As if Netflix's recent series The Crown weren't enough, the entertainment industry now brings us another royal biography to enjoy, this time through PBS' Masterpiece Classic, the makers of Downton Abbey. The latest series here to sate your palate for period pieces is Victoria, starring Doctor Who's Jenna Coleman as Victoria and The Man in the High Castle's Rufus Sewell as the Prime Minister, which premiered this past weekend.
Queen Victoria ascended the throne at the young age of just 18. The show opens with Victoria finding out that upon William IV's midnight death, she is now the reigning monarch. Clad in a nightgown, having been woken to hear the news, a young, wide-eyed Victoria turns instantly to one of her bedroom's adornments—a cloth doll bearing a crown headdress. And thus, Victoria becomes a series of both of the nineteenth century and of today. For how many young women have seen an image of what they might become but wondered whether it would become reality?
Victoria went on to reign for sixty-three years, the period we know as the Victorian Era, of course. During this time the United Kingdom made great strides in industrial, cultural, and political expansion. Victoria was the longest-reigning monarch in Britain until the current Queen, Elizabeth II, surpassed her in 2015.
When it was announced that a new depiction of Queen Victoria was being filmed, I could not wait until the moment it was released. The film The Young Victoria, with Emily Blunt, is a favorite of mine. But I became a fan of Her Majesty long before I had seen any adaptation of her life on screen. I have been fascinated by the Victorian Era since childhood, when I read books such as Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I wanted to know the reasons behind the manners, the dress, the social norms, and the fascination that the Queen inspired.
As the premiere of Victoria showed, in her early years the would-be Queen was belittled by her household's comptroller, Lord Conroy, who sought to rob her of any sense of self-assurance. She also struggled with the manipulation of her mother, who would join Lord Conroy at pointing out Victoria's shortcomings—even literally (pun intended). At 4'11", Victoria was petite, yet not afraid to make a stand. After becoming queen, Victoria was expected to fail on account of her age, her appearance, and her gender, but, as the show depicts, she was determined to "prove [her] worth every single day."
Clearly there's something here we can learn from, even in our modern day.
We All Have Obstacles to Overcome—Even (and Especially) a Queen
Immediately, Victoria reveals the inherent conflicts of a young, female ruler—one who also led a very sheltered childhood. Many doubt her, even mock her. And a few people instantly try to control her every move. Victoria, having been made fun of by Lord Conroy for her height, was self-conscious of her stature. "You don't think I'm too short to be dignified?" she asked her political advisor. Once he reassures her, her appearance no longer becomes an issue for her.
Similarly, Victoria recognizes the importance of demonstrating her autonomy from the start. The moment she becomes queen, her first act is to free herself from the restrictions set upon her by her household and claim independence. She chooses the name Victoria over Conroy's objections. Later, she persisted in getting the government leaders she hoped for. Many times Victoria had to overcome, outwardly or otherwise, the prejudices held against her from elder men and women. But as of the end of the first two-hour episode, Victoria does not seem like a woman who will be easily defeated or will cow to her elders.
Rumors Are Best Left Alone
Gossip swirls in the palace just as one might expect from any good period drama. With such dictatorial societal norms, insecurities about place and status run rampant as Victoria settles into her new role. If you're fond of a classic Austen-esque society ball, complete with linguistically elevated insults, you won't be disappointed.
At one such ball, a false rumor that Lady Flora is pregnant out of wedlock is spread by Victoria's former governess, and the impressionable queen is quick to believe it. Victoria, herself, even perpetuated the rumor. She submitted Lady Flora to a humiliating physical examination to prove her virginity, which resulted in her being virgo intacta. As it turns out, the swelling of her abdomen was a tumor. Victoria recognized her error and awkwardly apologized to Lady Flora upon her death bed, a lesson in humility to be sure. Later on, it was Victoria who would become subject of gossip when it was rumored she was having a tryst with the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. Despite any rumors or slight loss in popularity, Melbourne teaches Victoria to keep her head high and move forward: "You must continue ... never let them know how hard [your duty] is to bear."
Believing in Yourself Is Half the Battle
Though politics was believed to be a man's sphere, Victoria is not intimidated by the Whigs and Torys (liberals and conservatives) she deals with on a daily basis. She knew all too well that they did not expect much of her: "No one has ever told you what to do, because you're a man," she said to one of them with poise. Not that she was particularly inclined to be told what to do—partly out of her own stubbornness, but also out of a strong sense of who she is. As a constitutional monarch, her political powers are limited, but she learns to use her skills to influence and inspire change around her. In fact, later in life, she stopped a war from happening after she wrote a compelling letter to one of the sovereigns involved in that conflict. As in The Crown, in Victoria we see how a woman's unique abilities bring something different and important to a male-dominated institution.
Despite fleeting moments of self-doubt and errors in judgment, the young queen shows a lot of spunk early on, letting others know what she wants. Though at times this comes off as stubbornness or even immaturity, Victoria eventually learns to take on her duties with poise to implement positive changes in her reign. She was the greatest celebrity of her day, but despite bad rumors or false publicity, she kept her head high and brought forth so much advancement industrially, culturally, and politically that today she is regarded worldwide with admiration. Victoria earned a place as one of history's most recognized females, which explains how her story continues to beg a closer look. Her trend-setting and influence is still pervasive to this day, and from our first look at Victoria on PBS, it looks like we're in for some lessons from her life that are just as enduring.
Photo Credit: PBS