Romancing Victoria: The historical context behind “Victoria and Abdul”
Still from Victoria & Abdul, starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal. | Focus Features

As James Baldwin said of a much older film, “The immense quantity of polish expended…is meant to blind one to its essential inertia and despair.” Baldwin was commenting on the 1968 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? but he might just as well have been reviewing the new Victoria and Abdul, whose initial weekend opening earned nearly $6 million. The quality of the actors involved—Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn on the one hand; Dame Judi Dench on the other—is beyond debate. These are heavyweights. This is a large part of the polish. The plots, however, as Baldwin said of the last Tracy-Hepburn film, make “a certain chill go down the spine.”

Romanticizing the 19th century and British colonialism chills my spine as well.

Dench reprises her role as Britain’s second-longest reigning monarch (Elizabeth II has now surpassed her), and yet with two full-length, big-budget films about Queen Victoria, starting with Mrs. Brown in 1997, we come away woefully ignorant about the course of the 19th century in general, most of which comprised Victoria’s time (1837-1901) on the throne of an empire, and this queen’s political impact in particular.

Government sanctioning and banning art

Remaining ignorant and being blinded by polish is the whole point not only of the intrusion of the film industry into history, but also of the government’s intrusion into the arts.

Until the late 1960s, all British theatrical productions were licensed through the Lord Chamberlain, the medieval office of head of the queen’s household. Many of George Bernard Shaw’s plays were banned by the Lord Chamberlain, so Shaw would either have to stage his plays in Germany, France, and the U.S., or cunningly set up large “dinner parties” outside London where the plays were performed clandestinely.

From the time sound came to Hollywood film in the late 1920s, it was a tug of war between the reactionaries and radicals. With the “talkies,” the reactionary studio heads needed actors with good voices. They also needed better-written scripts. The studios turned to New York and Broadway, recruiting new generations of actors and playwrights. Technicians were also demanded, since sound prohibited filming next to other projects: Soundstages had to be built and people expert at audio had to be hired.

The unintended consequence of all this is that many of these East Coast artists and technicians had communist and alternative sympathies. Themes of scripts got grittier. Actors hired for their voices were vocal about social issues in early 1930s Depression USA. Craftspeople mobilized for better working conditions.

In 1934, when writer and Socialist Party member Upton Sinclair ran for governor of California with his EPIC (End Poverty in California) program, studio heads threatened their contract actors not to support him for fear of suspension.

The churches combined and threatened a nationwide boycott if the studios did not produce more wholesome, middlebrow stuff. The still infamous “Box Office Poison” list was publicized in 1938 by the movie theater lobby, which revealingly included names like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Joan Crawford, and Hepburn.

The threats worked. Studio heads demanded less controversial scripts, PR departments set about disseminating stories about how “normal,” healthy, and heterosexual this or that star was; “confirmed bachelors” were either disappeared or put into arranged marriages—to be publicized. According to biographies, Hepburn’s rumored female lover was sent back East, and she was matched with married men—starting with her agent—ever since.

Finally, the Hays Office was given control not only over scripts but also themes and how plots had to unfold and be resolved. It was the Hays Office that fined David Selznick $5,000 for Rhett Butler’s final words to Scarlett at the end of Gone with the Wind.

The Hays Office reigned until the late 1960s, when the current MPAA ratings system replaced it. The Lord Chamberlain’s control over British theatre was ended by the Labour Government of Harold Wilson. Censorship of the British stage had existed for over 250 years.

For my money, and sense of self-worth, I’ll take those classic films of the late 60s and 70s over the alleged “Golden Age of Hollywood,” which did so much to warp, distort, and suppress our natural human and political aspirations, as well as successfully demonize left and pro-labor sympathies.

Victoria’s long dark nightmare

And this takes us right back to Victoria and Abdul.

White civilization is forever patting itself on the back for its purported achievements, and while this has historically been a whites-only club, as we have appeared to veer into multiculturalism, casts have diversified. But subjects, like Abdul, are blinded by the “immense quantity of polish” and are as adoring of these caste-class systems as any Lord Chamberlain. The values are exactly the same. Such is the shallowness of our multiculturalism, which is about as deep as our two-winged political discourse is wide.

If you can believe a “Victoria and Abdul” why not an equally polished, spine-chilling romance between Old Tom Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings?

Don’t be seduced by this excessive polishing of the terrible Victorian regime in film.

For all but the first two years of this 4’11” woman’s long reign, the British Empire was at war somewhere around the globe and usually against nonwhite people it was subjugating. What the Abduls of South Asia and the Kwames of Africa had to endure for Britain to attain its wealth, and for Victoria to be made “empress” by her favored prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, is not romantic stuff worth polishing.

I’d love to see a movie that revealed the debased, racist, patriarchal values of these Europeans and their piracy, rather than seeing the working poor, like Mr. Brown, and people whose lands have been stolen, like Abdul, made the agents of these elites’ supposed awakening. There was no such awakening. The working class and the colonials had to shed their blood and bleed their oppressors for a respite of liberation.

On Victoria, a short-term consolation would be a sweeping blockbuster about the better values of this woman’s first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, whom she married in 1840.

Albert was a modernizer and, for his times, a labor reformer. This put him at odds with the mortally wounded landed British establishment, which was nearing its last breath with the Industrial Age. He wanted to bring scientific and industrial innovation to Britain before it succeeded in his native Germany. Moreover, Albert was a fierce abolitionist before he married Victoria. After they married, he used his wife’s office to steer British policy further against slavery and the slave trade. Ahead of his time, Albert not only took on the patronage of the British Anti-Slavery Society but was elected its president.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in December 1853. | Roger Fenton / Royal Collection (public)

Like Lincoln initially, Victoria was indifferent to these issues. She opposed public education because it would give the working class unreasonable expectations. She resisted shortening the work week because, she believed, working men would only drink more.

Soon after Lincoln’s election, with the slave states promising to secede, Albert manipulated Victoria into not recognizing the Confederacy, where British manufacture was getting its raw cotton. It was a clever maneuver because the British cabinet was divided. Ironically, it was the cutoff of this trade with the U.S. that turned Britain to solidify its conquest of India for raw cotton.

We cannot be entirely sure what Albert would have made of this since he died in late 1861. Her qualities were not very redeemable; his were. In her long widowhood, in between dalliances with Mr. Brown and Abdul, she openly disdained her liberal prime ministers and showered praise on her reactionary ones. And for all that, Albert is the one who is hated by most historians and an appendage to romantic filmmakers.

There were more deserving heroes in the 19th century, but between Albert and his wife, he outshone her. That’s the movie I want to see. These are the qualities I want to see glorified and polished in filmmaking.

Victoria and Abdul

Starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal

Directed by Stephen Frears

Focus Features, 112 mins.


CONTRIBUTOR

Lowell B. Denny, III
Lowell B. Denny, III

Lowell B. Denny, III, graduated with a degree in political science from Washington University, but his real political education came with his membership in Queer Nation/San Francisco, spending two months of work and study in Cuba just after the demise of the USSR, three months hitchhiking around Mexico where he got to spend a day in jail, and being affected by the sovereignty movement while living in Hawaii. He has worked in publishing, retail, and as a school teacher and restaurant waiter.

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