A young Queen Victoria – four early years in the life of the second longest serving monarch in British history (1835 – 1839, Kensington and Buckingham Palace): It’s a thought-provoking political time to be reading Victoria, British bestselling author Daisy Goodwin’s third historical novel set during the Victorian era.
I say this because Alexandrina Victoria’s ascension to the throne at the tender age of 18, after her uncle King William IV died, provoked tremendous anxiety and skepticism of her ability to govern during “uncertain times,” reminiscent of the fears and distrust about President-elect Donald Trump’s capacity to lead. Similarly, early on in Queen Victoria’s reign, “the first mass movement driven by the working classes” (known as the Chartist Movement) sprang up, resonant of the fervent concerns of America’s working class that fueled Trump’s victory.
While this is not a political blog, Victoria is a political book that sends a timely message about duty to country above everything else, seen most impressively through the heart-tugging, dazzling character of Lord Melbourne. He was her first Prime Minister. He also became the young queen’s Private Secretary, her most trusted and influential advisor and defender. Theirs was a deepening relationship that, for me, was the delicious aspect of the novel.
Melbourne, about fifty, initially served as a father figure (Victoria had lost hers). Then he became her dearest companion, most comfortably as her riding partner. From there, their relationship evolved to something more alluring, an emotional closeness that disturbed nearly everyone, spurning rumors and schemes to find her a suitable husband. But it’s Melbourne, with his “arresting green eyes” – a “stealer of hearts” – who steals ours.
A man who didn’t have “the happiness he deserves,” so we can’t help but like and appreciate him, who put country first no matter the personal sacrifice, qualities of character I feel we saw very little of during the 2016 political campaign. “I don’t believe in much,” he confessed. “But there is one thing I do believe in, and that is the British Constitution, in all its tattered glory.” Melbourne’s significance to the fledgling, untested queen – his encouragement, candor, counsel, integrity, affection, and charm – are standouts.
Queen Victoria reigned for 63 years. So I also found it interesting Goodwin chose to focus only on Victoria from ages 16 through 20: two years before she was bequeathed the Crown to the first two years of her dynasty. The novel shows us why.
These were transformative years, giving us context into understanding Victoria’s temperament and the challenges facing her. She was small-framed and short at 4 ft. 11 inches. The crown, throne, silverware all too big. More significantly, it was “hard to be regal when everyone could see the top of your head,” she says, but Lord Melbourne tells her she’s “every inch a queen.” He’s wonderfully steadfast in these lovely proclamations about her “natural dignity.” (“There was something regal about the resolute tilt of her head and the steady pace at which she walked.”)
Those early years enlighten us to the origins of Victoria’s feisty, independent spirit, which propelled her resolve through a rocky period of inexperience, unsureness, scandals, and crises. Her determination is seen, for instance, in her tough treatment of her controlling mother and of her mother’s odious, jockeying-for-power confidante, Sir John Conway.
Those two princess years, depicted in a Prologue, reveal a very lonely girl, overly protected, isolated, and friendless, so much so her upbringing is termed the “Kensington System.” Resentment towards her mother, Duchess of Kent, formerly a German princess, and her deceitful Comptroller and advisor, Conway, come to fruition the moment Victoria becomes “Her Majesty the Queen.” She’s overcome by the “thrill in being able to do what she pleases,” which she does when it comes to both of them. Bright spots in Drina’s (a pet name) childhood were her devoted governess, Baroness Lehzen, and attachment to her spaniel, Dash. Both play meaningful roles when Victoria is anointed Queen of Great Britain and Ireland. Those first two monarch years encompass around 400 pages, flowing in short chapters divided into Books 1 through 4.
Yet, googling to get a sense of the breadth and happenings during the span of Victoria’s lengthy sovereignty, I found other curious historical facts that could have been featured in a novel on the monarch, such as six attempted assassinations and mothering nine children who married other European royals, producing 37 great-grandchildren and the nickname “grandmother of Europe.” The source and inspiration for the novel were Victoria’s diaries: 62 million words! Obviously, an extraordinary amount of material. Since Victoria was a pleasure to read, seems the novelist made a smart decision.
It’s also a perfect time to read Victoria, before PBS Masterpiece Theater airs Victoria, an eight-part miniseries, in January 2017 in the same Sunday night timeslot as Downton Abbey. Goodwin also wrote the screenplay. Her interests and talent for creating rich-in-historical details fiction and film surely stem, in part, from her study of history at Cambridge University and film production at Columbia University as a Harkness Fellow.
The novel offers insight into how British government and royalty works – befuddling rules of succession, the “delicate relationship between Monarch and Parliament,” protocol, ceremonial duties, charity obligations, and the like.
At times, I longed for a royalty/family tree as there’s a multitude of royal and non-hereditary characters to keep track of, some good but many awfully ambitious and conspiring with their own political agendas, which seems ordained by laws and a class system bound by rules and expectations. You will, though, keep the most important, influential ones clear in your mind as the author brings them to life.
Still, I thought readers might welcome a few images, below, of some key characters who were historical figures in this expansive period in British life that came to be known as the Victorian era. This allows me to not give much away, yet perhaps gives you a glimpse into the people and setting the author immerses us in. In short, this is not a light summer read. Rather, it’s a meticulously rendered, historically intriguing one.
Victoria broke the longest period I’ve gone without blogging. Characterized by too many dark, depressing, angry books, plots and prose I couldn’t praise as enchanted. Some were page-turners, others I couldn’t finish. Is this also a reflection of the times?
Another reason to read this novel now. Yes, there was unrest, cutthroat machinations, and wrongdoings. But there was also grace under enormous pressure and odds, courage, benevolence, and a refreshing allegiance to country told keenly and in uplifting prose. A gift for all of us this holiday season. Lorraine