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“A queen could not laugh at her coronation–she knew this–but somehow the idea of a laughing queen made her want to laugh even more.” – Victoria
What’s the first image that pops into your head when you hear the name Queen Victoria? A dowdy old monarch with a disapproving frown on her face? Who was this woman who held the reigns of power during one of the most interesting periods of British history?
Daisy Goodwin, the creator/writer behind the upcoming Masterpiece series, Victoria, was fascinated by the contrast between the monarch portrayed in the history books and the young woman revealed in the pages of Victoria’s diaries: vivacious, sensual, and abounding in feeling. This is the woman she brings to life in Victoria: A Novel of a Young Queen, a printed prelude to the Masterpiece show.
The novel begins in the months preceding Victoria’s ascent to the throne at the age of eighteen and ends after her proposal to Prince Albert at the age of twenty. The focus is not on their relationship (she proposed just five days after meeting him), but on Victoria’s relationship with Lord Melbourne, who served as her mentor and prime minister during the first few years of her reign.
The relationship is heavily fictionalized, intimating at a romance between the young queen and the PM forty years her senior (the age difference is somewhat reduced in the novel). The two were undoubtedly close in real life, but there is no evidence to suggest any romantic feelings on the part of either party.
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I’m not a stickler for accuracy in historical fiction and I actually think this imaginary romance serves an important purpose in the narrative: to illustrate the passion and yearning that is too often overlooked in historical accounts of the Victoria’s life. It would be impossible to fully explore that theme and the Victoria’s early growth as a monarch without taking some historical liberties.
Victoria is often credited (or discredited, if you’re of a feminist mind) with the phrase, “Lie back and think of England.” In fact, there is no evidence she ever uttered those words. She did, however, note in her diary “how handsome Albert looks in his white cashmere breeches with nothing on underneath.” Not the Victoria you thought you knew, eh?
My one complaint about the book has to do with the way it is written. The author often rapidly changes scenes without any page break or divider to prepare the reader for the sudden shift in perspective. In this way, it reads much like a television show. Unfortunately, that sort of scene transition doesn’t translate well to the page. At certain points it feels like the book was cobbled together as an afterthought to the script.
Despite the flawed writing, I enjoyed this glimpse into Victoria’s inner world. I always thought of her as a bit of a curmudgeon, but now I realize that she was quite a fiery spirit–in many ways a woman ahead of her time.
Victoria is the coming-of-age story of a girl growing up in the most unusual and restrictive of circumstances, a historical deconstruction of the stern-faced image of a queen that few seem to understand, and a love story. If any of these things appeal you to, you’ll definitely want to check out this book and tune into the series January 15th on PBS.
By kismet, I ended up reading Victoria and Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners, a delighful feminist exploration of Victorian womanhood, at the same time. I highly recommend reading them together for a duel fiction/nonfiction perspective on this fascinating era.
What’s your favorite book set in Victorian England?