When I was in eighth grade, I invited Dolly, a girl I knew through my local JCC, to my junior high school. I wanted to show her the building in which I took great pride. I had nothing in mind other than to show her my classrooms, but my visit after the school’s regular hours caught the attention of the school janitor who reported my unconventional visit to the principal. The next day I was summoned to his office and given a reprimand for escorting Dolly by myself after school. What I did was give the appearance of impropriety, and the incident gave me a visceral awareness of how appearances can often telegraph the wrong message about a person or event.
Mrs. Brown deals with the consequences of not considering how things look and, instead, just doing something because you want to do it. The film opens with information about Queen Victoria, who mourns her deceased husband, Prince Albert, long after he has died. Prince Albert spent lots of time with his servant John Brown, and the Queen’s advisors summon Brown to court to spend some time with the Queen and hopefully convince her to return to public life.
Things do not as planned, however, when Brown becomes an important man in the eyes of the Queen, who perceives him as a good friend and loyal subject who wants only to protect her. As a result, Brown foments tension at the court between himself and the royal family and the Queen’s long-time advisors. Even members of the public, the press, and politicians begin to resent Brown’s influence over the Queen. Soon rumors abound that Brown and the Queen are having an affair, all of which are unsubstantiated.
As the Queen’s popularity drops, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli encourages Brown to persuade the Queen to return to her public duties, arguing that this will please the people and be good for the monarchy in England. Brown reluctantly acquiesces to Disraeli’s request, but the Queen views his suggestion as a personal betrayal. As a result, their relationship begins to fracture, but their abiding friendship for each other weathers the storm.
Jewish tradition and Jewish law is very much concerned about the appearance of impropriety. The classic Biblical case is the woman suspected of adultery. If the husband warns his wife not to be alone with a certain man and she goes against his will, there is a suspicion that during the time that they are alone, they have been intimate with one another. This suspicion generates a ritual in which the woman has to drink a certain mixture of waters to determine her guilt. It is a trial by ordeal.
Another example of the Bible’s concern for impropriety is the discussion that Moses has with the tribes of Reuben and Gad who want to remain on the eastern side of the Jordan instead of entering the Promised Land. Moses permits them to do so as long as they join in war to conquer the Land of Israel. If they do that, then they will be “cleared before God and before Israel.” The Talmud derives from this a general principle that one has to consider not only how God, who knows all, sees an action, but how an act will be seen by people as well.
The story of Queen Victoria’s friendship with John Brown illustrates the consequences of impropriety, especially in the arena of public life. Being in the public eye creates enormous social pressure to be above suspicion of any kind. The implicit message of Mrs. Brown is to be sensitive to how one’s actions can convey mistaken impressions no matter what one’s station in life.