When I think of the Victorian Era, what usually comes to mind are strict manners, high-necked lace collars, and a whole lot of sexually repressed ladies. It's ironic then, that the ruler who gave her name to a period spanning nearly a century was actually a fun-loving, happily married, and extremely powerful woman.
I'm referring of course, to Queen Victoria, Britain's second-longest reigning monarch (Queen Elizabeth II being the first), and the subject of a highly addictive Masterpiece series, Victoria, the second season of which premiered on in the US on Sunday night.
If the first season was devoted to exploring Victoria's (Jenna Coleman) ascension to the throne and her courtship with Albert of Saxe-Coburg (Tom Hughes), who would later become her husband and prince consort, this latest instalment is more interested in exploring the struggles she faced as a young mother trying to assert her independence and power in a culture that values women only for their capacity to breed and nurture a new generation. In other words, you get the sense that the narrative that we've come to associate with Victoria isn't quite of her own making. She, like her great-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II after her, struggled to control her own image despite being anointed as the sovereign of a powerful nation.
"The Victorian is known for being straight-laced, and prudish, and I think a lot of that was Albert," Jenna Coleman explained in an interview with Refinery29. "He was very unusual, never had an affair, never had a mistress." In fact, the two were utterly devoted to each other, and after his sudden death from typhoid fever in 1861, she continued to wear mourning garb until her own death 40 years later. And despite this reputation for extreme propriety, the fact that they had eight children together suggests that they had a very healthy sex life.
Still, that doesn't mean they didn't have their struggles: as a foreign consort to the queen, Prince Albert had no real standing other than that which his wife cared to bestow upon him, adding his personal growth and ego to her long list of her concerns. (Albert has much in common with The Crown's Prince Phillip, in this respect. If you're a fan of the Netflix show definitely tune in to this one — different era, same family.) But as a man, he enjoyed privileges that Victoria, who had to fight to assert her authority, often envied him.
When we first see Victoria in "A Soldier's Daughter," she's nearing the end of her confinement, which is 19th century speak for a mother having to lie in bed for a month after giving birth, for fear she might overexert herself. Those words alone smack of what we've come to associate with Victorian prudishness and misogyny — the idea that women were too delicate to cope with the physical realities of childbirth — but what's interesting is that Victoria herself bucks the establishment. She's restless, and wants to get back to, you know, ruling her country.
To do so, she has to navigate quite an obstacle course: Albert, who has been running things in his wife's absence, isn't too keen on giving up his newfound power, not to mention opposition from her prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, who is adamant that she cannot appear in public until she has been "churched." (Another fun 19th century term meant to keep women in line! This one refers to the practice of having a women purify herself from the Original Sin of Eve after giving birth, which requires her to be blessed by a cleric.)
"She doesn’t easily give up her role, and I suppose it’s because she’s fought for so long to get it and to be independent, and suddenly she can’t be," Coleman said. "It’s an interesting discussion for today, I think," she continued. "We have a lot in the show of 'Well, of course Ma’am, you wouldn’t be able to do that because you have your nursery duties,' and I think there’s very much that expectation [still] now." And not just for members of the monarchy — Coleman told an anecdote about one of her own friends, a stockbroker, who recently came back from maternity leave while her partner stayed home with the baby. "It’s an unconventional thing, even now," she said. "There’s an expectation that you’re not as capable because you now have a child, in a way. But I think it’s all changing."
In a sense, the matronly image we hold of Queen Victoria is due to a societal need to reduce women to recognisable archetypes: the Madonna, or the Whore. It wouldn't do for a 19th century monarch to be seen as a flighty young girl, so to counter that image, the idea of the royal family as we know it today was first introduced, Coleman explained, with Victoria playing the part of the Madonna. (As she aged, that dichotomy disappeared — older women aren't considered sexual beings — but the image stuck.)
"The royal family had never been as PR-d before," she said. "That completely came from Victoria and Albert. Before then all of her uncles were greedy drunks, and the Court was morally corrupt. But if you look at [their] portraits, it’s all about the family."
This most famous one, painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter in 1846 is a prime example: Victoria and Albert are seated side-by-side (as equals, even though she outranks him) surrounded by five of their children. Clad in demure, almost virginal, white, Victoria has her hand around the Prince of Wales, in a gesture of motherly affection.
Victoria, as ruler, effectively managed to transcend society's expectations. Despite the PR campaign to make her into a dutiful wife, she never ceded royal control to her husband — he, like Phillip, was never elevated to the rank of king — although he did take the lead on a number of social causes, as shown in the series . But this modicum of freedom at the top translated into repression for the rest of her countrywomen, who didn't have the excuse of God-given right to rule to rely on for empowerment. Thus, the Victorian age was born.
For Coleman, playing Victoria as a young woman still finding her place in all of this is a chance to pull away from those misconceptions, and highlight the significant achievements of a woman who ruled over one of the world's most powerful empires for 63 years.
"It's about taking someone that you think of as quite removed and iconic, and actually realising she’s very relatable and like, us in so many ways, even if she reigned 116 years ago. She’s still dealing with a lot of the things that we are today."
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