Unlike her own mother, Betty struggles with the role of traditional Victorian mother and wife. Though she honors Clive's position as head of the family, she yearns for an opportunity to experience adventure for herself. Her romantic interest in Harry Bagley is a function of her desire to be "dangerous," yet she castigates herself for wanting anything more than what Clive deems appropriate. Her views change by Act 2 when she leaves Clive. Independence is not without its hardships and frights, but Betty slowly learns to accept her newfound path and, in turn, herself.
Edward doesn't fit the society's mold of what a man should be. As a child in Act 1, he plays with dolls and has a sexual relationship with an adult man. In Act 2 he is still trying to understand who he "is," namely a gay man who thrives in the role of "housewife" and happens to sleep with two women. Yet Edward doesn't seem troubled by his inability to fit within the confines of societal expectations. His greatest battle is getting those who love him to accept him as he is.
In Act 1 Victoria is two years old and played by a dummy, but she is the center of attention as an adult in Act 2. Now a wife and mother in 1979 London, Victoria is torn between the conventionality of marriage and motherhood and her desire for professional success. She ultimately finds emotional support and sexual fulfillment in Lin and her own brother.
Clive holds three things dear in life: family, sex, and Great Britain. He has strict morals and codes of ethics for everyone but himself. Betty's flirtation with Harry is viewed as a disgrace; Harry's homosexuality is repulsive; Edward's wan masculinity is ridiculed; and the warring African tribes in his district are "savages." The only person above reproach is Clive himself, who doesn't think twice about starting a sexual relationship with Mrs. Saunders under his own roof. He leads not by example but rather by lecture and disdain.
Divorced from her abusive ex-husband, Lin does her best to raise her daughter, Cathy, in an environment free of gendered expectations. Though she prides herself on letting Cathy roughhouse and play war games, Lin acknowledges it would sometimes just be easier to follow the current standards of femininity. Fiercely independent, Lin makes it clear she wants to be with Victoria because she likes her, not because she needs another person in her life.
Harry Bagley is a self-proclaimed "black sheep" of the British Empire, a metaphor that extends to his position in Victorian society in general. Unlike Edward, Harry is incredibly ashamed of his homosexuality, and he hides it by leading expeditions into the farthest reaches of Africa where he can act on his attraction to men without consequence. He envies Clive for his natural heterosexuality and traditional Victorian family, both of which he doubts he will ever acquire for himself. Though he professes to "worship" Betty, his interest is more in the appearance of being straight than actually engaging in a heterosexual relationship—he denies Betty at every turn while sleeping with both Joshua and Edward. Gay relationships are fine with him as long as nobody finds out.
Martin is the type of man who claims to know more about women than women themselves. He acknowledges the women's movement and appears to sympathize with the plight of the modern woman who juggles motherhood and career, but his words of encouragement to his own wife are laden with accusations and threats. For all his talk, Martin thinks Victoria would be nothing without him, and he blames the lackluster parts of their relationship—particularly their sex life—squarely on her. It is only when Victoria leaves him for a woman (and for her own brother) that Martin begins to understand what it is like to lack power in a relationship.