On Sunday night, the first two episodes of Victoria, “Doll 123” and “Ladies in Waiting,” premiered on PBS, filling the time slot left over when Downton Abbey ended last year. And it makes sense – both are British period dramas centered around a young, beautiful brunette who has no problem telling off the men that surround her. Only here, the main character is based on the very real Queen Victoria and not the fictional Lady Mary Crawley.
There’s been renewed interest in the early days of Queen Victoria’s reign, which began in 1837, most notably 2009’s The Young Victoria starring Emily Blunt. These depictions seek to humanize a figure that has become best-known for being an overweight senior citizen shrouded in black, and whose reign has become synonymous with prudishness, longevity and the expansion of the British Empire in ways we now find politically and racially uncomfortable.
But, as these depictions want to remind us, before she was a grandmother and a widow, she was an 18-year-old girl who left an overly sheltered existence as a princess in Kensington Palace to become the British queen, expected to go head-to-head with prime ministers, run a royal household and embody the institution of the monarchy. She was also – though the show hasn’t gotten there yet – a young woman desperately in love with her husband, who had a complicated relationship with motherhood. She was also jealous, domineering, stubborn and passionate. A lot to unpack there, and it’s not difficult to see why it’s tempting to want to take another look at her through a 21st-century lens.
Here’s what the show did well:
- Coleman – and the screenwriters – did an excellent job of showing glimpses of the matriarch she would become. The steely looks, the sharp comments that stop her servants, ministers and relations in their tracks, the firm belief that she’s probably right. The last could be chalked up to being 18, but Victoria held on to that one until the age of 81.
- The allusions to Victoria’s father, Edward, Duke of Kent. It’s impossible, in my opinion, to have a discussion about Victoria’s personal life, or her relationship with men – from Lord Melbourne to Prince Albert to John Brown – without acknowledging the death of her father in 1820, when she was still an infant. Doing so would be like talking about Henry VIII’s six wives without bringing up Elizabeth of York’s death when he was 11. They personify “mommy” and “daddy” issues so completely as to lend credence to everything Freud put out there.
- The first two scandals of Victoria’s reign. The Flora Hastings Affair was a real, albeit weird, thing that happened in 1838/1839. Was Lady Flora examined by Dr. Clark during the coronation? No, but I can understand the poetic license – the juxtaposition of Victoria exalted, while her “victim” was humiliated, underlined by Lady Flora’s later scolding that the Queen’s subjects were not her dolls. Oh, and the dolls – that’s real, too. Victoria had a lot of dolls.
- The issue with the ladies-in-waiting when Sir Robert Peel was meant to form a government. There are some deviations and color added as to the reactions of everyone around her, particularly Melbourne, but Victoria did refuse to give up her Whig ladies and doing so did allow her to keep Melbourne for another few years.
- Washing Dash after the coronation. That happened.
- As for her relationship with Lord Melbourne…I’m putting this into the good and bad column. Quite a lot of it is over the top, which we’ll get to, but at its core there’s some truth. Victoria and Melbourne were devoted to one another, Victoria was beside herself over the possibility of losing him as a prime minister and he played a considerable role in teaching Victoria how to be queen. That affection, and dependence, are true, everything else aside. Their relationship also lent itself to gossip – there was contemporary speculation as to the nature of their relationship and how much time they spent together. During periods of early unpopularity she was jeered as Mrs. Melbourne in public.
- I’m going to treat references to Victoria’s childhood in Kensington Palace the same way. She was sheltered and over-protected by her mother, the Duchess of Kent. The Duchess had a close relationship with Sir John Conroy, whom Victoria detested and which also prompted gossip and speculation during Victoria’s reign and that of her late uncle, William IV. And Conroy is a pretty good villain, both in life and on the screen. He was ambitious and sought to control Victoria through her mother. He failed miserably and damaged Victoria’s relationship with the Duchess – the heart of that is captured on the show.
Here’s what didn’t work:
- The opening sequence. The monarchy is in “crisis” in 1837? That feels over the top, though I suppose it’s subjective. The crown passed fairly smoothly from William to Victoria, who was the acknowledged heir to the throne throughout her uncle’s reign. Yes, she was 18 and, yes, she was largely unknown due to having been kept away from the royal court in her youth, but it’s not like there was a potential Princes in the Tower situation on her hands or the looming threat of a military coup.
- The description of the show itself, which describes Victoria’s reign was “tumultuous.” All told, Victoria’s reign was actually pretty devoid of “scandal,” as we would use it today. She and her husband, Albert, led a fairly predictable domestic existence, though decades later her children would certainly put her through her paces. But all in all, as compared to the generations that came before and after her, I wouldn’t describe Victoria’s life as scandalous or tumultuous. Her reign, which oversaw a slow ceding of the power of the monarchy, *could* be described that way, but I think that’s more a matter of external factors and less as a force that emanated from the crown. That said, Victoria’s court before she married Albert, so between the years 1837 and 1840, offer a glimpse of how she might have behaved had she married another or not at all.
- Her relationship with Lord Melbourne. First of all, Melbourne was around 60 when these events were unfolding, while Victoria was a teenager. Daddy issues aside, I think Victoria saw him more as the father she desperately wanted, and less as a romantic interest. The sexual tension, Victoria getting drunk on champagne at a ball and throwing herself at him…not so much. But, that said, the two actors have chemistry, so sure, I’ll allow it.
- Her childhood at Kensington. I’m not sure what the show is trying to do with the Duchess of Kent at this time. Is she a villain? Is she a misunderstood, lonely widow? I’m guessing the latter. Also, for all of Victoria’s lamenting about feeling emotionally abandoned by her mother (which, like, fair), the show doesn’t actually portray some of the weirder dynamics at Kensington. Victoria wasn’t allowed to sleep in her own room; she had to hold someone’s hand walking up and down the stairs, even as a teenager. She was taken on progresses throughout the country so that the people could see their future queen, but kept away from the court of her uncle, lest it contaminate her. At one point, while severely ill, Conroy attempted to have her sign a document making him her private secretary. So much material to fully illustrate why Victoria hated him so much, and yet none of it is thoroughly used.
- The entire servants’ plot. Just, no. I get wanting to use Baroness Lehzen, but there are ways to deal with her reputation and position without creating this plot out of whole cloth.
- Timing. The two episodes present their events as though everything happened within a couple months. In reality this all took place over the span of two years, so by the end of Episode 2, Victoria shouldn’t be being referred to as an 18-year-old. She was 20 and had been on the throne for two years.
All things considered, I actually enjoyed this more than I thought I would. In terms of accuracy, I think it’s done a far better job than The Young Victoria, the dynamic with Melbourne not withstanding. Next up I assume we delve into Albert and I’m interested to see how the show handles their early relationship.