If you haven’t caught on to the inspiring tale of little Vicky who became the reigning monarch of England at the tender age of 18, then delve deep with us into the fascinating ebb and flow of her intriguing life story. Although Queen Victoria was born 200 years ago, her powerful legacy does indeed continue to enthral to this day. But what is it about Vicky that makes her such an inspiring and continuously relevant figure? Countless films and TV programmes have offered unique depictions of her life over the years, with the latest being ITV Choice’s Victoria. The eponymous series portrays the monarch’s coming-of-rule story as one embellished with fiction, yet inspired by true events. But this then begs the question, what is real and what is not?
Creator and writer Daisy Goodwin has faced a fair amount of scrutiny over the inaccuracies in the series. In an article for Radio Times, Daisy wrote, “My challenge in Victoria is always to keep the balance between drama and accuracy. My rule is that I can change the odd date, move people around here and there, so long as I am faithful to the emotional truth of the characters. As many viewers will know, the Queen’s beloved King Charles spaniel, Dash, died long before Lord Melbourne, but I chose to combine their ends in one programme because I felt that together they represented the end of Victoria’s girlhood.”
Poetic license is unquestionably also taken with Vicky’s romantic interest in Lord Melbourne, her first Prime Minister and adviser who she in the series affectionately calls “Lord M.” The two did form a close bond throughout their time together, but historians have found no evidence to suggest that Vicky actually proposed to the Prime Minister as her fictional double does in season one. Instead, the common belief among historians is that she looked up to him as a father figure. And, given that she did not have a father as a child, this sentiment appears more plausible than the slight crush depicted in the series.
Victoria was destined from birth to marry her German cousin Albert. But this was initially an arranged marriage, not a love match, and Victoria spent three years extremely reluctant to commit herself to it. Her uncle, King Leopold, did encourage the match, but it was Victoria who eventually made the decision to propose to Albert. This is a fact the series illustrates beautifully, while also subtly implying that little Vicky knew a romantic and public royal wedding would elevate her public image.
The series also offers a closer look at Prince Albert and Victoria’s many rows as a married couple, as well as Victoria’s bouts with postnatal depression. The royal couple had a total of nine children over a period of 17 years, despite the fact that Victoria detested being pregnant. Victorian women were expected to suffer in silence when giving birth, but Albert suspected his wife wouldn’t follow convention. He feared that in labour she would “make a great Rompos.”
In grappling with her decision to include Victoria and Albert’s temperamental relationship and growing brood, Daisy admits that her writing lifts a lot of information directly from Victoria’s preserved diaries.
“When I read Victoria’s writings about her darling angel Albert, I sometimes wonder if she’s protesting just a little too much, trying to console him for the fact that he will never be King,” says Daisy. “It’s what she doesn’t say that’s the stuff of drama. She never writes about their rows, which we know from the accounts of courtiers were plentiful – she once threw a glass of wine over him. Instead, there will be a particularly fulsome entry about dearest Albert’s wisdom and vision – it’s one way of making up after a row, after all. Another way, of course, was in the bedroom. Victoria and Albert had an extremely active sex life.”
The series doesn’t shy away from any of these facts, even the glass of wine thrown out of anger finds its place in one episode. Victoria’s battle with postnatal depression comes to the fore, too. “Obviously her low spirits didn’t have a name then,” explains Daisy, “but while doctors might not have recognised it as a condition, I felt that an older [character] like the Duchess of Buccleuch would be familiar with the feeling of hopelessness and inadequacy that can take new mothers by surprise.”
Victoria thought that a baby was “a very nasty object.” She was an early adopter of all the medical help she could get. In 1853, she had the physician John Snow administer a few drops of chloroform to ease her labour with her seventh child, Leopold. She described it as “delightful beyond measure.” Many women would come to thank her for demonstrating that pain relief could be safe. In this sense, she pioneered a different way of thinking not only about childbirth, but also about how childbirth can impact a woman’s mental health.
For Victoria, pregnancy and confinement after giving birth prevented her from fulfilling her duties as Queen. And as a woman, Victorian gender roles also meant that she had to hand much of her power to Albert – especially during each pregnancy. After his untimely death at the age of 42, the Queen slowly regained her confidence to rule alone. “While the Prince Consort lived, he thought for me,” she admitted. “Now, I have to think for myself.” While she may have believed that a queen must be inferior to a king, her own successful 64-year reign showed otherwise.
Like any 19th-century girl, Victoria was supposed to be quiet and demure, but she loved dancing, excitement and speed. She tore up the rulebook for women on the throne, and she had a strong instinct for populism. She knew just what to say, what to wear, or how to be photographed to please her subjects. And unlike other European nations in the 19th century, her subjects did not overthrow their monarchy.
A few of Victoria’s secrets…
- Following the birth of her nine children, Victoria suffered a stomach hernia, which made it painful for her to wear a corset. That partly explains why she looks rotund in photographs.
- Contrary to expectation, Victoria was usually ‘very much amused’ and loved fun, friends, music, theatre, dancing, opera and parties.
- Victoria once wrote that she had “the greatest horror of having children and would rather have none.” Albert was concerned, telling his wife in a letter, “The trouble lies in the mistaken notion the function of a mother is to be always correcting, scolding and ordering them about.”
- She had a rocky relationship with her eldest son Bertie. “Handsome I cannot think him,” she said. And his laziness was “enough to break one’s heart.”
- Unlike prudish Albert, Victoria enjoyed a drink. She had her claret “strengthened” with whisky and wasn’t averse to painkilling drugs either.
Compiled by Lucy Worsley with additional text by Marike Watson