At 19, Daisy Goodwin went to her university library to research her ‘Media and the Monarchy’ paper. What she found was a treasure trove of real-time commentary from the mind of, until recently, Britain’s longest serving monarch – certainly the most powerful in terms of empire. Goodwin found the diaries of Princess Alexandrina Victoria – Queen Victoria, who she became aged just 18.
Goodwin realised, we knew very little of Queen Victoria, in comparison to Elizabeth I (8 films, an opera, 5 TV miniseries, 3 documentaries); and Elizabeth II, via the media, one film, and numerous documentaries. Of Victoria, there have really only been 2 films – Mrs Brown (1997) starring Judy Dench as a depressed, mourning queen, alongside Billy Connolly who helped her to heal; and The Young Victoria (2009) starring Emily Blunt in her courtship and marriage to Rupert Friend’s Prince Albert.
We do know Victoria had a husband, Albert whom she loved dearly, mourned for 40 years and built a memorial and concert hall to honour his memory. We know she bore him 9 children. Together, they set many of the customs we still follow today, including the Christmas tree at Christmas. What we didn’t know was her vivacity, spirit and lust for life as a teenager; the nature of her relationship with Lord Melbourne – a British Whig statesman and Tory-rival, Home Secretary (1830–1834) and Prime Minister (1834 and 1835–1841); the intensity of the mentoring and stewardship he provided the young Queen as her first private secretary; how she fell in love; which scandals beset the monarchy at the dawn of her reign and beyond; and how she made her mark, maturing with that vein of steel, yet never losing her humour or conscience until her heart was broken.
Goodwin felt compelled to write the novel to re-introduce Britain to Queen Victoria. During that process, she thought it would make a great screenplay. She met with producer Damien Timmer of Mammoth Screen and then ITV got on board. Together, they created something rather special, as episode 1 – “Doll 123”, demonstrated. It starts with a strong sense of the claustrophobic and sheltered life the young princess had led – still sharing a bedroom with her mother the over-protective and over-bearing Duchess of Kent (Catherine H. Fleming), who insisted on speaking her native German; her every move dictated by the manipulative, ambitious advisor to the Duchess, Sir John Conroy (Paul Rhys), who often made fun of her 4′ 11″ height.
Into this, on a night in 1837, a messenger arrives with the news that the King is dead. Everyone understands what this means – particularly Alexandrina and Conroy. She sees it as freedom and a chance to do her duty as taught to her by her late father come at last. He sees it as the opportunity of a lifetime to seize power of the highest order through a teenage puppet Queen. The King’s brother and Parliament expect a regency, and the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne is the first to congratulate the new Queen. Their first meeting is not what he expects – she is young, independent, inflexible, warm, loyal, guileless… Urged to choose a name befitting a Queen, instead of the foreign-sounding Alexandrina, she chooses her middle name, Victoria – unfashionable and little known at the time.
Victoria is brilliantly cast. From Jenna Coleman (Dancing on The Edge, 2013, Dr Who, 2012-15, Me Before You, 2016) as Victoria, through Rufus Sewell (A Knight’s Tale, 2001) as Lord Melbourne to Tom Hughes (Trinity, 2009) as Prince Albert. For all the reasons I never really took to Coleman as the 13th Doctor Who Companion, I warmed to her here. Even when she makes mistakes – insults the aristocracy and brings scandal to Buckingham Palace; grows close to the much older Melbourne, bearing rumours about their relationship; and lives in daily contention with her overprotective mother, you never waver from your willing her to succeed. This is a career-making role for the 30 year old actress, she fully embraces the conundrum of youth as a strength and a weakness, of having optimism without fear, of having the absolute duty of the Queen of Great Britain and inheriting a monarchy in crisis.
Goodwin credits much of the dialogue and all of the best lines to the Queen’s diaries, and she insists that there has been very little dramatic license taken with historical facts. I am personally incredibly gratified to see Sewell in a role I doubt another actor could have inhabited in quite the same appealing and complex way. He is quite magnificent.
Yet, I found myself a little conflicted. Across its 8 parts, Victoria follows the early years of her life, including her meeting and courtship with Prince Albert, known as the greatest king Britain never had. It is entirely possible that, should it earn the kind of viewing figures commanded by Downton Abbey, it could have several more series commissioned. She was a long-lived Queen!
Still, the feeling I got from the first episode and the good-natured discussion of the press conference, was that this first series might tend to focus on the Queen’s most personal dramas. It would certainly satisfy Goodwin’s determination for Britain to get to know arguably its most transformative monarch. But, what of the Empire and subsequent Commonwealth? How are we, its Diaspora, to relate to this diminutive Queen under whose rule most of our ancestral countries were swept, only to be subsequently divvied up in a most careless and far-reaching way come the mid-1900s. The repercussions still being felt today!
Under Victoria, the empire increasingly absorbed Africa. She inherited a realm in which the Slave Trade Act of 1807 which outlawed the slave trade, not slavery, passed in 1808, and was 29 years old; and the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, was only 4. South Africa and Sierra Leone had been territories since 1808, Gold Coast (Ghana) since 1821. In December 1838, just a year after her ascension, the year of her Coronation, enslaved men, women, and children in the British empire finally became fully free after the 5 year period of enforced apprenticeship starting in 1833. 1838 was also the year that the Battle of Blood River occurred on the banks of the Ncome River between the Zulu Nation and Voortrekkers (Pioneers), which is today the KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. This was the first of numerous battles fought on African soil against ‘colonists’ and ‘settlers’.
Whilst the Victorian age was a period of industrial, cultural, political, scientific, and military change within the United Kingdom, it was also a time of the swiftest expansion of the empire, particularly in Africa, since it was rich in resources that were ‘not being used’. 13 more regions were added as part of the European Land Grab, known as the ‘Scramble for Africa‘, all over the continent from the mid 1800s until the end of the era in 1901. The 1884 Berlin Conference was the forum in which European countries with ‘interests’ in Africa simply divided it amongst themselves. Britain had already acquired Zanzibar (part of Tanzania) possibly in the 1850s, Bechuanaland (Botswana) in 1868 and South West Africa (Namibia) in 1878. After the Berlin Conference, more were added: British Somaliland (Somalia) 1884; Basutoland (Lesotho) 1884; Nigeria 1885; Kenya 1885; British East Africa (Kenya) 1888; Gambia 1888; Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) 1889; Tanganyika (Tanzania) 1890; Nyasaland (Malawi) 1893; Uganda 1894; and Sudan 1898. British Cameroon (Cameroon) was not acquired until 1914.
Once vaccines were engineered for the worst of the insect-borne diseases, such as malaria, colonies were increasingly established. It was actually disastrous for much of the rest of the world. Africa had produced the first humans, created art for millenia, developed universities as early as the 11th century and trade with Asia for centuries. But regular contact with Europeans beginning in the 15th century and, of course, the slave trade meant that ancient tribal traditions were lost or abandoned, particularly in the south and west. Treaties on slavery abolition were still being negotiated throughout Victoria’s reign by all of the European powers. New African states, many of which were created on a power base of guns were still abolishing slavery well into the 1900s, Mauritania being the last in 1981.
Then, of course, as a result of the slave trade, a Diaspora was created. There were Africans who lived in Britain – Victorian Africans like Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge, Sara Forbes Bonetta of Brighton, 1862; orphaned Ethiopian Prince Dejazmatch Alamayou Tewodros, adopted by Capt. Tristram Speedy who died in 1879. There were also Africans who toured Britain in 1891-93 and performed for Victoria at Osbourne House – the African Choir of South Africa.
But, somehow, I think the politics will all be condensed into the odd comment or question in Parliament, and concern military losses, since Victoria never set foot on African soil. I doubt that this is the production to incorporate strong Victorian African character images and finally admit that free Africans were part of the British population BEFORE the Windrush.
Still, Victoria is a wonderful, cinematic series for the small screen in the greatest tradition of British period dramas, and will have to be enjoyed as such.
It would be interesting to know just what Queen Victoria wrote about our ancestors in her journals….
Victoria airs Sundays 9pm on ITV 1 for 7 weeks, as part 2 airs tonight.
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