The Victorian era (and the Regency era that preceded) is fascinating to me. It was a time of great change, and of great reckoning for entrenched ideas of class and gender. It was a time in which marriage and the unions of property and status were major concerns (at least for wealthy white people who were powerful enough to have many popular stories written about them). It also established many of our notions of romantic love and feminine virtue. It is the original era that we rail against when we speak about progress, but also the one we turn to for the best hint about how things can change quickly (for the better).
I find myself turning to this era, again and again, in books, tv shows, and movies. I turn to it so that I may escape current events that feel unmoored from what I had believed were the foundations of our society. I also turn to it to help understand the last time that ”the modern world” intruded into the private lives of all people and fundamentally changed what was possible. The internal combustion engine, communication tools like the phonograph and telegraph, and more efficient textile manufacturing provided access to the kind of life that was only possible for the very rich in previous generations. This new opportunity presented a challenge to the established order that had to be worked through via gradually (excruciatingly so, in some cases) providing more rights for everyone with this new access.
I find so much resonance with our current time. We have had the great revolution of access once again (or maybe everything is just a continuation of the access the printing press gave), but we have yet to fully work through what it means for how we relate to one another. When everyone has equal access, how do the power structures need to change to match? When we can all have up to the minute fashion and technology, what need have we for the rules that were established when we did not?
There are lessons to be found within our art about the start of the last great shift toward democratization and away from rigid class and gender roles. I aim to find them. So, this is my tour through the media that I have come back to again and again (watching Pride and Prejudice (2005) a dozen times in the last year alone). It is what I have learned through the stories of unrequited love and unspoken truth:
- Pride and Prejudice (2005) – The very human drama of fighting for love despite family and societal obligation comes through in this adaptation. In one of my favorite scenes, Lizzie (played by Keira Knightly) is looking around at Pemberley manor (Mr. Darcy’s home) and she comes to a marble sculpture of Mr. Darcy amongst all of the priceless works of art in his collection. Even with all of the weight of history surrounding her, she is able to understand that her life is not cold and calculating. It is not marble, perfectly sculpted. She can walk amongst it and pull someone who is ”made of stone” into the real world, conjuring him into existence as an act of love. This transition from the ”asthetic perfection” of the ideal to the very real choices that we have to make as humans is something we must do now. We are not striving for a perfect collection that is dead and uninfluenced by modern life. Instead, we are striving for the living and breathing version of ourselves, making hard decisions and making progress.
- Pride and Prejudice (1995, Mini-series) – This is, by most estimations, the most enduring version of this story. For me, though, it all boils down to a single scene in which Lizzie is walking from her home to the nearby manor inhabited by Mr. Bingley while her sister, Jane, is ill and recovering . In this version, as in all faithful renditions, she walks through the rainy countryside and shows up to Netherfield covered in mud on her shoes and dress. This is the first time you truly can see the difference and shades of wealth that exist in Victorian-era England. The mud on Elizabeth’s feet are met with disdain by Mr. Bingley’s sister. She is declared “almost wild” and therefore not fit for polite society. It is this ”wildness” that fascinates me. The idea that there is any one way to be or one ideal for a woman (or man) lest you be considered “wild” is the struggle we are going through right now (and perhaps, ever since the Victorian era). We are no longer called ”wild,” though. We are now called ”liberal” or ”woke” or any other number of things that scream out ”other!” I think that Lizzie’s muddy shoes are worth a closer look. To me, they show the independent confidence that our current moment requires.
- Pride and Prejudice (1980, Mini-series) – In this edition, I tend to focus on the many conversations that directly reference the sending and receiving of correspondence. As it is the dominant form of communication during the Victorian era (and every other era prior to innovations like the telegraph), the letters they read and discuss feel like they are standing in for whole people. There is no anonymity nor is there any attempt to hide from the implications of these letters. It is a way to bring the humanity of other households into your own. We could learn a lot from this. The weight of the words informing of Mr. Wickham’s treachery is fully felt by all involved, even though it is only through one of Jane’s letters. And yet, even when we have hard proof of wrongdoing in signed testimony and correspondence between two of the offending parties, many can still not find a way to believe their truth. We should learn to respect the written word, but the truth of it, and the lies.
- Pride and Prejudice (1940) – This interpretation of the Austen novel is not worth watching, save one lesson that I found compelling. In this version, Mr. Wickham is not punished in any way for his impropriety. He is not contrite, nor does he learn anything from having eloped without the intention of marriage with Lizzy’s youngest sister. In fact, he ends up ”rich” from an inheritance, or at least so he says. The true lesson that I took from this rendition was that our conduct must have consequence or it is meaningless. If you are able to ”get away” with any kind of behavior and come out better off on the other side, there is no incentive to live in a way that benefits others.
- Death Comes to Pemberley (2013, Mini-series) – In this addition to the original story, this extends our view into married life between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth at their Pemberley home. While the TV mini-series would have you believe that the lesson of the story is that you marry for love and never doubt those you love, I believe the true value of this story is in questioning the relationships we believe are beyond reproach. I won’t spoil the ending, as this story is relatively unknown, but suffice it to say, there is a relationship that was sacrosanct and through a series of revelations, becomes anything but. I believe it is worth looking at our heroes and those we put our trust in to see if they continue to deserve it.
As you might know, Pride and Prejudice is not the only Regency Era drama to be recorded on film. I have enjoyed each of these in turn, although I have learned slightly less from them from a modern perspective:
- Emma (2020) – I learned that kindness is not optional, especially when you are in a position of privilege and power.
- Sense and Sensibility (1996) – I learned that passion cannot be the whole of the story. Love is built over time and is reinforced with action. Passion is easily deterred, and more often, deferred.
- Sense and Sensibility (2008, Mini-series) – I learned that promises made in confidence are hardly promises at all. It is only when we are transparent with others that they become true.
- Sense and Sensibility (1981, Mini-series) – I learned that instant gratification can often come with a heavy price.
Now we come to the Victorian Age properly. While there have been many forays into this genre, the 2020s have yielded some incredible results. And in each case, a female protagonist is the one who has showed the way forward for our divided time:
- The Nevers (2021) – While there is far more magic in this show than I would otherwise enjoy in a period piece, the fact that it is predicated upon (mostly) women gaining power over men in multiple different ways. Some of them are smarter or more inventive. Others of them are stronger or larger. Others still can see into the future, although not in a way that gives away all of what comes next. This is a story about gathering those who are “different” and protecting them as they discover their unique gifts. In 6 short episodes (which may be all that ever are made), I have learned the power of building community, of working together toward a better world from in a found family. Change (and chaos, to a certain extent) are the default state for the world, and yet that does not mean that everyone wishes for that change to come. In fact, most often others will work against change and will convince themselves that they are “winning” when it does not come. But, winning does not look like the status quo. Winning looks like holding on to those you love within a community that creates new things and is open to those who are different. Winning looks like discovery and diversity, not predestination and patriarchy.
- Enola Holmes (2020) – In this extension of the Sherlock Holmes universe, his younger sister is challenged with finding her mother and avoiding “finishing school.” This is a proper mystery, but with overtly political plot points. It is set against the backdrop of the push for voting rights for the average Englishman. Enola’s mother is involved in this effort (perhaps even with violent implications for how to gain these rights), and Enola is caught quite in the middle of the conflict, figuring out how she fits within this larger whole of society. She tries on a number of different identities, ultimately deciding that she needs to embrace her full self: romantic and logical. It is this that I gained the most from. Too often we are presented with the dichotomy of feelings vs. facts. This is a false choice, and Enola hits this home by allowing the “greater good” logical argument to move her forward while still trying to pursue and protect those that she loves. We do not have to give up our feelings or forget the ties we have to our family to be able to make progress for our world.
- The Gilded Age (2022) – There has only been one episode of this promising show, but I have already found it compelling enough to include in this post. It is the story of old money vs. new money in 1882 New York City. But, the story is told almost exclusively from the perspective of the women who perpetuate stereotypes and seek to push past them. There is a New Money wife and mother who is trying to break into the social circles of the best New York families. There is a poor young woman (due to her father’s mismanagement of money) who goes to live with two rich aunts and who befriends a black woman on the voyage to the city. This friend has a storyline her in own right, staying on with the “rich aunts” as a secretary for the matriarch. There is class struggle between the servants and the aristocracy. There is even a very rich secretly gay couple that touches upon presidential politics in the 1800s. This mosaic is not fully in focus after only a single episode, but the ground work is laid to see our own timeline through the drama onscreen. I believe the show is entirely about the concept of Gatekeeping. The rich aunts are gatekeepers for the old families, even though they wish to have the liquid cash of the newly moneyed families. The white servants are gatekeepers for the new black employee, even though they know she has skills (penmanship and command of the English language) that they do not. The protagonist is a gatekeeper of her own feelings and wishes to be a part of the modern city life, even though she is being urged to take part by many of the ancillary characters. It makes me question what I am gatekeeping from myself and others. But, gatekeeping has a reason to exist, even if the reasons are hardly ever valid. We gatekeep in order to preserve our power. We gatekeep to keep continuity with the past or with our perception of how “things should be.” We gatekeep so that we can protect ourselves from hurt. As I was watching the show, I kept asking myself, “who am I gatekeeping, and why am I doing it?” My children, my colleagues, my spouse, myself?! Yes. Now, on to discovering “why.”
Clearly, my viewing habits are not objectively “cool.” Victorian and Regency era stories (steampunk-style notwithstanding) are well trodden territory. The multiple versions of the same story are testament to that. And yet, I am convinced we have not learned everything we can from these narratives. And that is why I keep on returning to them, again and again.