We asked Dr. Dina Copelman, a British history professor at George Mason University, to preview the second 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!
It's Victoria Season 2 time. How is the show doing?
It’s beautiful. Such lush costumes and landscapes; good acting and intriguing characters. I got to watch the first eight hours all at once, but I wish I had eight weeks to savor them instead..
Many commentators suggest that the show demonstrates royals are, in many ways, ordinary people like you and I. Is that the case?
Maybe. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, in their first post-engagement interview, explained that they were roasting a chicken for dinner when he popped the question. Daisy Goodwin, creator and writer of the Victoria show, certainly wants us to think so, and in recent interviews describes the young queen as a precursor to today’s women who want to have it all—marriage, love, children, work.
My answer? Simultaneously yes and no. Victoria’s female body ruled her life to an extent that is rare today in developed countries. She had nine children (in the time covered by Season 2 she had four children, not two) and only for her last two pregnancies had the option—which she welcomed—of effective pain management with chloroform. She was pregnant for a total of 80 months. She hated pregnancy and refused to breastfeed, but was more engaged with her children than is often depicted. Compared to the women of her time, like them, she did not benefit from reliable birth control, but she certainly had vastly more resources to take care of her children and ensure their well-being. So, similar to women today, she didn't escape the constraints of the female body; indeed childbearing was harder for her than for us. And though her parenting was, in a way, the work of a (palace) village, like us, she found pleasure in parenting.
What about the marriage, love and work parts?
Those have to be considered jointly, since for Victoria the three were intertwined. Unlike many of her royal relatives and contemporaries, her marriage was based on love but the tensions between marriage/family and work were personally more complicated because they were not two separate spheres of life, but one. Finding the right balance involved matters of state and protocol, not just the ability to negotiate with a spouse. And, though not subjected to our current sophisticated means of observation, they lived in a fish bowl (actually, numerous fish bowls given their multiple residences). Maids, dressers, ladies-in-waiting, secretaries, not to mention family, courtiers, political figures and journalists—all were constantly flowing through their daily routine and all took note of every aspect of the Queen’s life. The show’s depiction of the power struggle between Victoria and Albert is also both accurate and incomplete. Given how much of the time she was pregnant and the different standards about how long women needed to rest after giving birth, Victoria had inevitable physical limits on her work time. As the show depicts, during the 1840s (a decade when Victoria had six of their nine children) Albert became actively involved in the work of the monarch. As a workaholic, capable and ambitious man, he welcomed opportunities to have more power and meaningful work. So, here too, I would say like women today, juggling these different spheres of life was difficult, but the specifics of Victoria’s life were nothing like ours.
If we can’t quite look to the show to give us a sense of how women’s conditions have evolved, what should we be taking away from this season?
If we consider just Victoria and Albert, one thing to remember is how young they were—the whole season takes place while they were still in their twenties. For Victoria that’s especially significant since her childhood and youth had been so constrained and then she had little time to adjust to her new circumstances—within three years, between, age 18 to 21, she became Queen, wife and mother. Albert was more knowledgeable and serious, but he too lacked social skills that come with greater experience and engagement with the world.
Beyond the personal level, Victoria was warm hearted and seemed free of religious or racial prejudices (though that did not mean she questioned the justness of what would become a vastly expanding British Empire). But the portrayal of her as an engaged monarch, a champion against injustice, is overstated. The 1830s and 1840s were tumultuous and they’re remembered for world-changing economic and social processes. “The Hungry Forties” were marked by trade slumps, the Irish Famine and the Chartist movement, which demanded political rights but was also the vehicle for airing greater discontents. These are mentioned in the show, but mostly to make Victoria seem like she was concerned about the fate of the poor. That’s not quite the case: contrary to the show’s portrayal, she did not intervene to alter the sentence of the Chartists who took part in the Newport Uprising and trying to help Spitalfields silk weavers by throwing a party was probably Albert’s idea not Victoria’s. Regarding the Irish famine, she did contribute funds to relief efforts and took other actions to help those suffering, but had to be prodded to do so and many thought she should have done more.
What about this season’s overall historical accuracy?
The show’s “creative license” is certainly being exercised! Some of the plot twists, like a palace intruder, are true. But significant major plot lines are not. Some examples: Albert’s brother Ernest, playboy though he was and suffering from intermittent bouts of venereal disease, was married the whole time covered in Season 2. Marriage aside, the romantic plot line between Ernest and Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, is a fabrication. Ernest was not at baby Vicki’s christening since Albert disapproved of his wanton ways. But his wantonness had nothing to do with Harriet, who was 20 years older than Ernest, happily married and mother to 11 children. The smoldering glances between Lord Paget and Edward Drummond—yes, alas, also an imagined plot line. And, a very welcome stretching of the truth since it allowed the casting of Diana Rigg, the Duchess of Buccleuch, was in her thirties, not the 70ish cranky-but-turning-loveable personage enjoyed every Sunday. One explanation for some of the plot twists, mentioned in numerous reviews, is that Victoria may be trying to replicate what worked in Downton Abbey. Hence the largely imagined and often unpersuasive downstairs escapades and Diana Rigg as a substitute for Maggie Smith.
In other cases, I assume the desire is to create more romantic and dramatic tension and introduce themes that were certainly part of court realities. In Goodwin’s world, at least for the aristocracy and royals, sex was always simmering. I think she’s absolutely right about that. Victoria and Albert’s monogamous and happy marriage were a great part of what made them popular—they eagerly sought to provide the nation a different model of what it should expect from its monarchs. But Victoria’s and Albert’s marriage was passionate, hardly fitting the sexual inhibitions that are considered quintessentially “Victorian.” And rumors were a constant feature of royal life. Such rumors would shape Victoria’s years as a widow in connection to her beloved attendant John Brown and later about her relationship with her Indian attendant Abdul Karim. But rumors were there from the beginning, and not just about Ernest. There was significant speculation that Albert was bisexual and historians have not abandoned such speculation. It doesn't really matter if that was true; what’s important is that the whiff of impropriety was never far from the royal family. Also close to Victoria were the many scandalous stories that shaped her beloved Lord M’s life. Victoria’s dependence and emotional attachment to Melbourne—and his attachment to her—is indisputable. But from the show one would never guess that while he was considered a political nonentity his private life was full of scandal. His wife, Caroline Lamb, was not only unfaithful, but considered a public disgrace. And Lord M was no innocent: he was cited in two contentious divorce cases and seemed to have a penchant for sadomasochism as part of his sexual repertoire. Why is all this relevant? I raise these issues because they could have provided ways for Goodwin to pursue some of her clear—and historically appropriate—interest in the scandalous aspects of her subject while sticking closer to the historical record. I suspect that, at least in part, she didn't want to tarnish the appeal of the two great male figures in Victoria’s early life and thus provided a sense of the eroticized court atmosphere by creating imaginary relationships.
From a historian’s perspective, how serious are these lapses?
There are serious challenges in portraying Victoria’s life. On the one hand, there are just too many sources—state papers, Victoria’s own prolific writing, the correspondence and other accounts of contemporaries, not to mention the many existing biographical works. One the other hand, many of Victoria’s papers were burned by her daughter Beatrice, who was eager to protect her mother’s reputation. Edward VII also ordered certain subjects censored and others editing her papers—men, not surprisingly—decided that her correspondence with other women, or her accounts of parenting were not important. Therefore, understanding many personal aspects of her life requires both a great deal of research and some imaginative interpretation.
Personally, as a historian I wish Goodwin had used more of the verifiable historical material. However, I want to turn the question around, away from my judgment as a historian: What do PBS audiences, fans of historical movies and shows, even readers of engaging historical biographies want?
How different should shows like Victoria be, compared to the different genre of documentaries? Supposedly the former are merely dramatizations of the latter, but is that actually a workable premise, or do the shows need to introduce significant simplification and distortion in order to hold the audience’s interest? We are both cursed and blessed to live in an age of information overload. Movies, documentaries and shows like Victoria exist alongside popular historical work, scholarly studies, Wikipedia, thousands upon thousands of historically themed blogs and websites, and many forms of political appropriations of the past. The average consumer of historical material has to decide whether they want to be their own fact checker, to not accept their favorite portrayals at face value, even when they are as well produced and extensively researched as Victoria.
Perhaps we have to ask ourselves if we want a complex understanding of the past, or an entertaining and soothing one? Better yet, how can audiences be convinced that complexity and the knotty messes of the past, are themselves interesting and important?