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I’m sure by now, many of you, like me, are sick of all the politics, all the arguing and all social media. To say this year has been exhausting is an understatement! The stress of this political season has been rough on all of us and it may be time to indulge in a little escapism to feel better.
THE LURE OF HISTORICAL NOVELS
I have two ways that I love to escape: playing games on my phone and reading good fiction. And my favorite genre right now is historical fiction, particularly when it involves real world characters and their politics. In fact, I was ready a good two months ago to jump into a good story in a world that barely resembles our own.
I used to avoid historical novels, until about 15 years ago when I discovered a little book about a Scottish Highlander and a time traveling Brit. It was a fascinating entry into this genre. Historical novels show us how different people were in the past but teach us that at the core, we are all the same, no matter the century. We are all battling trials and setbacks and just trying to live a good, happy life. And as for historical politics? We have more in common than you think, believe it or not. A look back at history is excellent for perspective, like if you are progressive and realize that the character you love is actually politically conservative …and back in the day no less! It’s a great lesson about how we are all dealing with opinions and bias, no matter the issues.
What tweaks my fascination with books set in history is when the characters engage with real historical figures or, better yet, when the main characters are people who really lived and breathed. Do the character’s lives resemble our own in any way? Do their politics? For example, I read “Middlemarch” in 2008 and was absolutely shocked how closely the politics of 19th century rural England resembled what was going on in America at the time.
“Victoria: A Novel” by Daisy Goodwin goes a little further than just giving us a participant from the Victorian Age. She places us directly in the shoes of the famous teenaged monarch, and shows us that how politics and romance, then like today, play a role in shaping history.
Victoria: A NOVEL REVIEW
This fascinating look at the early days of the reign of England’s longest running queen shares a story that most never knew about Queen Victoria. We tend to think of her as the stuffy and stiff matriarch of the Victorian Era, and forget that once she was an 18-year old girl with an enormous responsibility that fell to her thanks to circumstances that could not have been predicted at her birth.
First, Goodwin gives us a glimpse of 16-year old Victoria, who now knows she’ll be queen soon, and the repressive household she lives in. This is a really important point. Her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and Sir John Conroy, in real life rumored to be her mother’s lover, created “the Kensington system,” a way to train Victoria by keeping her hidden away in Kensington Palace and not allowing her to do things like walk up and down the stairs without her hand being held. She was also not allowed guests, visitors, socialization, and forced to share a bedroom with her mother.
Can you imagine being couped up like that as a teenager? Conroy most likely inspired the Duchess to create this plan to gain power and influence, hoping that Victoria would be crowned before she reached adulthood.
After a glimpse of this restrictive system, Chapter One picks up in the middle of the night, when young Victoria learns that the king has just died. Grabbing a shawl and still in her nightgown, she receives the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chamberlain, who officially give her the news of her ascension to the crown.
She intentionally did not see them with her mother or Conroy. This shocking first act of rebellion leads to a major theme of the book, which tells how she came to make her way from an inexperienced girl to an influential queen. The Kensington System left Victoria without any practical training or discussion of real world politics and influence, as Conroy had planned so that she’d be totally reliable on him. He immediately expects her to name him her private secretary.
Victoria, however, is fearless and formidable from the outset, and while she knows she is naive and lacking the practical skill set for the job, she thwarts the influence of Conroy, her mother and their company. Taking to the throne will be challenging for Victoria, who makes a lot of “rookie” mistakes as she tries to find her footing with so little experience or instruction behind her. Fortunately, she will have help in the person of her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne.
And can I just say, swoon!
This character is definitely my favorite in the book. He’s at once charming and melancholy, his story is poignant and interesting, and his devotion to both the Queen and England itself provides a pivotal point throughout for all his actions. Even though he’s nearly 40 years her senior, his guidance and obvious respect for her make their alignment a perfect match…and nearly romantic.
Even with Melbourne at her side, Victoria creates her share of scandals that she could have avoided (if she’d listened to him), costing her popularity with the people early on. However, she rallies forward, battling the machinations of Conroy and those in her family who felt cheated out of the throne, as well as other enemies, and works to win back the hearts of the people after these two nasty scandals.
Finally, we all know that Victoria married Albert, but from the book, you can see that she doesn’t want to be married, an idea that is not the partially the fault of Melbourne. Because he is a party politician and the queen must be impartial, they cannot marry. He is also too old for her, but we don’t get that feeling in the book. What we do get a good feel for is how British politics work. That was neat, because it’s not something I’m much familiar with but you can see how our own founding fathers here in the U.S. set up a system that was similar and yet different from Britain’s.
The great thing about this book is that while it is fiction, a lot of what is written is verifiable (I found a few things that didn’t line up). You can Google Victoria, Albert, Melbourne and all the other characters to see what they look like and what happened to them in real life. There are both paintings and photos of Victoria and Albert, which is fantastic, because you can see how Goodwin’s descriptions fit the actual people.
I really loved “Victoria.” It was wonderful get an understanding of this strong-willed woman, who overcame the odds of having other control her reign as a young queen and beat her own path. My only regret? I didn’t want it to end!