My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Upshot: I’m eager to see how Rufus Sewell brings Lord Melbourne to life (wink, wink, swoon).
Bookshelves: brit-lit, chick-lit, historical-fiction, merry-olde-england, i-am-an-anglophile, this-is-all-the-romance-i-can-take, victorian-england
I did not know until after I finished reading that this is a companion novel to an ITV/PBS series also written by Goodwin. I try not to read other people’s reviews until after I’ve read for myself and written most of my own review. Would that have affected whether I requested an ARC? (Which this was, incidentally, from St. Martin’s Press/Net Galley in exchange for my honest review.)
Accordingly, I was expecting more of the sweep of Queen Victoria’s reign, which on second thought would be impossible given the relative brevity of the book. This book (Series 1 of the TV series, it sounds like) begins shortly before young Victoria ascends the throne and ends with her engagement to Prince Albert. (That should not be a spoiler. If it was, I’m sorry, but — really.)
I was also expecting more policy, politics, and intrigue. That was limited pretty much to the machinations of the Duchess of Kent and Sir John Conroy, and pushing from various evil uncles to get her to marry one candidate or another in attempts to keep control of the monarchy within their respective noble houses. The big focus of the story is who, and even whether, Victoria will choose to marry. The treat is the love between Victoria and her entirely-unsuitable-for-marriage Prime Minister, and whether Victoria will choose a path similar to that of the Virgin Queen and her “companion,” the Earl of Leicester. This makes the book more romance than anything else. But, it is not rapey or gacky diabetes-inducing romance (except for the rather saccharine ending), which saved it from being thrown across the room.
The writing is fairly pedestrian. Especially toward the end, it reads like someone translating a script into a novel, which is probably exactly what it was. This made some sense out of the awkward juxtaposition of Victoria’s coronation and the forced medical examination of Flora Hastings, which had me going “Huh?” when I read it. Rather a lot of telling rather than showing, no doubt to explain what the actors would be conveying through performance. Very little description of the little things of day-to-day life, but decent exposition and character development, and it seems well-researched. I had not known there was ever any speculation as to Victoria’s paternity, and learned a bit more about hemophilia on my own little side research trip. The bit about the Penny Black was delightful. I like it when I learn something new. But throwing in the phrase “MacNaghten dispatch” with virtually no other reference or context was an obvious attempt to validate the story’s authenticity, as Britain’s action in Afghanistan during this period had no real presence in the book. I was annoyed at how many times I was reminded that any marriage proposal would have to be made by Victoria, as she was the sovereign and outranked Albert.
Final verdict: This story is clearly put together for cinematic rather than literary presentation, and for the romantic angle rather than the historical. I personally would have liked more of how Victoria learned to rule a country than how she decided who her main squeeze was going to be. Still, period love stories with English countryside, opulent palaces, flowing silk gowns, glittering jewels, and dashing courtiers are the perfect vehicles for lush visuals, and I usually like how PBS does that stuff. I will check it out, so perhaps the book’s mission may be considered accomplished. If I enjoy the film presentation I’ll probably follow the film series, but I doubt I’ll read any more of the books.
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