by Daisy Goodwin
Published November 2016
From Goodreads: “They think I am still a little girl who is not capable of being a Queen.”
Lord Melbourne turned to look at Victoria. “They are mistaken. I have not known you long, but I observe in you a natural dignity that cannot be learnt. To me, ma’am, you are every inch a Queen.”
In 1837, less than a month after her eighteenth birthday, Alexandrina Victoria – sheltered, small in stature, and female – became Queen of Great Britain and Ireland. Many thought it was preposterous: Alexandrina — Drina to her family — had always been tightly controlled by her mother and her household, and was surely too unprepossessing to hold the throne. Yet from the moment William IV died, the young Queen startled everyone: abandoning her hated first name in favor of Victoria; insisting, for the first time in her life, on sleeping in a room apart from her mother; resolute about meeting with her ministers alone.
One of those ministers, Lord Melbourne, became Victoria’s private secretary. Perhaps he might have become more than that, except everyone argued she was destined to marry her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. But Victoria had met Albert as a child and found him stiff and critical: surely the last man she would want for a husband….
Drawing on Victoria’s diaries as well as her own brilliant gifts for history and drama, Daisy Goodwin, author of the bestselling novels The American Heiress and The Fortune Hunter as well as creator and writer of the new PBS/Masterpiece drama Victoria, brings the young queen even more richly to life in this magnificent novel.
The ITV/PBS Masterpiece television show, Victoria, is one of my current favorites. It’s a period drama about the early reign of Queen Victoria, the woman who reigned over the British Empire for much of the nineteenth century. When I discovered that the show’s writer/producer, Daisy Goodwin had written a book of the same name, I knew I had to read it.
As fascinated as I am with the Victorian era, I know relatively little about Victoria herself, aside from the fact that she was very small (about 4’11”), that much of her ancestry was German rather than English, and that her status as heir to the throne was due to a few quirks of fate. I assume that Goodwin stuck at least relatively closely to the facts of Victoria’s life, though she undoubtedly changed a few things or hyped something up for dramatic effect. If so, I can’t tell what those things are.
The story opens the morning that Victoria receives the news that the old king has died, and she is now queen. At this point, Victoria is barely 18 years old. She has been sheltered her entire life and kept away from the rest of British society, ostensibly to keep her safe and healthy, but also to try keep her docile and submissive so her mother’s lover, Conroy, might obtain power through Victoria.
But Victoria proves that she is stronger and wiser than her mother or Conroy gives her credit for, starting from the moment she hears the news of her ascension. Conroy tries to assign her a royal name by which she will serve as queen. He says Elizabeth was a great queen, so she should call herself Elizabeth II. Victoria is not interested in this, however, and declares that she will take her second name, ‘Victoria’ as her regnal name. It is a strange, new name to English ears, but will help usher in a new era of English history.
Though she has all the power a young woman could ask for, Victoria is not free to do whatever she wishes. Nineteenth-century England was as image-obsessed as twenty-first century America is, and Victoria finds that she must tread cautiously in her every action and relationship, lest she bring a scandal upon herself that will cause her to lose her crown before it’s properly settled on her head.
I was thoroughly charmed by this book, even after I found out that it was written after the television series aired, and so was based on the show, rather than the other way around. This fact shows in the dialogue, which is often repeated word for word from show to book. In many cases, this repetition would be annoying, but because Goodwin’s television script is beautifully written, it’s not a problem. The prose is light on its feet, for the most part, though it slows down once in a while and becomes workmanlike. It usually disappears into the story and does its job admirably, without drawing attention to itself.
The major departure from the show is in the characters. Victoria the television show is like Downton Abbey, where the stories of the servants belowstairs are told along with that of the royal figures upstairs. These stories are left out of the book, and I’m fine with that. As interesting as the tension is between Miss Skerret and Mr Francatelli, I found that I did not miss their overt presence in the book. It would have taken away from Victoria’s story without adding to the overall novel. What a director can two with five seconds of visuals in a film or television show could take several pages for a writer to accomplish. It’s easy to latch onto tv characters in a few scenes and come to love them. It’s harder to do that in a book.
I don’t know how long Victoria the show will last. It is quite popular, so it stands to reason that, as long as its quality remains high, it could last for several years. Goodwin has a second book out about Queen Victoria now, Victoria and Albert, which I assume will go along with the ending of the first season and into the second season of the show.
Whether or not you watch Victoria, if you enjoy historical fiction or the Victorian era, Victoria the book will be an enjoyable look at this amazing period in history.