very nice to look at.

The trouble is the writing, for two reasons. First is that it’s pretty contrived and very melodramatic, as well as being kind of clunky and heavy-handed.

I previously wrote about the scene where Victoria and Albert, pre-marriage, find her dog, Dash in a snare and somehow it ends with him yelling at her regarding the poor, forgetting the dog entirely. That sort of thing happens fairly often. That’s what I mean by it being heavy handed: the transitions are not properly set up, the characters don’t always act believably to move from one scene to another, and the guiding hand of the writers is visible all-too often.

Or there are complications that show up out of nowhere and do nothing just to pad out the subplots for a little while longer, like the would-be romance between the chef and the dresser is briefly complicated when she finds out he’s been seen talking with another woman. Turns out she’s someone from America trying to hire him for a restaurant. This is wrapped up in two episodes in maybe five or ten minutes of screen time, we never find out just who the woman was, and we move on. It served absolutely no purpose except to drag things out a bit and a gin up a little extraneous drama.

Or characters are ignorant of things they ought to know about: when Victoria gives birth to her first child, in the middle of labor she notices a group of ministers standing outside her door and asks what they’re doing there (they’re ensuring against a substitution). She didn’t notice them at any point in the past few hours? No one thought to let her know about this practice at any point in the past nine months?

Then there are just moments that made my roll my eyes. When Victoria’s beloved dog dies, she walks in and finds his body in the middle of her bedroom. Was no one in charge of looking after him? Did no one check the room to make sure it was ready to receive the Queen? None of the servants had been in there recently? I may be wrong, and it may have happened like that, but…well, I’d lay long odds against it.

Also, the Queen’s household is oddly small: we’re told it measures in the hundreds, but we only ever see the same half-dozen or so servants hanging out in the kitchen.

The historical events are portrayed, but in a slapdash and generally simplified manner. The first assassination attempt is played up as her evil uncle possibly attempting to usurp the throne…which goes nowhere, as the show is constrained by the historical record that the man was just an obsessive lunatic. It plays up the melodrama as much as possible, but since it’s also trying to be somewhat historically accurate it can’t deliver much of a payoff.

So, the show is pretty clunkily written. But I don’t think I would mind that so much if it weren’t for the other problem, which is that it just feels off. The best way I can describe it is that the characters don’t act like Victorians so much as a modern person’s idea of Victorians.

There’s one episode, for instance, when Victoria comes home from opening parliament in her full regalia; mantel, sash, and so on. As she walks in, she drops the mantel casually to the floor, takes off her sash and tosses it aside, and so on. That’s something a modern person would do, but the Queen of England circa 1850 would never imagine doing this (again, none of her servants are on hand to take her very expensive and important regalia for her?).

Likewise there’s the fact that everyone we’re not supposed to like is extremely rude and condescending to Victoria. Now, I can buy that people and politicians of the time would be dubious about an 18-year-old girl ascending to the throne, and I can buy them muttering about her in private, but she’s still the Queen, not to mention that this was a time and situation in which manners were given very high priority: I do not believe that these men would speak to her like this. When Sir Charles Trevelyan is telling the Queen about the Irish situation, he makes a condescending comment about teaching her about it “when she’s finished with her nursery duties.” Again, he’s talking to the Queen of England; why would he make that kind of comment?

The reason is that we’re not supposed to like Trevelyan and having him talk down to our heroine is an easy shortcut to that (because his disregard for the starving Irish isn’t enough, I guess). But it doesn’t feel authentic; it’s the modern trope of the condescending Victorian male who casually talks down to the plucky heroine. This is a way for the writers to signal to us the viewers that, though we are in the Victorian era, we know that is was really a very bad time.

Now, I am perfectly aware that, by our standards, many men in the Victorian era had a very narrow attitude towards women in general. The expectations for what was proper for each sex were very firm, and though there was some flexibility, it came at the price of being conspicuous. Medical science made broad and unjustifiable statements about women’s mental capacity, emotional stability, and so on. In short, the attitudes of the day were not ours and in many cases were simply unjust and wrong.

However, this trope of men being casually rude and dismissive towards women in person rather than in theory (two very different things) is one that I find extremely annoying, as it doesn’t ring true for me. If nothing else, didn’t they have basic manners in the Victorian era?

The thing is, I don’t see this much in actual Victorian literature. Quite the reverse, actually: Victorian characters tend to go out of their way to be complimentary and polite towards women. Take Dickens’ Bleak House, for instance (published between 1852 and 1853). You have numerous female characters of all different personality types. There’s Esther, the heroine, who is quietly sensible, generous, and part way through is made the housekeeper for a large mansion because she is recognized as being intelligent and having very sound judgment. There’s Mrs. Jellyby, whose time is wholly taken up with arranging charities for children in Africa, leaving her family to fend for themselves. Her daughter, Caddy, befriends Esther, marries her dancing instructor, and sets about teaching herself different skills in order to be useful. Then there’s Mrs. Pardiggle, an officious busy-body who goes about doing ‘good works’ that annoy the poor without actually helping them.

This is just a small sample (it’s a Dickens book: there are tons of characters), but the point is the each of these female characters are very active, busy, and hard-working in their own way, no one tells them they need to stay in the kitchen or talks down to them for being women. They’ll tell them off for being foolish, annoying, or troublesome, but the kind of casual rudeness that is de-rigor in contemporary stories set in the Victorian era is, in my experience, all-but unknown in stories actually written in the Victorian era.

Now, let me be clear: I am not claiming this means it didn’t exist. Fiction is not real life, but fiction is a reflection of culture and values that were present in real life. It’s not a record what happened, but it is a record of what people were thinking about. That is why I like looking at fiction from different time periods: it is a more ‘inside view’ than reading historical accounts. The fact that I don’t see this sort of thing in Victorian fiction tells me that either it wasn’t particularly common or that people didn’t think of it much, meaning that it wasn’t taken as an insult (and if you’re going to say that’s because Dickens was a man, I don’t see this sort of thing in Jane Austen – pre-Victorian – or the Bronte sisters – though admittedly I haven’t read much of the latter). Take it for what it’s worth, but in all my Victorian and pre-Victorian reading (which I confess I haven’t done nearly as much of as I would like) I can recall this sneeringly dismissive attitude occurring only a handful of times…and always at the hands of people we’re supposed to dislike. Half they time, they’re women.

In short, I am not saying that this kind of dismissive attitude didn’t exist in the Victorian era. I am saying that, to the extent it did, it certainly was not expressed like this. That’s why this sort of casual rudeness feels very artificial to me, an imposition of modern views onto a pre-modern setting.

There are a lot of things like that in Victoria, from the Obligatory Gay Couple™ to Victoria complaining about post-birth purification and replying to someone referring to her new baby as a gift from God with “God had nothing to do with it.” These strike me as modern sensibilities foisted upon a distinctly pre-modern world, either because the writers weren’t able to project themselves into that mindset, didn’t wish to, or thought the audience wouldn’t go along with it. I find this extremely annoying because it seems unfair to the Victorians that they’re not simply allowed to be themselves and let the audience judge how we like them. Like many contemporary stories set in the past, the main point seems to be to make the modern world look good.

For a counter-example of this sort of thing, I recommend the 1995 Pride and Prejudice BBC adaptation, which was content just to let the story play out and allowed the characters to talk and act like people of their time and place (e.g. the only one really complaining of the entail was silly Mrs. Bennet, whom we’re not supposed to take seriously, rather than having Jane and Elizabeth lamenting the unfairness of it all). The 2009 adaptation of Emma did this as well: I suppose writers are a little wary of messing with Miss Austen.

Anyway, that’s my opinion of Victoria: not bad, but kind of shallow and artificial.

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