A couple of weeks ago I was in London: viewing medieval embroidery at the Victoria and Albert Museum, passing by the ornate Albert Memorial, taking a train to and from Victoria station. Yes, the queen who held the throne for most of the 19th century (and her consort) remains a presence in the island’s capital city. And while the term Victorian ultimately became a synonym for prudishness and conventionality, the young queen we encounter in this novel --- only 18 at her accession --- is a livelier proposition.
In a sense, there is little suspense in Daisy Goodwin’s new novel. How can there be, when we know that Victoria ultimately married her adored Albert, and ruled for 64 years (1837-1901)? But before Albert, as we discover in VICTORIA, there was Lord Melbourne, her first prime minister and arguably her first love.
Goodwin’s well-received previous two novels, THE AMERICAN HEIRESS and THE FORTUNE HUNTER, were also set in this period. More important for the purposes of this review, she has written the screenplay for an upcoming miniseries, also called “Victoria,” debuting on PBS in January 2017. Like most of us, Goodwin had assumed that the queen was boring and unamused almost from birth --- until, while studying history at Cambridge, she went to the library to consult Victoria’s copious diaries. What she found was a fresh, honest voice that made her laugh out loud. “Queen Victoria, I decided then, was not the boot faced old bag with a bonnet I had imagined, but a woman after my own heart.”
"...an absolute dream of a read --- charming, shrewd and well paced... The novel is strongest when the queen’s nascent feminism is allowed to emerge."
The book begins in 1837. Victoria becomes queen when her uncle, William IV, dies. She is a sheltered child, never really groomed to rule despite her status as the likely heir. Until now she has slept in the same room as her German-born mother, the Duchess of Kent, at Kensington Palace. Sir John Conroy, the Duchess’s advisor and “special friend” --- definitely the villain of the piece --- intends to become the power behind the throne, making Victoria a mere puppet. Somehow she summons the nerve to resist him, and in this Lord Melbourne proves a powerful ally and devoted friend. But is Victoria too attached to him for her own good? Will her resistance to her cousin Albert prove insurmountable? And will her rebellion against her mother and Conroy leave her without the maternal affection for which she still hungers?
All these questions are answered as we follow, heart in mouth, Victoria’s complex journey from girl to woman, from private person to monarch. Along the way we get a short course in the politics of the time (the reform movement known as Chartism; the extremes of wealth and poverty that prevailed; foreign adventures that ultimately would make Victoria not only queen, but empress). We also get a look at the queen’s more frivolous side: her pleasure in an endless array of gowns and hairdos, each described in luscious detail. VICTORIA really is a Masterpiece production between covers, and although it is set in an earlier period, “Downton Abbey” fans should eat it up.
Although VICTORIA is an absolute dream of a read --- charming, shrewd and well paced --- it is, admittedly, rather predictable. Cast in the familiar mold of pleasant, not-very-weighty historical fiction, it is designed to appeal to those of us who love to escape into a different century. Victoria never really appears in a bad light; even when misguided, she is lovable. Lord M., as she calls her first prime minister, always behaves nobly, even when his sense of responsibility fights with the inclinations of his heart. (In this era of crude, no-holds-barred politics, it’s hard to imagine the importance of dignity, duty and decorum in Victoria’s day.)
The novel is strongest when the queen’s nascent feminism is allowed to emerge. Resisting the suitors forced upon her, Victoria wonders if she wouldn’t do better to remain single, imitating Elizabeth I, the so-called Virgin Queen. She even goes to a costume ball arrayed as the Tudor monarch. ”I think I have a lot to learn from Elizabeth,” she informs her matchmaking uncle, Leopold. “She did not allow herself to be controlled by anyone.” And in a meeting with the Duke of Wellington, she tells him that, as queen, she must be a warrior: “[Y]ou are not a young woman, Duke, and no one, I suspect, tells you what to do. But I have to prove my worth every single day....”
And she does prove herself, despite scandal, heartache, even rumors of mental incompetence. She left a profound stamp on English society, as did Elizabeth I --- and, I suppose, Elizabeth II, though the 21st-century monarchy is hardly the same institution. Americans who favor a woman in power have been sadly disappointed in recent weeks, yet I hope it’s still possible that my gender will be accepted on equal terms in the political arena.
I believe that Victoria, who had her own battles with misogyny, would approve.
Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on November 22, 2016