‘But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. […] I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome.’ —Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1818), p. 123.
Every year at Cardiff University, the Assuming Gender journal and research group invites a distinguished guest speaker to give a lecture within the broad subject of gender studies. Last year Professor Catherine Belsey delivered a lecture on ‘Women in White’ across cultures and fictions. The year before, Professor Nicola Humble offered a delightful look at gender and the literature of food. This year, Professor Diana Wallace sketched the written tradition of ‘Female Gothic Histories’. Her abstract outlined a bold range of concepts:
If the term ‘historical fiction’ is a kind of oxymoron which yokes together supposedly antithetical opposites (‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, ‘history’ and ‘literature’), then adding ‘Gothic’ into the mix complicates it further. This lecture will explore a tradition of Gothic historical fictions which stretches from Sophia Lee in the eighteenth century to Sarah Waters in the twenty-first century. Conscious that women have often been left out of traditional historical narratives, such female writers have turned to Gothic historical fiction as a mode of writing which can both reinsert women into history and symbolise their exclusion.
As the abstract suggests, Professor Wallace began her lecture by bringing together two genres that are often considered distinct: history and Gothic fiction. Dubbing historical fiction a ‘bastard genre’, she categorised it as traditionally female, and cited this as one of the reasons why fictional historiography—especially Gothic historiography—is worthy of deeper study. Wallace relied on a number of psychoanalytical concepts throughout, and she described Gothic fiction as the ‘uncanny return of the repressed past’. In a patriarchal tradition that tends to write women out of history, historical Gothic fiction potentially offers us a window into the way female writers relate to the past. It also helps us to question the distinction Walter Scott helped to establish between this genre and his own historical novels, which he describes in Waverley as being ‘more a description of men than manners’.
For each case study, Wallace explored the approach the work’s author takes to gender identity and relations. She also suggested how this might be related to the text’s depiction of history. In The Recess, as in many Gothic fictions of the time, the fates of the central female characters are in the hands of a rather sinister collection of men. In Penelope Brandling, the protagonist’s woes stem largely from patriarchal structures, rather than any single man. Mistress of Mellyn and other pulp novels of the mid twentieth century turn their gaze to the other woman. In an article appropriately entitled ‘Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me and I Think It’s My Husband’, Joanna Russ describes how such fictions enact a Freudian drama, in which the male protagonist is the Father, wrongly accused, and the other woman/first wife of the protagonist becomes the Mother, who must be destroyed in order for the Gothic heroine to achieve her goals.
At this point, Wallace was interrupted by a mysterious fire alarm—an event that was also, appropriately, to be found among the attributes of the haunted house in Sarah Waters’ work once the lecture resumed. The Little Stranger plays with all of the Gothic stereotypes and traditions outlined in the rest of Wallace’s lecture, giving us a ghost story through the eyes of an unreliable male narrator, who may or may not have committed the crimes attributed to a poltergeist. Within Gothic fiction, Wallace thus sees a progression of thought in the way gender, horror, and history are intertwined.
If the rationale of History is ultimately to remind us of everything that has happened and to take that into account, we must make the interpretation of the forgetting of female ancestries part of History and re-establish its economy. (Thinking the Difference: For a Peaceful Revolution, trans. Karin Montin, 1989, p. 110)
[Y]et I often think it odd [history] should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. (Northanger Abbey, p. 123)
‘I’m afraid the truth is vastly overrated’ – Lord Melbourne, ‘Doll 123’ (Victoria, episode 1)
After a busy summer, I’ve spent the last few weeks catching up on all the reading and viewing I had on hold. Last week, a scathing review by James Delingpole sent ITV’s Victoria to the top of my must-watch list. The show, he wrote, is ‘silly, facile and irresponsible’, and its popularity is all down to the ‘feminisation of culture’. Delingpole may well be right, but not for the reasons – or with the effects – that he imagines.
Rampant sexism of the article aside (it’s essentially clickbait), Delingpole does make one point worth commenting on. It deals with the question of historical accuracy, and the responsibility entertainers have to what he calls ‘the known biographical facts’:
Taking the odd liberty is one thing but doing so with such brazen shamelessness feels to me like one giant upraised middle finger to all those of us — we’re a minority but we do exist — who value history and who want to be informed at least as much as we want to be entertained.
With ‘brazen shamelessness’, Delingpole seems to be referring to Victoria‘s tendency to sexualise and sensationalise its characters. The show is indeed guilty of both, and we’ve only had five of the promised eight episodes. While the historical Queen Victoria, Lord Melbourne, and Prince Albert could all have been described as comely in their time, they were no match for actors Jenna Coleman, Rufus Sewell, and Tom Hughes. The passion virtually oozes from every garment, glance, and camera angle, with frequent cuts between faces and eroticised body parts – hand, neck, lips – all designed to emphasise the physical as well as emotional attachments between characters. The scene that concludes the third episode (‘Brocket Hall’) is particularly evocative (talk to Daný van Dam about the sexual connotations of the piano in neo-Victorian fiction), not to mention the royal wedding night. Episode four even contains a quote that I will absolutely be using at next year’s BAVS conference, ‘Victorians Unbound’. Stopping Victoria from retying her hair after their forest romp (with all the sexual tension, but none of the sex), Albert tells her: ‘I like to see you unbound. You are not so much a queen.’
Sexiness aside, if we stick to bare facts Victoria is no more or less informative or historically accurate than the highly acclaimed biopic Lincoln(2012). But because the latter is ‘dignified’ in its emotion rather than giddy or indulgent, it is deemed superior. Why should it enrage viewers like Delingpole if a piece of historical fiction chooses to view its object from a sexual and emotional perspective, rather than a cerebral or rational one? The answer, of course, is that these perspectives are not assigned equal levels of value in contemporary culture. The rational is privileged above the emotional, just as other traditionally masculine traits are still praised over traditionally feminine ones. By focusing on sex and sentiment rather than traditionally interpreted historical evidence, the show doesn’t just turn off male viewers, Delingpole argues, it also betrays the objective truth of history, which is based not on sentiment but on cold, hard facts.
This is not a new way of looking at history. It’s not a view held by many contemporary historians, however. Though the historian has a certain level of responsibility to ‘the facts’, reassembling these facts into a coherent picture of the past always involves some measure of narrativisation. Take historian Robert Rosenstone, who has argued that ‘the history film […] helps return us to a kind of ground zero, a sense that we can never really know the past, but can only continually play with it, reconfigure, and try to make meaning out of the traces it has left behind’ (p. 163-4). The absolutist (or ‘rationalist’) view of history is also one that many neo-Victorian authors (male and female) have built their success on challenging.
In a recent blog post, Victorianist Barbara Franchi reflects on the symmetry between Victoria‘s title character and its subject matter:
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.
Victoria is neo-Victorian fiction at its purest, engaging with and under-writing our perception of the era’s most recognisable figure, who has already been sold to us in a thousand forms. It even employs all the stereotypical tools of the neo-Victorian novel to do so. Franchi argues that Victoria uses this narrative vocabulary to comment on contemporary society as much as on the historical Victorians.
If Victoria is interested in contemporary politics as well as nineteenth-century ones, what exactly is it trying to tell us through this particular retelling of history? The show manages to remain about as politically neutral as its main character (i.e. not very – nobody wants to align themselves with slavery, after all), though it also manages to avoid siding firmly for or against Tory conservatives, past and present. It can do so mainly because the party it does support, the Whigs, has itself faded into history, and the show makes little effort to give it a contemporary parallel in the Labour Party. The show does an interesting dance with the subject of immigration, given how much of Victoria’s family could not strictly be considered ‘British’, but it remains to be seen how the issue will ultimately be handled. Will Albert adapt to England through integration, or will the court and country learn to accept him in his difference?
Exoticised foreigners? Check. Erotic corset-lacing scenes? Check. Obligatory prostitute with a Heart of Gold? Check. The show is thus firmly neo-Victorian, bringing us emotionally close to Victorian characters and issues without necessarily replicating the period worldview. This second type of distance is very important. In an insightful post that also reflects on the recent ‘BAVS 2016: Consuming (the) Victorians’ conference, Birmingham-based lecturer Serena Trowbridge explains why emotional engagement must be tempered not just by fact, but by temporal detachment. The past, she reiterates, can never be fully recaptured:
[E]motions such as love, anger, jealousy etc might have been the staple diet of literature for hundreds of years, but the way in which we express them, and indeed the way in which we feel them, is subject to change dependent on the society in which we live. But because we want to understand the Victorians, we make them more like us, and this means that we have to fictionalise, turning Victoria into a consumer item neatly packaged for 21st century audiences who probably don’t know much about her.
In conclusion, Trowbridge raises several of her own concerns about Victoria’s sexualised portrayal of the young queen:
As a woman in power, and one who clearly enjoyed the exercise of that power, both Victoria and [Theresa] May provide subjects for debate; we haven’t had many queens, and even fewer female Prime Ministers. The series is timely for raising this question of how a woman can rule, and one suspects the general confidence in Victoria as queen was only slightly lower than that in May as Prime Minister (based on her gender, not views of her politics). ‘Victoria’ suggests that naturally she was a good queen: she might have been impulsive, scared of rats and prone to falling for her Prime Minister, but she was pretty, soft-hearted and prepared to defy those who want to control her. In many ways I think Victoria was a fairly good queen, but ‘Victoria’ is setting her up to be effective only because she has gendered traits which make her recognisable and likeable to modern viewers.”
Trowbridge raises an important issue here, though it will be necessary to see how the rest of the series plays out before coming to a more definitive conclusion. In addition, to dismiss Victoria as frivolous and sentimental just because its heroine often is – something Trowbridge herself never does – would be to miss the point. The young queen, perhaps like many modern viewers, is somewhat ignorant of the politics of her time. As a ruler, Victoria has a great deal of power, but most of the men in her life still look down on her (literally and metaphorically). She is currently no more in charge of the era that will be named for her than the viewer is. She is also still a human being, with human desires and appetites. Victoria embodies traditionally female virtues and vices in the ITV series, but the same could also be said of its male heroes. Lord Melbourne is every inch the feminine, Byronic type so praised by the Romantics, and Albert’s quiet sensitivity and devotion to Victoria (and Victoria alone) stands in contrast to his brother Earnest’s confident, womanising, and traditionally masculine ways.
I’ll be most interested to see how the show develops as an analogy for contemporary gender politics. Will Victoria succeed in balancing her public and private lives, and will the male characters on the show be held to the same standard? How will ITV’s Albert come to terms with being the husband of the most powerful woman on Earth, and (more interestingly) what will it tell us about the roles of men and women in the twenty-first-century workplace?
Lauren Porter, who curated a Windsor Castle exhibition from the Royal Archives in 2014, comments that a love letter from Albert to Victoria (quoted in ITV’s Victoria), ‘provides a fascinating personal insight into the depth of Prince Albert’s thoughts and feelings for his bride-to-be. Such a heartfelt expression of love and devotion is particularly striking as it sits in contrast to the popular idea of the Victorian era being a period of emotional restraint.’ If nothing else, Victoria makes a valiant (and very neo-Victorian) effort to ensure that the stereotype of the austere and supremely rational Victorian does not persist into the twenty-first century.
These days we could all use a bit more Victorian love, and a bit less Victorian austerity.