When PBS’s smash hit from across the pond Downton Abbey ended its six-season run on Masterpiece, many fans of British drama were left wondering, “What next?” They needn’t have feared—its old time slot is now occupied by a new British import, Victoria, an imagining of the early career of the renowned nineteenth-century queen. Season 1, which concludes for American audiences on March 4, tracks Victoria (Doctor Who alum Jenna Coleman) from her ascension to the throne through her wedding to the earnest young Prince Albert (Tom Hughes) and the birth of her first child (spanning the years 1837-1840).
Victoria demonstrates that the harnessing of sexual desire need not be repressive or onerous.Victoria is open to critique on some levels. It departs from history in certain points, particularly in its fictionalized accounts of the servants (an attempt perhaps to capture some of Downton Abbey’s “downstairs” elements). Some claim it is stuffier or more subdued than either its predecessor or Netflix’s The Crown, an obvious regal parallel. Yet it seems to have found a solid audience in England and probably America too—though ratings are not kept for PBS in the US. What sets Victoria apart, however, and what I find most intriguing, is its emphasis on the virtues of its core protagonists, especially the way it emphasizes them.
The English of the mid to late nineteenth century were, at least in principle, notoriously moralistic. As Gertrude Himmelfarb has noted, they stressed “virtues” rather than “values”—a set of standards that transcend individual preference. These virtues, she notes, do not necessarily align with the seven cardinal and theological virtues of classical Christian thought, though they might overlap somewhat. Nor were the Victorians universally adept at staying true to these virtues, which has often earned them a reputation as hypocrites, at least among those historians who acknowledge that such moral standards exist and are not simply a middle-class fantasy.
But whatever their idiosyncrasies, Victorian moral principles often did dovetail with Christian conceptions of conduct, and in fact many—perhaps most—Victorians were Christians. Indeed, as Timothy Larsen has pointed out, biblical literacy in the nineteenth century (among skeptics and believers alike) was pervasive, and the morality of the Bible saturated the culture, even often among those who rejected scripture’s divine authority.
Entering into this moral landscape presents the creators of Victoria with a singularly modern conundrum. Of course, the heroine is a bona fide young queen inhabiting a world of delectable luxury, ideal for audiences who love opulent costume dramas. Yet how can the show make its major characters compelling when, by contemporary standards, their moral codes are so fussy, so seemingly prudish? It does so by emphasizing moral qualities that even contemporary audiences can share, and by making more “puritanical” aspects of traditional virtue appear reasonable, even downright edgy.
From the moment she ascends the throne Victoria’s title character is anxious to wrest control of her life from her loving but overbearing mother. Though not unaware of her responsibilities, she is accustomed to a degree of regal luxury, at first somewhat naïve of the world outside her social sphere. While she adapts quickly to the vicissitudes of power politics, her tutor Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), the Whig Prime Minister, continues to shield her from some of the more unsavory aspects of nineteenth century Britain. However, this no longer remains possible when Albert, her eventual husband, arrives on the scene.
Earnest, blunt, and appropriately sexy, Tom Hughes’s Albert is many ways the embodiment of the Victorian era’s activist tendencies. He butts heads with Victoria’s beloved “Lord M” about the conditions of England’s poor, and little wonder. Albert loves Britain’s parliamentary government but is frustrated by the self-willed obliviousness of its members. In this, he becomes a stand-in for the modern viewer, who is often reminded that the economic disparities so thoroughly chronicled by Charles Dickens are rampant. Albert must not only woo the smitten Victoria’s affections away from the attentive Melbourne—he must also bring her to acknowledge the need for social change.
As prince, Albert busies himself with many causes, including greater investment in advanced technologies and continued advocacy for the abolition of slavery across the Atlantic. Indeed, his first major address at Exeter Hall is an anti-slavery speech. As Victoria falls more in love with Albert, she is drawn closer to his own ideals. Thus, viewers are able to find the pair attractive because many of the prince’s social virtues are assumed values today, and also because his passionate advocacy of those virtues is tied on a narrative level to the sexual chemistry between the young husband and wife.
In that sexual chemistry, however, we find the most fascinating aspect of Victoria’s moral project. Denouncing social injustice is easy enough for modern audiences, Christian or otherwise, to celebrate. But the intensely monogamous relationship between Prince Albert and Queen Victoria is somewhat further out of step with modern attitudes. In these two, we have none of the juicy infidelities and risqué innuendos that characterize so many members of the monarchy. In the period of the series, Victoria and Albert are entirely unacquainted with sexual scandal. Indeed, one Albert biographer reports on an observation made at the time that “[h]is virtue was, indeed, appalling; not a single vice redeemed it” (65).
G. K. Chesterton was born in 1874, almost smack in the middle of Victoria’s reign, and his observations on his nation’s developments during his early years are insightful. In one of his earliest works, The Defendant (1901), he observes with characteristically biting whimsy, “The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has to-day all the exhilaration of a vice” (97). Of course, Chesterton is not advocating here for any kind of morally inverted cosmos. Rather, he has begun by acknowledging what we all intuitively know—that rightly or wrong, there is a certain thrill to rebellion, to rule-breaking. In a society governed by traditional Christian theology and moral standards, this rebellious thrill may manifest itself in skepticism or hedonism. But in a world whose morality is upended or topsy-turvy, morality itself becomes the adventure, the radical revolution.
What was in true in G. K. Chesterton’s time is in all likelihood doubly true of our own day, at least regarding the sensitive topic of sexual morality. Despite the somewhat justified charges of hypocrisy, the Victorians advocated sexual ideals that many wives and even husbands did successfully achieve, Victoria and Albert among them. Such successful virtue may appear alien to our own culture, saturated as it is in illicit sex, pornography, and other practices contrary to the longstanding Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality.
But Victoria demonstrates that the harnessing of sexual desire need not be repressive or onerous. Victoria and Albert enter their wedding night as virgins, their awkward and anxious anticipation based entirely on hearsay or note-taking. Yet the series depicts them as having a vibrant married life within the virtue of their marital commitment, and this depiction accords with the facts as far as we know them. Of course, the aim of morality is not primarily to elicit pleasurable emotions; real virtue is hard, sometimes counterintuitive, often sacrificial. And yet, the God who declared his law did not do so because he is a sadist killjoy, an angry old man in the sky ready to smite any young couple who just wants some fun. He gave us his commandments because they show how life works best according to the moral world of his design.
While Victoria is hardly explicit in its religiosity, some aspect of this truth filters into the narrative. Both Victoria and Albert hold fast to their “prudish” morality precisely because they are surrounded by the carnage of its rejection. Albert’s parents staggered through multiple affairs and eventually divorced. His brother Ernest (David Oakes) is a dissolute womanizer, fun-loving but deeply broken, wracked with venereal disease and, beneath the charm, quite unhappy. Albert loses some possible income in part because of the dalliances of his Uncle Leopold (Alex Jennings). Victoria is shocked to learn that her father—an idealized man whom she has not known—kept a mistress, while the relationship of her mother (Catherine Flemming) with Sir John Conroy (Paul Rhys) is suspect. She can also see the psychic effect of infidelity in Lord M, whose wife left him, for no less a personage than Lord Byron.
Simply put, the main characters of Victoria are adrift amid the wreckage of relationships damaged by sexual immorality. They remind me of Gabriel Syme from Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, who, “[b]eing surrounded with every conceivable kind of revolt from infancy . . . he revolted into the only thing left—sanity” (75). The theologian David F. Wells has defined “worldliness” as “what makes sin look normal in any age and righteousness seem odd” (29). Victoria and Albert revolt against the worldliness of their own surroundings by reclaiming virtuous sexuality over and against their elders; in so doing, they were part of a larger cultural movement in that direction at the time.
We live in a similar cultural moment now, one in which sin looks normal and righteousness odd. Our first task as Christians is, of course, to bring the world to Christ. But part of that task is living out the virtues of the faith, the principles which God has established as the correct path for life. These virtues often require sacrifice, and so we should not advocate a mode of Christian life that looks cool or edgy for its own sake. Still, we also know well that God desires the best for us and that his commands were given for our benefit.
The ordinary Christian life is dynamic, counter-cultural, and perhaps, in its own way, exhilarating in our fallen and morally backward world. We shouldn’t practice virtue because it gives us a thrill, but we also shouldn’t think of righteous living as a chore to roll our eyes and sigh about. I appreciate Victoria because, in its own little ways, it shows the attractiveness of morality when lived out in the midst of blind and self-centered iniquity. In that way at least, we can say in truth, “God save the Queen.”