Daisy Goodwin: An Exclusive Interview on Queen Victoria Transcript
When did you first read about Victoria as a young woman?
I discovered Queen Victoria when I was a student at Cambridge. I was reading history, and I was studying Queen Victoria and the media. And one of the things I had to do was read her diaries. So I went to the university library and got down all of her diaries, and I was not really looking forward to it because I thought of Victoria as a kind of old lady in a bonnet, you know, sour-faced old lady in a bonnet, so I was thinking ‘uhh, okay, I guess I’ve got to do it’. And then I opened up the diaries and there was the entry for November the 3rd 1839 written by Victoria when she was about 19, so about the same age as me when I read it. And it’s just after she’s gone to visit Albert, and she says ‘oh I’ve just been for a ride with my dearest Albert, he got very wet in the rain, he was wearing his white cashmere bridges with nothing underneath.’ I just thought ‘whoa! this is really not what I was expecting!’ it’s a kind of teenage girl with a real spirit, and they’re the teenage diaries of a girl who is tempestuous, passionate, spirited and very interested in men. And so from then on I always had a kind of thing about Queen Victoria, I always felt she was rather misunderstood and rather misrepresented. And much later on when I was thinking about what I was going to write about next I remembered Queen Victoria. So I’m probably the only person I know who can say that what I learned at university has really helped me in later life.
How has Victoria influenced your life since then?
I guess Victoria has always been a bit of a touchstone for me because I would say, in many ways, she’s the first woman to have it all. Because she’s a wife, she has a very happy marriage with Albert, she’s got nine children, and she’s the most powerful woman in the world. So in my life I’ve been a working mother, I’ve been married, you know, all these things, so although Victoria has had a bit more help than I did, I always look at her and think ‘well, anything is possible’.
What particularly inspires you about her?
I suppose the thing I really like about Victoria is that she’s got a very, very strong sense of her own identity, right from the very beginning. One of the things that I really like about her is that at the age of four she tells her mother, her overbearing mother, that she’s not going to talk German to her, she’s going to talk English. And I think that’s quite funny. And then later when she comes to the throne, just before she comes to the throne – it’s the first scene of my book actually – she’s fifteen and she’s very ill. She’s got typhus and she’s lying in bed in a boarding house in Ramsgate where they’ve gone on holiday, and she’s really at her weakest, they were worried she was going to die. And Sir John Conroy, who is her mother’s sort of advisor, boyfriend, who knows what their relationship was, tries to get her to sign a document basically giving him power, appointing him her private secretary and basically giving him power over her. Which would continue when she became queen. And she refused this. And I think that shows incredible independence of spirit, to say no to a man who’s got power over you, when you’re only fifteen, I think it’s really tough. And so I’m really impressed by her independence of spirit because although she had this very sheltered and repressive upbringing, when she comes to the throne she’s not someone who has Stockholm syndrome, she’s not in love with her captors, she instantly, from the off she’s like ‘right I’m out of the trap so I’m going to do things my way’. And she even decides her own name, because as a child she was called Drina by her mum, short for Alexandrina which was her first name. And when she comes to the throne she goes ‘no, I’m not interested in that, I’m going to call myself Victoria’ which was her second name. And they were thinking ‘Victoria, that’s not a name’ but she made it a name, and not only did she make it a name, she made it the name that defines the age. So what’s not to like about that.
What do you personally feel was her greatest act as monarch?
I suppose one of the most attractive things about Victoria is although she became the Empress of India and she was Queen of Empire, I think one of the most interesting things about her is that she was absolutely colour-blind. And at a time when Britain was becoming… there were a lot of people talking about the white man’s burden and having colonial ideas. Victoria was actually very different. There was a wonderful story about her, she was given a slave girl, a Nigerian slave girl. And she immediately freed her, and brought her up and gave her a diary and set her up as an independent person and kept in touch with her all her life and was very fond of her. And then later on there was Duleep Singh who she was very fond of too. He’d been dispossessed by the British but she brought him out of that, the British court, and then later she had a long and very interesting relationship with Abdul Karim who was her Indian servant. The courtiers around her detested him and I think part of that, the reason they didn’t like him was purely racist. But she didn’t have any of that. I think that’s one of the most interesting things about Victoria, is that she was a very unconventional thinker for her time. And some of her views we would find difficult now, but she liked people regardless of whether they were white, black or whatever. She saw the person and not the colour of their skin.
The relationship between Victoria and Melbourne shines through both on page and screen – why do you think Victoria was so drawn to him?
Well I think when you read Victoria’s diaries you can see that before she meets Melbourne she’s quite lonely. And then suddenly she meets this man. She doesn’t have a father, the only man in her life at that time is Sir John Conroy who she loathed. And her is a charming – and he is famously charming – good-looking, cultivated, very easy to talk to. And this man comes into her life and, you know, no wonder she was completely taken up with him. And when you read her diaries you can see that she is besotted, and every page is ‘Lord M says this, Lord M says that, Lord M doesn’t like me to wear blue, Lord M doesn’t like earrings.’ If you read between the lines it’s like the biggest teenage crush of all time. You’ve got to remember that her diaries were censored after her death, and also she knew that they might be read by people and so she’s not going to write ‘I want to snog him’ but there’s no doubt, when you read them, what’s going on. And I think he liked her because he’d had this very unhappy life, his marriage had gone terribly wrong, his son had died, he’d been in court the year before for having an affair with a Mrs Norton, criminal conversation with Mrs Norton, and I don’t think he really enjoyed politics very much, he was bored of it. And suddenly this young woman comes along who needs him, and I think it brings him back to life actually. So it’s a very touching relationship.
People all over social media have been debating the two loves of Victoria’s life – deep down, are you #VicBourne or #VicBert?
I think the people who want Victoria to change history and go with Melbourne, that’s not what they really want because actually the whole point of their relationship is that it can never be. That’s why it’s such an intense thing because we know this, and even though we want it to happen, it wouldn’t work. So I think you have to love VicBourne, but you have to know that VicBert has to happen.