Daisy Goodwin, the author of the book Victoria, is also the creator and writer of the television series Victoria. From what I understand, this book covers most of the same material that is shown in the first season of the television show. I myself have not seen it (which in the U.S. is shown as part of Masterpiece on PBS), but I did very much enjoy the 2009 movie The Young Victoria, starring Emily Blunt. When I saw this ebook on sale I thought I would give it a try because I thought it would be fun to read about Victoria’s early reign. (I have also previously read The American Heiress by the same author, and while I didn’t love it, it was a serviceable read.)
Unfortunately, I found the writing clumsy and not particularly compelling. It feels as if events are being ticked off a list to be covered, but we don’t really feel the character’s motivations or understand why they behave as they do. Victoria had a very tough childhood living under the “Kensington System” designed by her mother and her comptroller Sir John Conroy, which basically kept her in isolation and under their thumbs until she becomes queen at 18. This is not covered very much in the book, and while we are told Victoria hates Conroy and wishes her mother did not depend upon him the way she does, for so much of the plot depending upon Victoria trying to separate herself from them after she becomes queen, the book seems to be missing the emotional support for Victoria’s motivations. As well, Conroy is a villain for most of the first part of the book, but then he quickly disappears. This may be true to what happened in real life, but it felt odd how his existence was so quickly and matter-of-factly written out of the book – it was very anti-climactic for such a buildup.
Victoria behaves poorly at times, seeming not to understand why she needs to behave in a certain way, yet at others she seems the opposite. Her behavior is inconsistent, and I felt that there was no true character development – she was just behaving a certain way so the author could have an event unfold the way she wanted. She did not feel real to me. This behavior was very repetitive and some of it could have been eliminated, I think. The middle section of the book drags because it is so repetitive.
Other characters also behave inconsistently during the course of the book. Lord Melbourne, Victoria’s first Prime Minister, seems particularly dense at times. He is 58 at the time of Victoria’s ascension, an experienced politician, and yet he behaves at times like an immature school boy. The author seems to imply that he felt a romantic attachment to Victoria, but I didn’t feel like she laid the groundwork to make such an assumption. It is just another element she needs to add to her plot, so a switch gets turned on and Melbourne starts saying and behaving in ways later in the book that do not seem true. She may be taking artistic license with this turn of events, but you actually have to lead the reader to that place, not just flip a switch and expect your reader to buy the change.
Albert does not show up until quite late in the book, so if you are looking for his romance with Victoria, this may not be the book for you. You also never quite understand why Victoria falls for him after spending such a long time not liking him very much and discouraging anyone trying to get them together. Why do her feelings towards him change? I really couldn’t tell you, other than that they need to so the plot can progress.
As a minor quibble, there are situations where I think the reading experience could have been enriched with explanation for a modern audience. Part of the fun of reading a historical novel is to learn things about living in a different time. At one point Victoria says the following to the Duke of Wellington: “Thank you for coming, Duke.” As a reader of many historical novels, I felt more familiar with someone addressing a duke as “your grace”, and I found this to be rather jarring. In researching proper address, I see that if you are social equals, then it is quite correct to address a duke as “Duke” the first time in conversation, whereas if you are a social inferior to the duke, that is when it is correct to refer to him as “your grace”. However, the Queen and the Duke are not social equals, so I am a bit confused if this is proper or not. This is, of course, a minor detail, but when I read this it took me right out of the book because it felt so wrong. Perhaps it is unfair of me to be such a nitpicker about this, but I think if I had been enjoying the book more, I probably would not have noticed. (By the way, if you want to spend many hours in an internet sinkhole, start searching for the proper forms of address for the British peerage.)
If you are not familiar with the story of Queen Victoria’s early reign, you may find this more enjoyable than I did. I must admit I am disappointed. After finishing the book, I rated it a C, while after writing this review, it feels like that might be too generous.
by Daisy Goodwin