As England shifts politically, economically and socially, the moral code of the aristocratic Christopher Tietjens becomes increasingly dated within a changing, modern world.
A Time of Change
The Edwardian period is often portrayed romantically, especially when compared with the death and destruction of World War I. Though the British Empire was thriving, it was actually a tumultuous time for its people. Industrialization, plus the onset of World War I, created social and economic shifts that started to break down the rigid class system – upward mobility was possible for the first time. Women’s roles began to shift as they began working for the war effort and later won the right to vote.
Wealthy Victorians considered themselves the fathers of society, born to rule through divine right. They believed it was their duty to protect the lower classes, not the government, as Christopher explains to Mrs. Satterthwaite: “It is the duty of the employers to look after the welfare of their employees and those that don’t should go to prison.” But with the changing times, the lower classes were becoming less dependent on their wealthy employers – something that was an adjustment for both classes.
Though living in the Edwardian present, Christopher is a relic of a bygone era, raised on his father’s Victorian values. Christopher believes strongly in dignity, history, and restraint – concepts increasingly compromised by his calculating wife, growing love for a new, modern woman, and changing political landscape.
Christopher cannot fathom divorcing Sylvia despite her infidelity: “Only a blackguard would submit his wife to that.” Believing only knaves or men of low moral character would divorce their wives, he’d much rather sacrifice his own happiness and potential future with Valentine out of propriety and respect to the vows he made. Of Tietjens’ sense of duty, actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays him, explains: “He’s a man with a huge heart and empathy for those near to him…whether it be a wet nurse's, his son who may or may not be his son, his wife, his love of this new woman…he's a very generous, big hearted sentimental man.”
Though the term now encompasses a variety of definitions, to be a Tory in Christopher’s Tietjens’ time meant that you supported the Crown and the established church. Tietjens’ Toryism extended to an unwavering sense of patriotism, even despite the country’s changing social and political landscape: “I love every field and hedgerow. The land is England and once it was the foundation of order – before money took over and handed the country over to the swindlers and schemers.”
Christopher understands those “swindlers and schemers” all too well – their plotting and fudging of facts for their own political aims is the reason he resigned from his statistician post. Christopher would rather risk life and limb at war than dignity at home. According to Stoppard, “I think Christopher’s Toryism is a little extreme, even by standards of Victorian England. But on the other hand, he’s someone who’s out of step with his own society because society has started to let go of a code of honor.”
But even for the loyal Tietjens, the First World War is enough to shake these foundations. According to director Susanna White, “It takes the events of the war to blow apart the world that he stands for; to liberate him and realize the old code he upheld is gone now.”