Masterpiece’s “Victoria” – taking on the lessons of power, responsibility, and duty

It seems that there is a hunger for television series regarding British royalty at the moment.  We have seen a series on Netflix covering the early portion of the reign of Elizabeth II, a series on PBS about Henry VIII’s wives, and now comes the ITV-produced series “Victoria”  on PBS. Season one (season two begins production next month) covers her accession to the throne upon the death of her uncle, William IV, at age 18.  We conclude season one with the birth of her first of nine children she will bear, many of whom will be married into the royal lines of some of the most powerful countries of 19th century Europe.

The series focuses on a combination of personal relationships, political skirmishes, and the growth of the monarch in her understanding of her role under the British Constitution.  Most Americans will probably find it more entertaining because of the frequent emphasis of romantic entanglements (mostly staff and nobility), personal drama, and the inevitable projection of modern day values on Victorian Era morals, ethics, and interpersonal relationships.  Understandably, the writers take great care to point out the inequities of gender expectations in 19th century England in spite of the fact that the country’s monarch is a female.

I enjoyed this initial series most when it was laying the foundation for the rise of the modern British Empire and giving hints at the forward-looking attitudes of the Queen and her husband, Prince Consort Albert.  Whether it is science, technology, or the “social contract” between the public and their government, the writers take care to emphasize the political progress, defeat for populism, and the occasional cluelessness of the privileged class to the survival mode of the average citizen.

The Queen’s husband, Prince Albert, becomes Victoria’s eyes, ears, and a voice of conscience reporting on the plight of her most common subjects.  Chief writer and creator Daisy Goodwin wants us to recognize that it took an outsider, a minor German prince, to see the disconnect between the Queen’s government and the squalor of the London realities portrayed in Charles Dickens’ novels. 

As teacher of government, it’s also noticeable that the main decision makers are still only men of great wealth and title.  It will take the catastrophic world conflicts of the early 20th century, and the corresponding loss of empire, to bring the Parliament under control of the middle class.  The result will be the end of the Victorian attitudes and privileges and the rise of the modern welfare state for the working classes.  It will be fascinating to see if that aspect of the story of Victoria’s 73-year reign will be portrayed assuming the series produces enough episodes to cover her entire adult life.

This all brings to mind the question of why we are so fascinated by these stories of royalty.  There is no question that this kind of period drama is more popular in England than here in her former colonies, but the success of filmed portrayals of several Jane Austen novels, and the “Downton Abbey” mania, says something about us as a people.  Perhaps we have a desire to see wealthy and famous people wrestle with the same personal problems that everyday peasants do.  I think there is a longing for the day when people behaved with more civility and tact.  We may be faced with a world that is full of crudity and salaciousness, but that doesn’t mean we prefer our lives to be dominant in our entertainment.

While it doesn’t have quite the power, majesty, and deep exploration of moral issues plumbed in Netflix’s “The Crown”, Victoria is another pleasant dive into the world of English royalty while we wait for season two of “The Crown.”  I am also interested in another British series covering the War of the Roses called “The Hollow Crown” on PBS.  Besides, one can never get enough Benedict Cumberbatch.  Especially if they are only going to give us three episodes of “Sherlock” per year.

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