Queen Victoria's public legacy is often of the doting grandmother, or the stodgy old woman. Daisy Goodwin—author of Victoria and screenwriter for the PBS Series of the same name—talks to Unknown History's Giles Milton about the misconceptions surrounding Victoria's personality, her younger years, and her love affairs.
UH: Today, we’re excited to be here with Daisy Goodwin, author of Victoria, now available at all book retailers. Daisy is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels The American Heiress and The Fortune Hunter. She’s a Harkness scholar who attended Columbia University’s film school after earning a degree in History at Cambridge University. She was chair of the judging panel for the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction, and is the creator and screenwriter of the masterpiece presentation "Victoria" on PBS. She lives in London. Welcome, Daisy.
UH: Queen Victoria has written more than sixty-two million words in her diaries, which you have extensively read and sifted through for your research. What were a few of the most interesting stories you came across in the diaries?
DG: I came across Queen Victoria when I was a teenager myself. I was reading history at Cambridge, and one of the subjects I was studying was Queen Victoria and the media; part of the assignment was to read some of her diary. So I went to the library and got one of these enormous red leather-bound volumes of her diaries. She wrote a lot; if she’d been alive today, she would have been the queen of social media. I opened it up, and it fell open at a page in 1839, and my eyes flicked down the page, and I saw a phrase that caught me by surprise. It said, “I saw my dearest Albert today, and it was raining outside and he was wearing his uniform. He looked so splendid and he had these white cashmere breeches with nothing on underneath.” I used to think Victoria was a stodgy old woman in black and a bonnet. But then I saw this and just went "wow, that’s not an old lady in a bonnet. That’s a living, breathing, passionate teenager."
If Victoria has been alive today, she would have been the queen of social media.
It was one of those moments where you go beyond the historical figure to see the person behind the words. I thought. "Here is a girl who is only 19. She’s just fallen madly in love. She’s really interested in men and sex, and she’s got a very passionate nature." It gave me insight into this girl, which later made it easy for me to write a screenplay and a novel about her.
Her diaries reveal that she was a woman of strong emotion. She notices everything, she’s interested in everything. They're incredibly vivid, and are a fantastically good resource. I can’t think of any other monarch about whom we know so much. If you go back to the originals- or as close as you can get- you get a sense of not just the head of state, but the woman. If you want to know what it’s like to be the woman who was the head of the most powerful country in the world for 63 years, then you can go back to her diaries and get a very, very strong sense of what it was like.
UH: There is a big controversy surrounding whether or not Queen Victoria had a relationship with her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. Can you speak some more to the evidence that supports this association?
DG: So Victoria comes to the throne when she’s eighteen, and until she comes to meet Lord Melbourne, she’s only ever been alone in a room with a man once before, and that was an old Prime Minister. When Lord Melbourne turns up, he is a famous ladies' man. He’s had this very colorful past, he’s been with lots of women. His wife famously ran away with Lord Barron. He’s the picture of legend, a romantic figure.
Victoria's father had died when she was six months old, and the only man in her life was her mother’s advisor, Sir John Conroy, whom she detested. She rightly thought he was trying to wrestle power from her. Melbourne is charming, he’s attractive, and even though he’s much older than her, he’s the first person to take her seriously. She falls for him. You can see from the moment she meets him in her diary that he’s literally all she writes about for three years.
I think it’s unlikely that it was an affair in the carnal sense, because even though she was very passionate, I don’t think Melbourne would have ever crossed the line. There’s no doubt that he was also very attached to her—the way I see it is that Melbourne was Victoria’s first love, and Victoria was Melbourne’s last love. There was lots of evidence at the time; people who saw them together were convinced that there was a relationship.
UH: Your new novel is focused on young Queen Victoria. What led you to focus on her early life in this book?
DG: In my last book, The Fortune Hunter, I’d written about Victoria in her sixties. I’d started thinking about another novel, and as I was thinking about it, I thought of Victoria at the beginning of her reign. The thing that triggered it for me was a fight with my daughter, who is 16 and the same height as Victoria. She’s very small, she’s very intense, and she’s very passionate; she’s full of hormones, and she’s turbulent. We were having a huge round, and she rushed out and slammed the door, and I thought, “Well, how would it be if she woke up tomorrow and found herself the most powerful woman in the world?” And that sort of gave me the dramatic impetus, and I could see that it was a great moment to start a drama to start a novel.
Of course, the early years of her reign are fascinating. You’ve got a country that’s been ruled, for centuries, by old, fat, disreputable men, and suddenly you’ve got this beautiful young queen; she’s innocent, she’s eighteen, she’s tiny. There was an enormous kind of warmth towards her, but also a whole establishment hardening their ranks and thinking, “This is never going to work” because she was not a bloke. It’s a very exciting moment, and I felt that this was the place to start.
Listen to the rest of the interview with Daisy Goodwin on the Unknown History podcast.