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.