History & Film: Victoria

Jane Steen

It isn’t easy being queen. So say two new TV series: Victoria, which has already aired on ITV in the UK and appeared in America on PBS (under the Masterpiece umbrella) beginning in mid-January, and The Crown, a recent Netflix original series.

This article focuses on Victoria and its two companion books, The Victoria Letters by historian Helen Rappaport (HarperCollins UK; Victoria: The Heart and Mind of a Young Queen, HarperDesign US, 2017) and Victoria, a novel by Daisy Goodwin (Headline Review UK; St. Martin’s US, 2016), who wrote the screenplay for the series. Yet The Crown can’t be ignored in this context, since it portrays Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter, Elizabeth II, in the same settings a hundred years later, dealing with similar issues. Both were young queens whose early years were influenced by a tenacious older generation; both had to juggle their position as monarch with the demands of wifehood and motherhood in times when gender roles were more rigidly defined than they are now. For both of them, the route to the crown was by way of historical accident — the death of Princess Charlotte and her stillborn son in Victoria’s case, and the abdication of Edward VIII in Elizabeth’s. Potential heirs from early childhood, they were relentlessly groomed for the throne; Jenna Coleman (Victoria) and Claire Foy (Elizabeth II) have mastered the icy royal glare that only comes with training and the autocratic wielding of power that at times seems brutally dismissive of the feelings of those around them.

Most interestingly of all, the two series show these queens in the context of a nexus of family relationships, courtiers, and servants both civil and domestic. For the historical writer, these series brim with potential rich pickings as they hint at the fascinating stories of personages less well remembered by the reading public. They are also reminders that the reigns of these two young queens marked a time of transition into a more modern world, with the inevitable resulting tension with the old. Victoria is rich in references to the recent Hanoverian past and the problems created by a succession of unpopular monarchs, and its portrayal of Prince Albert’s enthusiasm for science and progress illustrates the movement toward what we now think of as the Victorian era.

When you’re depicting a real-life historical personage in any medium, you’re always going to run into the tension between history and story — the need to balance accessibility and entertainment value with the prevailing view of what actually happened. Note that I’m staying away from talking about reality or truth, since historians and biographers have to deal with issues of selection and arrangement of material — as do the personages themselves if they’re aware of their importance to history. TV drama, by its very nature, tends to favor story over history; the word “drama” is the clue here. Consequently, every history-based costume drama meets with criticism, ranging from comments on the appearance of the actors to outrage over the portrayal of events and relationships. As Helen Rappaport told me:

“TV and film companies have to be pragmatic. In order to sell a production and pull in the ratings they have to have bankable names, and in terms of Victoria, the most bankable actresses [who’ve] played the role recently — Emily Blunt and Jenna Coleman — are both far too pretty and too slim. Emily was too tall as well. But in both cases the actresses transcended the obvious physical differences by being so good in the role. Jenna, for me, is absolutely perfect casting because she has that small, vibrant personality and fiery feistiness that perfectly captures the impetuous young Victoria. When the acting is that good, and captures the spirit of the original person, one tends to let go of the need for physical similarity … What is so wonderful about ITV Victoria is how skilfully and convincingly so many of the wonderful cast get to the heart of their characters and convey such a vivid sense of them.”

Similarly, books written expressly to accompany a TV series have the added task — over and above reader expectations of what makes a good historical read — of keeping close to the branding decisions made for the series itself. The emphasis placed by the TV series’ first season on Victoria’s relationship with her first Prime Minister, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, has a clear influence on Goodwin’s novel. If anything, she goes farther than the series, developing what most people saw as a platonic friendship into a doomed love story. This, of course, has attracted criticism — and yet Rappaport’s nonfiction tie-in quotes liberally from Victoria’s letters and journals to show how very intense was the young Queen’s interest in every facet of Melbourne’s personality. As others have noted, an extensive author’s note would have been helpful to readers who wish to know where the source materials end and the fiction writer’s art takes over. The novel does achieve one of the main aims of tie-in fiction, which is to supply an engaging and entertaining reading experience for readers regardless of whether they’ve seen the series, thus hopefully turning casual viewers into long-term fans.

One aspect of Victoria’s first TV season is practically omitted from the novel — the influence of Downton Abbey in the show’s awareness that contemporary viewers and readers want to see behind the scenes. As Helen Rappaport says, “the real drudgery of those in service to the royals” is a valuable counterpoint to the “ballrooms and chandeliers and the toffs upstairs.” As with Downton Abbey, there’s a challenge in Victoria — condensing a huge household of domestics into a few story lines that are straightforward enough for TV viewers to follow. Daisy Goodwin meets this challenge cleverly, by incorporating the lives of a largely fictional small staff who follow the young queen from Kensington Palace to her new home. While the lives of the real upper echelons are played out against the backdrop of the English countryside, candlelit drawing rooms, and glittering ballrooms, the servants are seen congregating around a work table or — a technique also used frequently in The Crown — busying themselves in palatial corridors. In Helen Rappaport’s words:

“In terms of the scale of the court, what I think works really well is the way in which the Buckingham Palace corridor becomes the focus of a lot of coming and going, and in fact was the location for that beautiful candlelit proposal scene. The producers have made the palace seem much more intimate, and a lot less draughty, than it really was.”

Helen Rappaport’s The Victoria Letters does a skillful job of bridge-building between drama and history by furnishing the reader with nuggets of the historical record, including many portraits of the real people involved and excerpts from Victoria’s writings, interspersed with full-page stills from the series. The style of the book is lavish; in one sense the reader is invited into the fantasy world created by the TV series, but you could also say that a court is itself a fantasy world. This is a facet of Victoria’s life that the TV producers did not fail to point out — through, for example, Albert’s comments on the elaborate and obligatory Windsor uniform. The Victoria Letters turns fantasy back on itself by allowing the actors to speak to the readers and including a Behind The Scenes section illustrating the mechanics of filming the series. The result is, in 21st century terminology, very meta — an admission that we live in a culture that often wants to be entertained by history rather than learn from it.

And yet, taken as a whole, the TV series, Victoria the novel, and The Victoria Letters are a sincere attempt at bringing a fresh look to a historical period that — mostly due to TV — has itself become a fantasy in our minds. As Helen Rappaport says, the tendency is to emphasize the extremes of the era:

“Unfortunately TV and films particularly go either for the unrelentingly grim — all  those dark satanic mills of grinding  poverty, crime, prostitution, Jack the Ripper etc. — or the other end of the spectrum, which is the cozy nostalgic Dickensian Christmas bonhomie. The Victorian era generally is either the best of times or the worst of times in the popular perception, and I know that in the TV series, Daisy [Goodwin] wants to explore a lot of aspects of the reign that are usually overlooked.”

The Victoria showrunners have announced a second season, again with Daisy Goodwin as screenwriter and Helen Rappaport as historical consultant. There’s certainly plenty of scope for drama, with the Irish Potato Famine, European revolutions, and political unrest on the horizon, not to mention the fact that Victoria and Albert’s marriage had its tempestuous side. The one thing The Victoria Letters lacks is a bibliography, but sales of Victoria biographies may well soar as the public gets to grips with the fact that Victoria wasn’t always popular, either with those close to her or the general public. I’ll let Helen Rappaport have the last word on that:

“I think there has been far too much romanticization of Victoria, in particular in the context of her relationship with Albert (which I personally don’t believe lasted long in the saccharine twittering lovebirds mode. That soon evaporated with her PMT, all the pregnancies, and some serious post-partum depression). What I like about the series is that it boldly shows Victoria’s very real inexperience, her lack of self-restraint, her rush to judge people like Lady Flora Hastings with disastrous consequences, her wilful attempts at overstepping the mark as constitutional monarch in those first years. When I researched my book, Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy, about the dark and difficult ten years or more of Victoria’s retreat after Albert’s death, I was appalled by her selfishness, her relentless wallowing in misery, her cruelty, at times, to her children, her neglect of her public duties. I don’t think people realize how deeply unpopular she became during those years and the extent to which her monarchy was reaching crisis point by 1871. The real golden years of popularity did not come till the jubilees at the end of the century.”

About the contributor: JANE STEEN has authored the House of Closed Doors series, as well as the Victorian ghost stories The Bars of the Marshalsea and The Unforgotten.


Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 79, February 2017

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