Power Plays in Masterpiece’s Victoria
Every other Wednesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
I might have mentioned a few times here (ahem) that I swoon for costume dramas. So, naturally, Masterpiece’s Victoria is precisely my cup of tea. Two episodes into the season, the narrative swerves at times from historical truth but the costumes do not disappoint. The second episode, “Brocket Hall,” aired on PBS on Sunday night, and there never seems to be a shortage of power plays, between male and female, and between rich and poor.
In the kingdom of God, it is not the voice of the queen or her relatives or her subjects that matters; it is only the words “follow me.”Consider the position of Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, who must remain single after her husband’s death, but who relies on John Conroy for stability and, at the very least, companionship. The show strives to illustrate the extent of Conroy’s control over the Duchess and, especially in the first episode, hints at the history of manipulation before Victoria’s ascendency as well. In “Brocket Hall,” Conroy is one of many players urging Victoria to marry so that she can submit to a husband and, presumably, their advisors’ interests. No matter which candidate is put forward, the episode shows the tension between those who might sincerely consider Victoria’s happiness and those who only fight for their own influence.
Conroy and the Duchess both advocate for Prince Albert, and viewers have the historical advantage of knowing his will be the successful bid. But where the show represents Conroy as seeking to control Albert and, through him, Victoria, the Duchess is portrayed sympathetically, as genuinely believing the match could be happy. That the Duchess wants a joyful union for her daughter makes it all the more painful when Victoria contrives to remove Conroy, and we see the mother betrayed by the man she leaned on for years; Catherine Fleming’s character recounts the times she’s refused to give up Conroy and laments that he would leave her for money and a title. Yet both Conroy and Victoria are right that by breaking up a manipulative (if not downright abusive) relationship, there is room for a closer mother-daughter connection.
Once again, historical hindsight verifies this decision, but it still saddens me to consider what Victoria and her mother lost in the Conroy years and what sacrifices were made within their relationship to accommodate a man who likely only wanted to use them both. That the Duchess becomes a loving mother and grandmother and that Victoria and Albert share a love story for the ages serve as some kind of balm, but watching the episode Sunday night, it’s easy to see the loss and brokenness along the way. The background to Victoria’s meat market is the Chartist uprisings demanding the right for all men over 21 to vote, and, as Lord Melbourne quips, some want women’s suffrage, too. Victoria scoffs at the notion; even a queen who longs for her mother cannot see why most men or any women need voices in government.
I watched this episode on Sunday evening, after hearing a sermon based on Matthew 4, where Jesus calls his disciples to be “fishers of men.” And while Victoria reminds me that even queens and duchesses struggle in their personal relationships, the text and ensuing sermon emphasized Jesus’ choice of the low and the humble. Can Jesus be with the queen as she struggles to find the right man in a court filled with uncles and male cousins who just want to control her? Can Jesus be just as much with the Chartists who fight for better lives in a society that sees wealth first and foremost? And what kind of call is there for those of us watching history, seeing the tension between rich and poor, powerful and struggling, unfold?
It’s a significant moment when Victoria leans on her mother and weeps. It’s a significant moment when Victoria decides to commute the Chartists’ sentence from gruesome execution to life in Australia. Both instances illustrate the operations of power that works in many directions; Victoria, subdued by male relatives and advisors and urged to marry a man who will direct her, still reigns supreme over her subjects. When it comes to the treasonous Chartists, Victoria exercises power over their lives and deaths. What’s significant about Christ’s call in Matthew 4 is further evidence of a new kind of kingdom and a new kind of power. In the kingdom of God, it is not the voice of the queen or her relatives or her subjects that matters; it is only the words “follow me.” And both history and Christ tell us that how we answer, how we follow, makes a difference.