Opinion Articles

Queen Victoria: the heart of a heartless political world

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In 1961 Charles de Gaulle informed the young Elizabeth II that she was: 'the person in which your people perceive their own nationhood'. The British monarchy is, in other words, inherent to Britons' national identity: it helps shape how citizens (or should that be subjects?) imagine their own place within the polity.

The centrality of the monarchy to British identity is encouraged through official ceremonies and celebrations that situate the monarch at the heart of the nation, as is the case with the current Queen's Diamond Jubilee. The Jubilee is also an example of the deliberate 'invention of tradition' by the political elite, one which occurred during the late nineteenth century, and gave rise to various celebrations to mark Queen Victoria's long reign, culminating in her own 1897 Diamond Jubilee.

The crucial importance of the monarch to the British nation is however also maintained in other informal ways, one of the most insidious being through their dramatization. Moreover, as Andrew Butler's recent research shows, many learn their most compelling history lessons not while they are at school or university, but when watching the big or small screen: it is the fictional image not the factual text that often leaves the strongest impression.

With 106 screen appearances, Queen Victoria is the most frequently dramatized of Britain's monarchs. This number includes some very brief outings often made, since the 1960s, for comic effect; but it also includes many films and television series, from Victoria the Great (1937) to Young Victoria (2009), in which she is the principal or a leading protagonist.

Despite the many economic, social and political changes in Britain since her reign, these depictions consistently stress Victoria's disinterested desire to serve the people and the extent to which monarchy consequently transcends petty party politics and enjoys a direct and unique communion with her subjects.

Sixty Glorious Years (1938) typically presented Victoria, the Manchester Guardian film critic believed, as 'an actively beneficent constitutional force'. The monarch is motivated only by her love for the people. The precise nature of the monarch's political agency is nonetheless left vague: while much is implied, little is stated. Thus, through juxtaposition, Victoria the Great suggests that in repealing the Corn Laws, Prime Minister Robert Peel was merely doing his monarch's bidding. In the film, repeal is instigated immediately after Victoria becomes aware of her people's suffering, through reading Oliver Twisti. At the very moment she first appreciates their unfortunate position Victoria is disturbed by a demonstration outside Buckingham Palace, which establishes the Corn Laws as the reason for the people's misery. The film then cuts to Prince Albert praising Peel for demonstrating 'true loyalty' to his monarch by putting her people's interests before those of his party. While Albert certainly supported Peel that repeal originated from the Royal couple flies in the face of fact.

Similarly, The Mudlark (1950) has it that Victoria ends her prolonged period of seclusion after Albert's death to demonstrate her support for Disraeli's reforms, designed to improve the lives of her poorest subjects, which would have been rejected, had the Queen not resumed a public role. Later films continue this trend. Young Victoria for example highlights the Queen's desire to improve her people's lot and at its end audiences are informed: 'Among their accomplishments, Victoria and Albert championed reforms in education, welfare and industry'.

If Victoria is consistently presented as benevolent, the Queen's on-screen relationships with her Prime Ministers undergoes notable change over time. Earlier films showed a few politicians opposing their monarch's wishes - in the case of the Crimean War and the death of General Gordon in Khartoum, with disastrous results. Victoria is shown to enjoy a harmonious relationship with Lord Melbourne, presented as an avuncular figure, who instructs the young Queen in how to be a wise monarch. It is nonetheless Victoria's relationship with Disraeli that is the most politically intimate. The Prime Minister (1941) even has Disraeli watch Melbourne inform the young Victoria that she has become Queen, so he hears her vow to bring peace and prosperity to all her people. This inspires him to enter politics and 'work for England'. On the death of Disraeli's wife, Victoria assumes her inspirational and supportive role, by discouraging the despairing widower from resigning and encouraging him to stand up to Russia and Germany. She is complicit in Disraeli's secret sidestepping of his appeasing Cabinet to ensure Britain emerges from the 1876 Balkan crisis at peace, but with honour. The film even ends with them both on the balcony of Buckingham Palace waving to crowds who sing the national anthem.

Later dramas present a very different picture. Mrs. Brown (1997) - produced in the era of 'sleaze' and of 'spin' - broke the mould. It transformed Victoria's relationship with the Conservative Prime Minister; critics described Anthony Sher's Disraeli as 'beady-eyed, silken-tongued', 'cunning and supercilious'. The film shows him appreciating the political value of tradition but given the secluded Victoria's unpopularity he wonders, 'do we need her?' and determines to 'see which way the wind blows'. It is only when his government comes under pressure from Gladstone that Disraeli finally decides, 'it's time to wheel her out' and, for purely selfish motives, so he makes his way to Balmoral to persuade Victoria to end her isolation. Victoria and Albert (2001) and Young Victoria continued this process by transforming the young Queen's relationship with Melbourne; the former suggests he exploited her faith in him so as to remain in office and the latter has him discourage Victoria's desire to improve the condition of her people.

Later dramas present Victoria's unselfish concern for her people as all the more remarkable, given how they diminish even Melbourne and Disraeli. There is a deep irony here, for this most positively depicted institution of Britain's democratic system is its most undemocratic element.

With 82 screen appearances, our current Queen is likely to overtake Victoria at some point in the future. As a symbol of the Establishment, Elizabeth found herself ridiculed by radical artists in the 1960s and 1970s; later dramatizations provoked by her son's ill-fated marriage to Diana also presented her in an unsympathetic light. Over the last few years there has however been a significant change. The Queen (2006) - for which Helen Mirren won an Oscar - notably mobilized audience sympathies for a woman with a noble and self-sacrificing sense of duty: if she was wrong in her restrained response to Diana's death it was for the right reasons. The 2009 Channel Four series The Queen continued this work of rehabilitation. It stressed the political significance of Elizabeth's role as monarch since her ascension and the sense of service with which she invested it. For a channel that prides itself on its irreverent satires of elected politicians - most obviously of Tony Blair - this was a remarkable work.

Such dramatizations - of Elizabeth as much as of Victoria - are meant to entertain: for commercial reasons producers try to give audiences what they want. The consistent pattern identified here suggests that filmmakers are indeed giving a lot of people what they want to see. The relationship between such dramas and historical fact is however problematic. What is clear however is that many Britons want to believe in a monarchy that is disinterestedly concerned for their interests. In a time in which they increasingly lack trust in those they elect to office - a feeling reinforced in the later Victoria films - such historical dramas give comfort that at the heart of an apparently heartless political world there is someone who cares. That this figure is elected by no one but God might make some democrats (and historians who care for accuracy) weep, but dramatists in search of an audience invariably follow the advice given at the end of John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance : 'When the legend becomes fact, print the legend'.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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