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Did she or didn't she?
am 1. Februar 2006
That is the question. Of course, when one thinks of Victoria, the idea of prudishness, conservatism, and a very reserved manner in action and morality naturally come to mind. It was never unusual for monarchs, male or female, to have lovers outside of their marriages (indeed, it might be considered unusual for a monarch to have been thought to have remained faithful), but Victoria? The epitome of a repressive, almost oppresive morality? Surely not.
Don't be so sure.
Four years after the death of Prince Albert, to whom Victoria was completely devoted, and for whom she mourned in quite public and dramatic fashion, against the protests of her children and her ministers, John Brown, a favourite ghillie of the royal couple, was brought back into service of the Queen household.
Victoria's favouritism toward him, coupled with his own brash and blunt behaviour, caused him to be envied and disliked by members of her family, her household service, her ministers, and largely by the public. There were parodies of John Brown's activities, done up in the form of mock Court Circulars (the official listing of royal engagements), which appeared in the press on both sides of the Atlantic.
It is unknown if Brown actually kept a diary (the movie speculates such, but also states that no diary was ever found). There was a large black trunk of correspondence found after Victoria's death, between the Queen and her doctor at the time, Profeit, regarding John Brown. This came into the possession of her new doctor, Reid, who recorded 'most compromising' secrets into his green memorandum book. Alas, this book was burned by Reid's son, and the trunk was not found. Did it refer to a secret marriage between Victoria and John Brown, as was often speculated?
This is, in truth, unlikely -- Victoria's devotion to Albert never waned in her life, and there was a certain innocence, lack of pretense and guile in Victoria that the more political and suspicious (particularly in the press) would not have known. Both Brown and Victoria were outraged at the rumours. Brown was a servant who put no stock in class divisions and the artificiality of social conventions -- his familiarity with the Queen (in fact no different from his direct and familiar manner of relating to everyone) was simply his manner.
But then, everyone likes a good, juicy scandal, don't they? So much more interesting than decades of mourning, which makes for rather boring news leaders.
The film takes up the story with Brown's arrival at the royal residence on the Isle of Wight (an inaccuracy, as he was presented at Windsor first). The story is romantic yet reserved, and the cinematography is stunning. From the cloud-cast home on the Isle of Wight to the stately and foreboding Windsor scenes, to the unspoiled Highlands around Balmoral, this film has had great care infused in the details of costume, setting, and atmosphere.
Judi Dench gives perhaps the greatest performance of her life as the Queen, showing real emotion through the Victorian reserve in an admirable fashion (for which she was nominated for the Academy Award, and won the Golden Globe, as best actress). In a really surprising casting, Billy Connolly, best known as a comic, turns in a first class performance as John Brown, the brash Scotsman who becomes completely devoted to his Queen. Geoffrey Palmer, a solid actor known in many BBC productions, plays the Queen's private secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby, who is continually amazed at the liberties taken by Brown (Ponsonby, in reality, saw Brown as a first class servant, and remarked so frequently in correspondence with others). This film was first proposed as a BBC television production, but ended up being so well performed and executed that it was transferred to become a cinematic release.
Given the high profile scandals of the royal family today, this story seems almost timid. But, history does repeat itself, so one can never be entirely sure, until such time as the royal archives are opened to scholars, perhaps a few centuries from now, and the truth may be known to posterity.