BookLit: “Victoria” – Tale of a Young Queen

victoria_novelVictoria is a novel by Daisy Goodwin, who also created and wrote the eight-part ITV/PBS drama of the same name currently airing in the US on Masterpiece.

Daisy Goodwin, author of the New York Times bestselling novels The Fortune Hunter and The American Heiress, is a Londoner who earned a degree in history at Cambridge, attended Columbia’s film school, and was Chair of the judging panel of the UK’s prestigious 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction (now known as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction). In Victoria’s Acknowledgements (British spelling), Goodwin says that she wrote the novel simultaneously with the screenplay.

Having just finished the book before the first episode of the TV drama aired, I found this not at all surprising—the book is quite cinematic, relying as it does on personality- and emotion-based dialogue and action, as well as detailed descriptions of settings and costumes. At first, because of the lack of depth in character development and the short narrative arc, I thought this was the “companion book” to the TV production—except that it lacks photos. (A companion book that does contain lavish photography was written by Helen Rappaport, with a Foreword by Daisy Goodwin. Ms. Goodwin also managed to work herself into the TV production as the improbably named Lady Cecilia Buggins, real-life wife of the Duke of Sussex, one of Victoria’s many uncles.)

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Queen Alexandrina Victoria
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Actress Jenna Coleman

Romance, Impetuousness, Melodrama—Victoria? Queen Victoria?

The luscious tidbits whet your appetite for the rest of the meal.

 

As a historian, Goodwin obviously did her homework. The book (and teledrama) is quite well researched, and I learned about personages, plots, and parliamentary matters I hadn’t known much about previously. Yet this is partly an imagined, romanticized story, using third-person-limited point of view to get inside the mind and heart of the young queen, as well as to suggest the inner life of Lord Melbourne, her first prime minister. While this makes for quick, delightful reading (and sumptuous TV viewing), history rendered as soap opera leaves one wondering just what really went on in the world of this iconic monarch and her ministers, minions, and mate, Prince Albert.

Not being a Victorian scholar, I feel the need to investigate some of the themes Goodwin explores in her historical fiction, such as the implied but unrealized romance between Victoria and “Lord M” (Melbourne). Did the Queen really track him down at his ancestral home to propose marriage? Are decisions about which party forms a government actually determined by who serves as the Queen’s ladies? Doubtful. On the other hand, although there may not have been an invasion of vermin, the palace definitely had rats—particularly the plotting, scheming Duke of Cumberland and Sir John Conroy, who all but tore the crown off of Victoria’s head. And the Queen did have something to do with the demise of poor maligned Flora Hastings, one of her mother’s ladies, who did die of cancer—although the royal examination ordered by Victoria did not occur during her coronation.

While this is historical fiction and not biography, I still find myself objecting to rearranging the past for dramatic effect. (Read more fact vs. fiction here and here.) Goodwin even describes the young Victoria in more physically appealing terms than her portraits suggest—although most of us would likely prefer to picture pretty Jenna Coleman as Victoria than the plainer Alexandrina playing herself. One evidently accurate fact is that the very name “Victoria” had been more a descriptive honorific, much like “Gloriana” for Queen Elizabeth I, than it was an actual woman’s appellation until the new young Queen declared it so. Thus, Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria has prompted me to seek out an actual biography, and this one looks promising: VICTORIA THE QUEEN: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird.

Admittedly, many of us non-academicians probably enjoy learning history more through personalized, dramatic story-telling than by reading presumably drier biographies. But although I sympathize with the humanization of historical figures and events as a palatable means of digesting the past, “reimaginings” such as Victoria leave me hungry for more substantial fare—somewhat like eating dessert before the main course. Compare this with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, for example—although Hilary Mantel also reimagined Thomas Cromwell’s life and times, I felt fully satisfied—as if I’d had a complete meal and dessert—after finishing, so deep and keen were the psychological and political insights that were carefully inlaid within the rich layers of historical research. The Booker Prize and National Book Award committees agreed. And did you see that British drama? Stunning.

Episode 1 of the dramatized Victoria ended as Melbourne agreed to remain prime minister after a brief resignation in order to prevent court schemers from promoting Victoria’s German mother and despised uncle to co-regents on the grounds that Victoria was psychologically unstable. Except she wasn’t. She was young. And despite her innocence caused by a sheltered life, she is depicted here as a sometimes impulsive, full-of-life, headstrong, clever, talented, and emotionally volatile and vulnerable young woman—somehow remaining regal through it all.

At this same dramatic point in the televised story, we are already halfway through the book, providing (unneeded) motivation to watch the remaining seven highly entertaining episodes that extend beyond the book pages, as well as a desire for the heft of a real novel. Some differences, however, distinguish the two media, such as the subplot surrounding Skerrett, Victoria’s dresser, and Francatelli, the palace chef. While this could have been worked into the book, the author chose not to digress very much from her portrayal of Victoria and her relationships, primarily with her men—Melbourne and later Albert just before their marriage.

Now that we’ve looked at the content, let’s talk briefly about the writing. I found it animated, sensuous, and literate, but done with a light touch. I did learn a new word or two: passementerie (elaborate trimmings or edgings on clothing and furniture). And I also encountered some comically delicious euphemisms: “criminal conversation” (adultery), “nunnery” (whorehouse), “retiring room” (let’s just say these places contained chamber pots).

And, as an editor, I need to say a few more words about those British spellings. Peculiarly, but not so uncommonly these days, American punctuation is mixed with British orthography. Originally published in Great Britain by Headline Book Publishing, the American version of the novel was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2016. Many British authors sequentially publish in this country, but the industry has yet to apply consistent style standards—some books retain British punctuation and spelling, some are converted to American, and others, like this one, are hybridized/hybridised (to what purpose, I don’t know).

My preference would be to leave British style firmly in place—after all, dialogue and diction are not translated into Americanese, so why should any of the rest be? I for one hear British-accented voices in my head as I read, although my mind has created some amalgam of English/Welsh/Irish/Scottish regional voices that I’ve homogenized for my own pleasure.

I have a few other small complaints about publishing errors, such as occasional omissions of a word or uncorrected punctuation, as well as a few misspellings that would be wrong on either side of the Atlantic (“bear garden” instead of “beer garden”). But these occur in every book, and I didn’t find too many occurrences.

Recommendation: Read (and Watch) for Pleasure, Expect to Do Further Reading

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Readers who like “history light” and don’t mind dramatic license in place of recorded fact, will find Victoria a quick-paced, highly enjoyable, absorbing read, especially if their taste runs to the machinery behind relationships, whatever the level of society. If Goodwin writes another novel extending Victoria’s story past her extreme youth, I know it will find its way into my hands. But it will be supplemented by additional reading.

And DO watch the PBS series—your fact-checking can wait until after you luxuriate in the gorgeous cinematography, sets, costumes, and characterizations. The acting is expectedly good, the storytelling enticing, the experience charming. View the trailer.

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