misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Young Victoria: ritual humiliation? films from 18th v 19thc sources (3) (& JASNA too)

Dear friends and readers,

Another in this series of ongoing musings on film adaptations (costume dramas) made from 18th versus 19th century sources (see One Duchess and One Cornwall Landowner and Two Tesses and One Jude):  this one on Young Victoria, an unexpected (probably) box office hit, not credited to any book, just listed as directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, written by Julian Fellowes, with Emily Blunt as Victoria, Rupert Friend as Prince Albert, Paul Betthany as Lord Melbourne, and a host of other British fine actors from quality TV and cinema movies.  It won the Oscar for best costumes.

Emily Blunt (she played the Fanny character in Jane Austen Book Club, and he was the beautiful young man in Cheri and Mrs Palfrey at the Clairemont, both of which I've written about)

I'm moved to write about this movie because I came across the book it's based on, one not mentioned on the commercial sites:  so first a prologue; then a few posting essays critiquing the film:

Yesterday Izzy and I managed to get ourselves deep into Maryland (you must realize that I'm not a person who drives distances) with me driving and Izzy navigating.  Why?  We went to a JASNA "box hill picnic" — held in a lovely Maryland park. We had a very good time: we trimmed a hat for which Izzy won the "prize" (the hat itself), participated in a quiz on Emma (where Izzy was able to decipher anagrams very ably) and ate and talked under the shade of a wooden pavilion in a pretty setting (but no box trees). 

There was a raffle for books and for once I won one -- and Izzy too. (Truth to tell, the turn-out was low so there were more books to go round than usual -- perhaps the distance to the park deterred others).  I missed out on one I want to tell of briefly: a book on governesses that might not be as good as Hughes, but is certainly filled with information: Ruth Brandon, The Governess: The Lives and Times of Real Jane Eyres. It's organized by women and she basically retells lives and circumstances from their memoirs, a sort of group biography (like Blood Sisters, or The Passionate Sisterhood).

Izzy won Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies -- it was the only one left as she got the last book.  And we perused one Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don't Float: Author: Schmelling, Sarah. It's a witty imitation of a facebook where the author imagines Austen, her characters and other related women authors interacting and writing.

But I brought home the book from which Young Victoria was adapted!  We Two:  Victoria and Albert: Ruler, Partners, Rivals.  I began it a little and it appears to be a serious work of scholarship where the author goes into the young girlhood and wifehood of Victoria and also Alfred's background and "their" first years on the throne. As I wrote, he did work with her. I'm going to try to fit it in (as my book for Trollope19thCStudies this month) recommend it as a book which reveals the more private life and characters of these two people, as well as the Victorian era from the kind of political standpoint (men or women, not measures) Trollope would understand immediately.


What follows is a dialogue on Young Victoria that we had on WWTTA:

From Diane Reynolds:

I have been watching films with an eye to what I call "the ritual humiliation of the 'strong' female." This started a few years ago when my daughter, then in high school, got interested in "chick flicks," and to have a connection with her, I began watching them with her. After a few films, it started jumping out at me in an uncomfortable way that the "strong" female lead--who usually owns her own business, is beautiful, wears sexy clothes, is financially quite comfortable and has a sassy  mouth -- has to undergo a ritual of humiliation that subordinates her to her ma le opposite in order to truly "get" him as her "man". Most of these films are so forgettable that I can't remember specifics, and it can be something as simple as not being able to maneuver a jet ski (and often it includes incidents that remote from ordinary life: how many of us are running around with jet
skis?) but nevertheless a very real moment of subordination. It hit me most forcibly in watching remakes, such as "You've Got Mail," a remake of the 1930s "Shop around the corner" ??? if I have the name right. (I'm not a "player" in the film world, so please bear with me). In any case, I remember being utterly shocked at the way the "strong" woman lead in "You've Got Mail" is reduced to silly subordination to the mail lead--eg, she asks him what to do about problems in a helpless way, and he never asks her. What most shocked me is that, to my memory, the element of female subordination was either missing or
much more muted in the 1930s film.

With that as background, I was saddened to see The Young Victoria follow the same pattern of ritual humiliation. There were indicators that it might happen -- Albert is portrayed as a saint, truly a saint, more or less Jesus Christ incarnate, whereas Victoria is (gently) flawed, and we are constantly reminded of her "inexperience" and naivete. The film somewhat undermines this theme by largely putting criticism into the mouths of the "bad guys" and by portraying Victoria as a strong person, but it's still there. But despite these hints, I chose to keep an open mind. And then it happened: Victoria, rightfully, I thought, becomes angry at Albert for talking over her head to the designated next prime minister (Pitt possibly) about how Victoria will support him--without talking this over with Victoria ahead of time.

A moment where the struggle becomes public

Rather than take her seriously, he treats he like a child throwing an irrational tantrum and walks from the room as she screams after him, suddenly enacting a two-year-old's tantrum--"I'm the queen, you can't walk away from me!" as he continues to walk. As he goes out the door, he tells her will allow her to calm herself because of her "condition." (She is pregnant.) We are left with the calm, assured, unflappable man who "wins" and the humiliated, powerless, emotional, tantruming "queen," whose suddenly infantilized behavior is explicitly linked to her pregnancy. I was appalled. It gets worse, because, in the next scene, in a change of history, the movie has Albert flinging himself in front of a would-be assassin's
bullet to save her. His bloody body is carried dramatically into the palace. He survives easily, and Victoria's humiliation is completed -- wearing "Melanie Wilkes" clothing, she flings in tears across his breast, telling him she's sorry for how she's acted. Now that he's proven his masculine superiority and literally brought her to her knees (we also see her praying in church), she has earned, finally, the right to hear that he loves her and does everything for her.

Leaning on his strength

Oh yuk. I thought, I will bet any amount of money this movie is a male enterprise. And indeed, the director was a male and the screenwriter was a male. Why must it be so completely predictable? Are men completely unconscious of how openly threatened they are of powerful women? Why was a man even directing this movie? A movie like Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland was so much much better on this front (speaking of male directors.)

I was also disturbed at how uncritically Victoria and Albert were portrayed. Such saints and such advocates for the poor! If only the people in Dicken's London knew! I have an idea that Sarah Ferguson was behind this project and maybe other royals or former royals as well, so perhaps the film could only be produced as hagiography (at least as far as Albert). I also thought the director could have done better than a film that felt to me like a longer version of the history films you see at visitor centers to historic sites. I know I am being critical, and perhaps the budget for the movie was limited, but the budget certainly didn't necessitate the ritual humiliation. Have others seen this movie? Are there ways in which it is better than I am understanding it to be?

Catherine Delors responded:

Dear Diane,
I saw the film, or rather the beginning and end. I slept through the middle (this was on a plane, and before I had watched the dreadful Sherlock Holmes with Downey).

I thought the costumes were very pretty, but indeed Victoria was not acting in a mature or likable way. The incident with Albert throwing himself in front of a bullet to protect her, which is the turning point of the film, is not historical. The Prime Minister is, I believe, Lord Melbourne.

Paul Bettany, the patient wiser advisor, Melbourne

Another film I saw about young Victoria is the old one with Romy Schneider, along the lines of the Sissi series. Might become a favorite with your daughter. :) This one made me want to watch again "Mrs. Brown" which I enjoyed at the time.

I am sure you discussed these issues with your daughter afterwards. I have this problem with my 10-year old niece: she seems to have absorbed those hyper-feminine images of women (pink everything, meringue-type wedding dresses,
unicorns, Disney princesses, tiaras, etc.) I have trouble relating: when I was a child, I played cowboys and Indians, or reenacted the adventures of Zorro with my cousins. This was the opposite: little girls playing all-male roles.


To which Aneilka:

Oh my word, Diane! You are so right. Do you know what is most shocking? that I hadn't noticed myself despite having watched the film. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

I had a very uncomfortable feeling as I read your mail as I waited for an Austen-subgroup comment...."any-minute-now-she's-going-to-mention-Elizabeth-and-Darcy or Emma-and-Knightley" I thought.

I hate to say it of my favourite author, but Austen does seem to have minted the prototype of this particular storyline doesn't she? Whereas Fanny Price, Elinor and Anne escape that fate by repressing their feelings. Worse, Marianne who is not "strong" so much as "expressive" gets the same dose of "ritual humiliation" for being too candid in her affections. Her reward? Someone old she didn't really fancy. Ouch! Not very feminist.

Lydia, however, seems fabulously oblivious to the humiliation which everyone felt on her behalf, though whether she qualifies as a "strong" character or not I don't know.

Very astute comment about strong women being ritually humiliated. I can't think of a storyline where a man, other than an anti-hero, suffers the same ignominy with the exception of Darcy, who, being fabulously wealthy, escapes any ensuing


I replied with Young Victoria: the ritual humiliation and schmaltzy idealism

I really did enjoy reading Diane Reynolds's initiating posting and Catherine and Aneilka's rejoinders.  I too saw the movie -- it lasted for weeks and weeks at our local art and popular theaters; I too was bemused by how adults sat there and watched what is nonsense.  We were in an audience filled with people who sat there silently and no laughter at all.  Izzy was with me and opined it was actually the best movie in the theater that day, and superior to the one we saw for Xmas, billed an art movie by this famous (male) director (with Penelope Cruz as the body the male star feasted upon).

Now I know it's part of the offering of film adaptations of older history periods or high status novels that they idealise characters as well as offer sumptuous settings for the audience to take pleasure in.  This level of escape is in them all: the nostalgia, the emotional bath, the elegiac. But decent and grown-up ones (so to speak) deal with issues directly and have a good deal of hard realities to them and characters who are pernicious and dangerous in adult and complicated ways.  The depiction of Victoria's father was straight out of melodrama.

The simplication of politics at the time was laughable. This was actually a bad film adaptation of history. I'm persuaded serious Victorian movies -- film adaptations which are costume dramas either about history or from novels expose the pathologies of family and social and political life then and now.  Young Victoria attempts this a tiny bit, but it's so exaggerated and melodramatic, it's useless.

Victoria still having to obey the bad older man, lover of her mother; the mother presented as bad, weak, giving the worst advice (Mark Strong often plays torturers: he was a fierce Mr Knightley in the 1996 Emma which played on the disquieting eroticism of the book)

Which justifies asking what is in it that appeals -- what beyond the soporific (makes you sleepy). It will be said by those who talk of all they learn from Heyer and other like romances, the strong woman in power, and we do have a queen everyone pays attention to, she is important. In this again this film is like the 1990s film adaptations -- the more recent ones show us abject women (Sandy Welch's say, her Turn of the Screw, the 2007 Persuasion and Mansfield Park).  But as Diane points out here we have centrally this humiliation whose reward is the "good husband."

I am glad Aneilka is posting again, for we can here have a dialogue which would be a bomb on Janeites and probably austen-l too:  Austen humiliates the two heroines many audiences of Austen seem to favor most:  Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse.  Elinor Dashwood represses herself in the first place, the strongly transgressive Marianne (a thread has been on Austen-l about this) almost dies, and it's arguable that in Fanny and Anne Eliot we have abjection, in Catherine a character who is part satiric device, a naif.  Now Elizabeth does stand up to another woman, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but we are to feel she has learned her lesson _vis-a-vis_ Darcy and (since the book is lopped and chopped) we don't know if originally we were to see that after all Wickham's depiction of their boyhood was not altogether wrong.  Emma's scolding by Mr Knightley is a hinge-point no one can leave out, and in Whit Stillman's recreation in Last Days of Disco she does humble herself (beautifully) and try to make herself a more decent person before the relatively powerless and vulernable (stop insulting the Miss Bates). For me the worst scene in Austen's Emma is the one where Jane gushes her gratitude to Miss Woodhouse, apologizes just about and Emma thinks well, now she won't be reserved any more. 


There are real problems with Austen's fiction for women readers today. Some of the film adaptations attempt to "correct" them but then again to my mind some of the correction may be worse than the original "flaws," e.g., Rozema's substitution of a superficially powerful (the word "feisty" is a sign of this) narrator from the Juvenilia for Austen's Fanny who is also a genuinely subversive element in the fiction for she shows us how as a woman one cannot even begin to have it all :).

It's good to be able to speak of this clearly sometimes.  By the way our heroine in Falling does not learn her lesson in the sense of blaming her berating herself; she falls prey to this man but escapes just in time and moves on. Not her fault, understandable. He is the problem so-to-speak and the society that made and tolerates him.

I wonder if the costumes were really what people liked -- I see no landscapes on the Net and few tributes to their exquisite accuracy:

This was not easy to find.  Images of the handsome Friend with Blunt in bed together (a la Cherie) are not.


Diana Birchall defended the film as reflecting realities of the era and argued on the basis it has to be somewhat true because supported by the Duchess of Windsor (Sarah Fergusson),

To which Diane Reynolds:

Your comments bring up the interesting point of how filmmakers might or ought deal with social/historical realities of the past. I imagine this comes up more in interpreting fiction: how do we present Shylock, etc. ... but in terms of history, do we present it as the people in question saw it or as we see it or both? As the film points out at the end, Victoria did have Albert's clothes laid out every day after his death until her own death: devoted behavior that did make of him a saint--or more precisely, showed her power. Of course, you haven't seen the movie (lucky you), but during much of it the two are separate, Albert in Germany, waiting for summons to the British Royal Court and Victoria, in England. Thus, we are not seeing Albert through Victoria's eyes through much of the movie--and yet he is still portrayed as a saint by the omniscient narrative voice. A more skillful movie would have shown Victoria seeing Albert as a saint while "offstage" we would see him as a sympathetic but very imperfect human.

Probably like many who saw the film, my knowledge of V and A was sketchy--I read a bio of V in high school, and, of course, have picked up bits and pieces of their story over time but a m not intimately aware of their history. I strongly suspected Albert had not been shot by a would-be assassin--but I didn't know for sure until I looked it up. So I think I replicated the experience of many viewers. I did have a vague idea that Albert was not altogether happy at being second to his wife, but I didn't know if I had him confused with the current Prince Philip. I looked on Wikipedia, that source of all knowledge, and discovered that Albert was initially distressed at being the husband but not the "master" of his household and that he was restive until he was given a bigger "role." This accords with the film--in fact, in the movie, all is happy and in order when the male assumes his rightful place at the head of the table and Victoria has essentially apologized for being alive--but I do fault the film for not critiquing this Victorian and patriarchal view of the relationship,. It instead falls into the predictable paradigm of ritual female humiliation. Perhaps I unfairly criticize the film for not being a great movie. A better film, imho, would have used the power of the camera to make a clear distinction between how V and A perceived their situation and how we do. I think it is correct to be
appalled and call the movie on its uncritical portrayals, just as we might be appalled at a film that uncritically portrayed a "happy plantation" through the eyes of the slaveholders--even if that was how the slaveholders saw it. Of course, I admit that the effete world of royalty, where the players have an exaggerated sense of their own importance, is another story.

I did have an idea that Sarah Ferguson was behind this film, and I did mention, I think, in my post, that the royal or ex-royal influence may have limited the extent to which the film could be critical of V and A. :) I did learn that V and A were first cousins, which I had not known, and married when they were both 20, quite young by our standards. It was not far from an arranged marriage, although Victoria did apparently have a "choice" between several eligible suitors, according to Wikipedia.

I intervened again:

I too think there's a tension between the way some histories reveal earlier people's inner lives and characters and the way this information can be used in movies.  Most of the people in the theater know very little I suppose of the minute ins and outs of Victoria's court -- as 17th century readers knew little of what was said of Alexandrian courts and the private lives of classic heroes and heroines.

Talking with my husband about the movie, he suggested that Victoria was not intelligent and Albert was, and that's central to understanding how and why the monarchy ceded its power to the prime minister -- as well as the reality she was a woman and no warrior type.  Victoria was also badly educated; had read very little at all.  Again this comes of the dismissal of women in education in the era, in high and powerful families as much as lower ones.  In the movie we do see the two desks of Albert and Victoria; what my husband suggested is that Albert acted as a strong modifying force on Victoria until his death when she retreated from public life.

The film may be said to be a bildingsroman where the daughter learns not to imitate her mother - this falls into a pattern of 20th century women's novels where women are encouraged to blame the mother:  Diane Phillips discussed this in her Women's Fiction, 1945-2000.

The mother subject

So the film speaks to audience of women Resentful daughters: post-feminist books. Books where the writer is angry at the mother very intensely; filled with bad mothers, women who didn’t stay in the home and devote themselves to the child, living an utterly conventional life. Some of this is archetypal hostility, some an inability to tell an appearance in social communities from realities at home and in the mind and real daily life. Daughters see their mothers as childlike and not grown up. Novels described include Martha McPhee’s Bright Angel Time, Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, Rebecca Wells’s Divine Secrets of Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Kathleen Tessaro’s Elegance (2003). A life-poisoning kind of relationship is described, with the daughter having no forgiveness for the mother who is ambitious. A Booker Prize short-listed one belongs here too: Astonishing Splashes of Color by Claire Morrall (2003, epigraph from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan).

I'd say the way to view and understand the movie is a film version of the kind of romances Scudery and her peers wrote in the later 17th century -- glorified super sexually repressed women  (except the evil ones) at the center, emasculated men who nonetheless exert strong power and control over these women.  An exception is Lady Mary Worth's romance of Urania where she has transgressive heroines: this was a shocking book, withdrawn and only republished today; then it was seen as a "scandal" chronicle where she revealed her own life and those of women and men at the court.  So she was damned for trying to tell some truths -- she herself had endured an arranged marriage, and then fell in love with and had child ren by her cousin, William Pembroke and was tabooed for the rest of her life. Why she found time to write is before us.

As to Sarah Fergusson, she might like to glorify her royal family in a mindless way -- shore up the Tories some more. I've never seen anything in print that would make me think anything else.

Now we learn the source of the book is a serious historical study by a woman.


Tags: 19th century, costume drama, female archetypes, film adaptation, jasna, women's memoirs

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