Friday, November 25, 2016

A royal coming of age: Daisy Goodwin's Victoria

Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria, which the author wrote alongside the screenplay for the upcoming Masterpiece TV series, follows the young queen from her ascension to Britain’s throne in 1837 through her marriage proposal two years later to her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The smooth writing and sympathetic portrayal of Victoria makes it easy to be drawn into her world.

The novel succeeds in humanizing a woman who gave her name to an era, and many details reflect her life (Goodwin used the queen’s diaries as inspiration). That said, its tendency to romanticize and to rework other events for dramatic effect may turn off some readers. For example: in history, Victoria’s mother woke her on the morning of her royal uncle’s death; Victoria didn’t intervene with the Chartists; and she didn't see Melbourne as a love interest.

The relationship between Victoria and her Prime Minister, William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, is central to the story and to her reign’s beginning. Victoria is bright and willing to learn, but her secluded childhood has left her unprepared for the requirements of her role. Forty years older than the 18-year-old queen, Melbourne acts as her mentor, friend, and frequent social companion. His constant presence in her life demonstrates her strong will, but her refusal to give up the man she’s developed a crush on (in real life, they had a platonic, father-daughter type of bond) leads to gossip and political turmoil.

The novel weaves in many political events occurring over the novel’s two-year span: the Hastings affair, the “bedchamber crisis,” and the Newport Rising. Although these scenes involve some tweaking of timelines and more, they illuminate Victoria’s difficult task: to come of age and gain sufficient wisdom to reign effectively with the whole world watching.

In addition to the portrait of Victoria herself, that of her mother, the Duchess of Kent, is particularly nuanced. Is the Duchess overprotective and controlling, or does she truly love her daughter? Is she unduly influenced by the ambitions of her companion, Sir John Conroy, or is she a lonely widow in need of affection? All of these are true.

As for Albert, the intended suitor Victoria resists for so long and finally comes to love – he only appears in person toward the end. Despite his lack of on-page time, they seem a good match. Handsome and principled yet overly serious, he’s hardly a classic hero, but she comes to appreciate his directness.

TV dramatizations and films about actual figures are known for playing fast and loose with history. Readers of historical fiction can tolerate this to some degree, and an author’s note often helps, yet – unsurprisingly given its connection to the TV series – none is included in Victoria. It’s enjoyable to read for its intimate depiction of its young heroine’s emotional and political growth, but anyone curious about the real woman should follow up with a biography about her.

Victoria was published by St. Martin's Press this week in the US and Canada ($26.99/C$37.99, hardcover, 404pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy.  In the UK, the publisher is Headline Review.

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