Barbara Franchi recently completed her PhD on A. S. Byatt and intertextuality at the University of Kent. Her research interests include feminism, critical theory, historical and neo-Victorian fiction, the novel form. She teaches nineteenth-century literature at the University of Kent and Canterbury Christchurch University. She can be found on Twitter @barbara_franchi and at: https://kent.academia.edu/BarbaraFranchi
DISCLAIMER: this post contains spoilers to episodes 1-4 of ITV’s Victoria (2016)
I must make a confession: my guilty pleasure of these early autumn days is the glamourous, sexy and witty ITV series Victoria and I have spent the past two weeks singing the lyrics of the opening credits, ‘Gloriana, Hallelujah’,[i] to myself. I hope I’m not the only one consumed by Victoria(n) fever, and at the time of writing I am desperately waiting for the fifth episode (to be released on Sunday the 18th of September), when Victoria and Albert, the royal couple that defined the era that we are all so obsessed about, finally get married.
As (neo-) Victorianists we are used to seeing every year a number of costume dramas, screen adaptations of nineteenth-century classics and postmodern reinterpretations of those tropes that make the Victorian period so appealing to us and to contemporary culture in general. Like Penny Dreadful and Dickensian, the most prominent and recent examples of what Megen de Bruin-Molé calls Victorian ‘monster mashups,’ in Victoria the full package of Victoriana, complete with metropolitan slums, ambitious parvenus, conspiracies, revenge and romantic love, is served to us in a very similar way as it was over a century ago to the nineteenth-century readers of the penny dreadfuls and Dickens: in serialised form.
As I will discuss in this post, the life of Queen Victoria, the life of the monarch who has become synonymous with the age of empire, Darwinism and, equally important, of serialised fiction that was avidly read by people of all classes, genders and professions, is now consumed by contemporary viewers as if it was a Victorian novel. We watch as the young heir to the British throne Alexandrina (played by Jenna Coleman) becomes the self-conscious, poised and authoritative Queen Victoria with the same eagerness and suspension of disbelief as we follow any neo-Victorian (and neo-historical) piece of fiction. Indeed, written by historical romance author Daisy Goodwin, the story of Victoria appears very much as a dazzling royal romance, with touches of the Austenian comedy of wits, Brontean and Romantic drama, but with a sympathetic look on nineteenth-century society and its problems resonating with Dickens’s masterpieces.
Rich in court intrigues involving masters and servants alike, complex political arrangements around the roles of female ‘royal bodies’[ii] and individual emotions, the show tries to reconcile its claim for historicity, while making abundant self-referential comments on the consumption of iconic figures. The following example is significant in this respect: a scene in Episode 4 sees the Queen, surrounded by her entourage, receiving the visit of a stamp maker who homages her with a series of likenesses of her, reproduced on the small paper squares. Victoria cunningly asks: ‘So everybody who wants to send a letter would have to lick my face?’ (The Clockwork Prince) and then starts laughing, to the embarrassment of the artisan and a sceptical Prince Albert, then not yet her intended. While this question shows a funny, even impertinent side to the Queen best known for her austere obsession with decency and respectability, it is also a tongue-in-cheek reflection on the current commodification of the figure of Victoria. If licking a stamp is necessary in order for it to fulfil its function, then anyone who wants to connect with the Victorian era, be it through scholarship or popular culture or both, needs to consume the sacred gods of the period, the Queen being without doubt the most prominent one.
This made me wonder: to what extent is the figure of Queen Victoria (and her representation in the show) Victorian, and therefore a later cultural construction? Is it possible that the Queen has been transformed into a Victorian commodity, ready to be consumed by our voracious appetite for escapism in Victoriana? And can such an emblematic signifier come to embody yet another of its ubiquitous signifieds?
So, the relationship between the young Victoria and her first Prime Minister, widower Lord Melbourne and in truth 40 years older than her (played by Rufus Sewell), is romantically portrayed as an illicit love story between two star-crossed lovers, complete with the Queen’s secret escapes from Buckingham Palace in order to be with ‘Lord M’ (in Episodes 2, Ladies in Waiting, and 3, Brocket Hall) and overt flirtations at costume balls, with Melbourne in Elizabethan costume addressing Victoria, dressed as the Virgin Queen, with: ‘It would be unkind for Elizabeth to refuse her Leicester’ (Brocket Hall). Culminating in declarations of love followed by the excruciating realisation that, despite lack of impediments, ‘they were not in a position to be married’ (Melbourne to Victoria, Brocket Hall), this melodramatic storyline might not be historically accurate, but it is intriguing.
As avid viewers and consumers of the past as all Victorianists and neo-Victorianists are, we might want them to end up together, or even to have a brief affair. After all, if this show is written by a novelist and takes the liberties of a neo-Victorian work of fiction, ‘it has to answer only to the readers [viewers]’.[iii] On the other hand, however, even ignoring the forthcoming arrival of the Queen’s husband-to-be, the difference in age and, most of all, in rank between the monarch and her Prime Minister constitutes the main problem. In fact, this storyline reminds of the potentially unhappy romances between ambitious young women and noble older men in the Brontë’s fiction. Victoria might not be as ‘plain, obscure, plain and little’[iv] as Jane Eyre, but she certainly shares her passion for a Byronic man with a past.[v]
Equally, the romance between Victoria and Prince Albert (played by Tom Hughes) is modelled on the pattern of courtship, mutual tests and dislike that turns into love à la Bella Wilfer and John Rokesmith in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. Stern and cold, though handsome, Albert, the Clockwork Prince of the episode’s title, is aware of the huge issue at stake, but does not like the lively and apparently carefree sovereign at first. Constantly questioning her views and behaviours, he woos her at a distance, while she struggles to understand his feelings for her: ‘He never smiles. I wonder if he can’ (Victoria to her seamstress Skeeter, The Clockwork Prince). Once Victoria proposes, however, Albert finally lets his mask of stiffness fall and smiles out of joy before kissing his royal bride-to-be.
In order to be neo-Victorian, a narrative notably ‘needs to be critically engaging with nineteenth-century fiction, culture and society’.[vi] With its intertextual references to literary classics, its serialised form and its self-reflexive tones on the epoch taking its name from the series’ protagonist, Victoria is a feast of nineteenth-century literature and culture brought to our screens. One could hardly find a more apt place to reflect on the contemporary fascination for the nineteenth-century past than the fictionalised story of the woman who, with her name alone, has made consuming the Victorians possible.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre, edited by Stevie Davies. London: Penguin, 2006, 292.
Davies, Helen. Gender and Ventriloquism in Victorian and Neo-Victorian Fiction. Passionate Puppies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012; 2.
De Bruin-Molé, Megen. ‘Victorian Monsters? Strategies of Appropriation in the neo-Victorian Mashup. The Victorianist, 18 May 2015. (accessed 14 September 2016).
Duncker, Patricia. ‘Imagining George Eliot’. Keynote lecture delivered at BAVS 2016 Conference, Consuming the Victorians. Cardiff: 31 August 2016.
Feinstein, Stuart. ‘William Lamb, the 2nd Viscount Melbourne’. The Victorian Web, 11 October 2002. http://www.victorianweb.org/history/pms/melbourne.html (accessed 15 September 2016).
Mantel, Hilary. ‘Royal Bodies’. London Review of Books, 35.4 (21 February 2013), 3-7; 3.
[i] Music by Martin Phipps and Ruth Barrett, vocals by Mediaeval Baebes.
[ii] Hilary Mantel, ‘Royal Bodies’. London Review of Books, 35.4 (21 February 2013), 3-7; 3.
[iii] Patricia Duncker, ‘Imagining George Eliot’. Keynote lecture delivered at BAVS 2016 Conference, Consuming the Victorians (Cardiff: 31 August 2016).
[iv] Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, edited by Stevie Davies. London: Penguin, 2006, 292.
[v] In fact, Lord Melbourne had a real, though unhappy connection to Lord Byron himself. His wife had an affair with the poet, and subsequently obtained legal separation from her husband in 1825. See Feinstein, William Lamb, the 2nd Viscount Melbourne. http://www.victorianweb.org/history/pms/melbourne.htmhttp://www.victorianweb.org/history/pms/melbourne.html
[vi] Helen Davies, Gender and Ventriloquism in Victorian and Neo-Victorian Fiction. Passionate Puppies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012; 2.