I admit I'm a sucker for Victorian costume dramas, and going back a bit further, Jane Austen. I've just watched the most recent BBC versions of Great Expectations and Bleak House, and immediately downloaded the books to my computer Kindle. For I have never read Charles Dickens. I am a disgrace.
I think what I like most about the Dickens TV adaptations is how people struggle so hard to confine their personalities to rigid Victorian values. But at the same time, Dickens can't quite mention the seam of hypocrisy just below the surface. Many upper-class supposedly "respectable" men behaved abominably. One hundred and fifty years later, Michel Faber wrote The Crimson Petal and the White, about a prostitute raised to the heights of being a lady, and ending up reliant on a man in a way she could never have envisaged. And Charles Palliser's The Quincunx, a fond pastiche of Dickens, where everyone is revolting and Mrs Huffam needs a damn good shake, but I still found myself cheering for the idiot main character. That is truly incredible writing.
I also love the ITV adaptation of The Forsyte Saga. I could watch that once a week, even though if ITV went off air I wouldn't notice for weeks, if I noticed at all. Mostly because I think Gina McKee is one of the finest actresses this country, if not the world, has ever produced. I tried to read The Forsyte Saga but it's clear Victorian novels were serialised and the writer paid by the word, because my God it's hard going. Irene doesn't want to marry Soames, doesn't want to marry anyone, but has to for the sake of her fortunes. She suffers to be free, but it's only money that gives her the freedom she craves. It always comes down to money in the end. Having it, getting it, losing it, or waiting for it.
Sadly, I don't think Britain has moved on that much from Victorian times in terms of class or status, and there's certainly still a big dollop of grasping capitalism. Socially, yes, we're getting there. I loathe David Cameron but a Tory leader supporting equal marriage is something truly worth celebrating. I reserve the right to call him bad names for everything else he does, though.
And then there were my ancestors on my grandpa's side, with barely a legitimate child between them. I touched on them not being confined by Victorian values quite so much in an earlier post. Now, that's not to say they weren't a social disgrace - I'm quite sure they were, especially with hardcore Presbyterians running the show - but maybe just getting away from Ireland and its stifling Catholicism was a freedom in itself. In Victorian Scotland just being Catholic was enough to get you treated with total contempt by some, whatever else you did or didn't do, so why not have fun? None of them had any money at all, and they all had horrible jobs. Freedom's where you find it.