Posted on 6/2/2014
I recently had the pleasure of watching, for the second time, the 1997 film Mrs. Brown. This film, starring Judi Dench and Billy Connelly, chronicled the relationship between Queen Victoria and her faithful servant, John Brown, in the years following the death of her husband, Prince Albert. I enjoyed this movie when it first came to theaters, and I loved it even more the second time around, partly because of my research on the Scottish roots of the American honor culture. Brown was a Scottish highlander, and in the film his character is shown to be both doggedly loyal to the queen and a brash upstart, both with her and with everyone else. At one point in the film, he even asks Prince Edward if he was “deaf as well as stupid,” daring even to lay hands on the future king to emphasize his point.
Connelly plays John Brown wonderfully, displaying the servant’s fierce faithfulness to Victoria and his tendency to assert his own right to precedence, especially with those who assume to be his superiors. This conflict seems particularly prickly with the snooty English servants in the queen’s service (in one scene, Brown displaces the head butler at the servants’ table, seating himself at the head of the table and claiming a self-evident right to do so above the protestations of the other servants).
I can think of few more fitting descriptions of the essence of Scottish honor culture than Queen Victoria’s own description of Brown: “Strength of character as well as power of frame—the most fearless uprightness, kindness, sense of justice, honesty, independence and unselfishness combined with a tender, warm heart ... made him one of the most remarkable men.” While his “tender, warm heart” seems to have been in evidence to her much more than it was to others, his devotion to her—especially to her safety and well-being—is as indisputable as it is admirable. The qualities she ascribes to him reflect, to me, the best qualities that honor cultures promote. Indeed, if these qualities were unqualified by the darker qualities that honor cultures also instill (e.g., offense-taking, pugnacity, violence), there would be little left to say about these societies. It is, however, that paradoxical promotion of light and darkness that make honor cultures so fascinating, and so important.