Series one of ITV’s Victoria introduced a new TV audience to the early years of the monarch’s reign, tracing her remarkable story from a teenage royal sleeping in the same bedroom as her mother to one of the most powerful women in the world. While much of the first series focused on the growing relationship between the queen and her beloved Albert, series two sees the diminutive monarch become a mother, having to balance a new maternal role with her position at the head of a vast empire. As a new series begins, History Extra spoke to series writer Daisy Goodwin about what the 1840s held in store for Victoria and Albert…
Q: This series takes us into a new decade, the 1840s. Where do we pick up the story in season two and what did these next few years hold for Victoria and Albert?
A: We pick up a few weeks after the birth of the Princess Royal, and Victoria is going through ‘confinement’. In those days, aristocratic women stayed in bed after the birth of their baby and had up to six weeks of bed rest. I discovered that, during this time, the queen was taken everywhere in a Bath chair [a wheeled carriage for one person].
I thought that Victoria might get a bit bored by all that; she’s only 21. I imagined that she would spring ‘back to life’, only to discover (as some people might when coming back from maternity leave) that life has gone on without her. I think all of that comes as a bit of a shock to her. Victoria has a lot of children in the 1840s. She’s pregnant pretty much all the time, so that’s a challenge for her and for Albert.
It’s also an incredibly important political period; it was called the ‘hungry forties’. We see the birth of the Chartist movement [which campaigned for the rights of working people]. It was a time of incredible political unrest, which was seen in the reform of the Corn Laws [regulations which governed the import and export of grain], which were as seismic then as Brexit is now. There’s a disastrous Irish famine after the potato crop failed in successive years. There’s also threat of a war with France.
As this is all going on, Victoria and Albert are trying to negotiate their lives as parents and as a couple, and they have a very volatile marriage. They’re devoted to each other, but there’s a power struggle, and I think it’s a power struggle that a lot of people will recognise. It’s a time of personal and political ferment.
Q: A key theme in the new series is how Victoria struggled with motherhood. Can you tell how this was viewed at the time and what’s your interpretation of this in 2017?
A: In 2017, I think we rather sentimentalise motherhood; we have far fewer children, so we want to capture every moment. We almost fetishise it. What’s interesting about Victoria is that she is a reluctant mother; she’s got no access to contraception so she has no choice. I think she’s not happy about the ‘invasion’ of her body by pregnancy. She called it the “shadow side of her marriage”.
She loves her children and she’s clearly very attached to them, but she doesn’t coo over babies. At one point, she says: “all babies look like frogs to me.” In many ways, she’s still a child who didn’t get enough love herself, and perhaps that affects the way she views her own children.
After the birth of her second child, ‘Bertie’ (the Prince of Wales who would become Edward VII), she almost certainly had what we would now call postnatal depression. This obviously wasn’t recognised at the time, as back then women were considered to be odd creatures prone to many ‘strange emotions’. It was very difficult for her to deal with the feelings she had after the birth of Bertie. She didn’t write in her diary for a while and I think that was very unlike her.
Having suffered from postnatal depression myself, I know that she would have been affected by something you can’t really deal with or understand. For Queen Victoria, this must have been very difficult indeed, to be a queen and also to be in the grip of this mental illness. She came through it and she had nine children, but it must have taken a terrific toll on her both physically and mentally. Yet she battled on, which I think is pretty impressive.
Q: How might we see Victoria’s relationship with Albert changing now that they’re parents? Has some of the romance that we saw in series one worn off?
A: There was a very strong bond between them. In this series, we see how their relationship evolved and matured, though it was still based on terrific attraction. However, underpinning it all was this slightly difficult question for them of who’s the more powerful figure in the relationship. He was the husband and the ‘master’, while she was the wife and the queen. As a 19th-century couple, it was very difficult for them to negotiate who’s really in charge. She tried very hard to make him think that he was the boss, though ultimately, she was the one with the money and the power.
We know that she very much enjoyed her sex life, though the fact that she enjoyed it so much meant that she was always pregnant!
Q: You’ve shared how you draw heavily on Victoria’s own diaries when shaping the series. Can you tell us a little bit about the diaries and the details you uncovered in them?
A: She was a prolific diarist: she wrote almost every day, writing 62 million words!
Most of the diaries we have today were censored by her daughter Beatrice for publication, but there’s one section that seems to have been passed by. In this section, Victoria writes very candidly about the trials and tribulations of being a mother, about how she loathes her own mother, and she’s very frank about her sex life with Albert. Not explicit things, but she writes about evenings being the ‘best night of her life’, or ‘last night was awful, no fun’. It’s pretty clear what’s going on; there’s a funny line I found where she describes how wonderful Albert looks in his “white, cashmere britches” with nothing on underneath! She’s very frank about her admiration for the male form, which I think is rather charming.
I think she always knew that these diaries would be seen. While she was writing for posterity, she also knew that her mother might read them, that her governess might read them – later she thought that Albert would be reading them, so they weren’t entirely frank. I think they were slightly disingenuous in parts; there were times when she knew that they were being read and there were other moments when she was writing for herself. She probably knew that at some point they would have been read by the nation. She was certainly the first monarch to publish a bestselling book based on her journals: Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands (1868).
Q: How do you go about balancing historical accuracy and making this series dramatically exciting and suitable for a TV audience?
A: It’s a drama, not a documentary, and I try and shape events around a dramatic structure. There are some characters I have created a dramatic story for, but Victoria and Albert’s stories are pretty close. I do take liberties here and there: for instance, she doesn’t have five children in four years on screen, as I felt that might get a little repetitive for viewers! However, we do see the impact of bearing all of these children.
In terms of shaping the story, I get to a point where I’m steeped in the history and I then I try to distil the most exciting, dramatic and truthful version that I can. Wherever possible, the drama is inspired by real events, whether they are assassination attempts, the repeal of the Corn Laws or the terrible potato famine. All the big building blocks of the series are true.
I’m not saying that you can watch Victoria and it’s your GCSE History Victorians module done, but you’d have a pretty good idea of what’s going on. I hope that I’ve inspired quite a lot of people to go off and find out more about the subjects. I’m passionate about people becoming interested in history and pleased that it’s been a by-product of this series.
Q: Why do you think that this story is still so fascinating for 2017 TV audiences?
A: I think people are still very interested in stories of queens; people like seeing what happens when a young woman is given power, as it’s so unusual.
I suppose that there is something about watching Britain at a time when it’s beginning a journey to becoming a great nation. It’s full of excitement and discovery.
We’re surrounded by monuments and reminders of the Victorian era today: the Victoria and Albert museum, our street layouts, statues, stations, railway networks, and sewers. A lot of our infrastructure is still Victorian. It’s a time that still fascinates people. There was great success and ingenuity, productivity and confidence; I suppose that helps make this era all the more intriguing.
Q: Victoria reigned until she was 81. Can we expect to see the series spanning that far?
A: People keep asking me that! It’s a great story, though it depends on whether we all have the energy to keep doing it – I’d be quite happy to go on, but who knows?
To read more History Extra articles about Queen Victoria, click here.