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24 September 2014
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09.05.02

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Victoria and Her Sisters


Tuesday 4 June, BBC TWO

Victoria was aged just l8 when she ascended the throne in 1837. She ruled through not only a Golden but a Diamond Jubilee during an epoch of almost unimaginable changes. In this, Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee year, monarchy is more than ever under scrutiny and Victoria and her Sisters sets Victoria in context as monarch, mother, champion of family values, but a Queen not always in step with her times.

"The age which would bear her name," writes Schama, "would see transformations in the lives of women which Victoria could never have imagined in the dazzling springtime of her reign. Whether she would welcome them, whether she would understand them; or whether they would sweep right past her and her glass palace - well, that remains to be seen."

Technology and industrialisation rapidly reshaped the landscape and the social structure of the age, to the horror of some - like Thomas Carlyle and Augustus Pugin, who feared the age of the machine would destroy the bonds holding community together - and the hope and excitement of others, including Prince Albert.

Carlyle and Pugin believed a return to faith was essential to rally against the cruel face of the machine and the money-men. Pugin devoted his short life to beautifying churches, but spiritual nourishment did nothing to put bread on the tables of the needy millions. Their plight was dramatised in the fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell, who saw the contrast between the burgeoning metropolis and the factory floor. "It would be a woman, Elizabeth Gaskell," says Schama, "who would be the whistle-blower, the first of Victoria's sisters to stick her neck out."

But while The Queen and Prince Albert believed they had created a model of unity in the machine age - the home and family - women were stepping outside their role to find a new one in shaping society. Political campaigners like Harriet Stuart Mill and Annie Besant, photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, social health campaigners Mary Seacole and doctor Elizabeth Garrett - all these sisters of change helped forge a place for Victorian women outside the home.

Victoria too played out her role as an independent woman, but not out of choice. Widowed at an early age, she ruled alone without her adored Albert and made the era redolent with the ritual of death and mourning.

On Victoria's death, riding with her body on the journey from London to Windsor was the widow of one of her Viceroys of India, Lady Lytton. Just eight years later, her daughter Constance, in prison as a suffragette, would make her statement about the future of women in Britain by carving, with a piece of broken enamel from a hairpin, the letter V in to the flesh of her breast. But it wasn't V for Victoria - it was V for Votes.

Produced and directed by Martina Hall.


At www.bbc.co.uk/history, explore the era on a virtual train journey through the achievements of the Victorian age, or step inside the interior of a Victorian room with the 360-degree panorama. Altruists can play Muck and Brass to decide on the best ways to improve life for citizens in an industrial town. Another game reveals the options and rights available to Victorian women.

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