FICTION: Keeping Victoria’s secrets

Updated February 19, 2017

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Victoria By Daisy Goodwin St Martin’s Press, UK ISBN: 978-1250045461 404pp.

Young Queen Victoria is trying on the state crown for her coronation in two days. As she suspects, the diamond-encrusted crown’s diameter proves too generous, and it settles down over her forehead. She tries to adjust it by tilting or even perching it on the back of her head, but to no avail. The Keeper, who had never placed a crown on such a young head before, suggests she try another. A daintier diadem is produced. It fits her perfectly, until she realises this crown is meant for the Queen Consort. She immediately removes it. “I am not the Queen Consort, but a Queen Regnant,” she clarifies firmly.

“The state crown must be altered to fit my head,” says the 18-year old, thus completing the metaphor that came to characterise her reign.

Daisy Goodwin fictionalises the early years of young Alexandrina Victoria, effervescently presenting the titular character’s transition from protected child in her ivory tower (or rather, a dingy room in Kensington Palace) to queen of England. The facts of Victoria’s life have long fascinated historians, with much of her stories preserved in journals. Unfortunately, her daughter Beatrice had the originals burned, leaving only a sanitised version of the monarch’s life.

Reading Victoria seems like an attempt to make that picture even more sterile.

The fictionalised biography is Princess Diaries meets Downton Abbey, with Goodwin assuming that readers will naturally believe in Victoria’s strength, rather than building a case for it in the book. We know that she has royal blood, but for a child who is incapacitated by illness in the prologue, who has never walked down the stairs without the assistance of her governess, who has never been in a crowd, to somehow find the strength of mind and character to embark on a disruptive kind of rule is hard to believe. She has only ever had her governess, an inattentive mother, a doll, and a dog to keep her company. If, as a reader, I was supposed to be impressed by her immediate stubbornness and ability to see past sycophants and manipulators, I wasn’t.

Victoria’s life in this account reads like a fairy tale: the overprotected princess not allowed to see the world, a weak mother upon whom she cannot rely, and an evil stepfather determined to seize power. Her mother, the German duchess, is a sore point for the queen. She remains utterly besotted with the cunning Lord Conroy and episodes involving the two — neither of whom makes for a compelling adversary — grow tiresome quickly. The duchess will show up with Conroy skulking behind her in the shadows. The duchess will say something that will hurt Victoria, and Conroy will deliver the final blow. Victoria will exercise her queenly duties to dismiss them with a quintessentially British clapback. Conroy will sullenly retreat, and the duchess will exclaim how hurt she is to have raised such an ingrate.

The state portrait of Queen Victoria at her coronation.—Wikimedia Commons
The state portrait of Queen Victoria at her coronation.—Wikimedia Commons

The idea of a woman running a country is a phenomenon that still does not sit well with the world, as the recent American elections have rubbed in our faces. The idea of a teenager running a country ruffled even more feathers. And in many ways, just as Victoria subverted expectations, so does Goodwin when it comes to the question of her marriage. Victoria has to decide whether or not she is going to marry Albert, not the other way around — this queen is not one who needs rescuing, despite being told that she “needs a husband to check [her] behaviour.”

What bothered this reader, unfortunately, is how much Goodwin chooses to focus on Victoria’s infatuation with Lord Melbourne during her early transition to monarchy. The affairs of the state, the actual politics, and as Victoria herself muses in the book, “what does a queen do” are either mere mentions or an opportunity to discuss her budding fondness for the British prime minister. “Lord M,” as she refers to him affectionately, presents himself as the dashing older gentleman ready with a smile, armed with the ability to always say the right thing to Victoria. The spite and neglect she faces from her mother and Conroy is balanced out by Melbourne’s genuine concern. It’s a Freudian romance doomed to fail, and as Conroy surmises, “there could be no more unsuitable husband in Europe, a fact that was obvious to everybody except the Queen.”

The novel, divided into four parts, is charming, quick to read, and entirely forgettable. It may be prudent to mention that Victoria forms the basis of a new television series based on the queen’s early years. Perhaps this can explain why Goodwin chose to render a complex and fascinating monarch in such a simplified manner. But if the aim was to present a digestible and likeable Queen Victoria, then Goodwin most certainly did her a royal service.

The reviewer is a journalist

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 19th, 2017