Thoughts on the TV series:
My favorite thing about the show was, like the book, how it examined the idea of the limitations on a ruler in a constitutional monarchy far more than most other series about the topic do. It was fascinating to watch as Victoria slowly realized that being queen doesn’t really mean you get to be in control of everything.
The biggest distinction between the book and the series is undoubtedly the time frame it covers. The show skips the pivotal opening moment from when Victoria was an ailing teen and instead starts with the day her uncle dies. However, the show also carries on well past the ending point of the book.
As a result, the show doesn’t do quite as good of a job of conveying why Victoria is so hostile to her mother. Sometimes, her actions come off more as being petulant than being grounded in very valid resentment over the way she was treated as a child. But the trade-off is the ending works better.
The show also benefits from a cast of talented British actors, many of whom you’re probably familiar with from other shows. Queen Victoria is portrayed by Doctor Who alum Jenna Coleman and Lord Melbourne is depicted by Rufus Sewell. Viewers of shows like Rome, Outlander, and Call the Midwife will also recognize David Bamber and Nell Hudson, among others. I think, for the most part, the cast manages to take some of the moments that seemed lacking in complexity in the book and transform them into a moment of far more emotional impact.
Sewell was a particular standout in this regard as the charming but emotionally tormented Melbourne, whose wise counsel guided Victoria toward a better understanding of her place within the government but also created a furor over how much influence he truly wielded. [Embarrassing confession: I actually hadn’t connected that Melbourne was William Lamb, whose wife Caroline rather infamously ran away with bad boy poet Lord Byron. So, in the first couple of episodes, anytime people would whisper about the scandal of his wife leaving him for Byron in hushed tones, I just kept thinking, “Well, didn’t everyone’s wife run off with Lord Byron? Look at Caroline Lamb!” I felt really stupid when it finally dawned on me they were talking about Caroline Lamb. . . . ]
That being said, one storyline present in both the book and the TV show that irritated me was that Victoria harbored genuine romantic feelings for Melbourne and at one point expressed them to him. I’ve found interviews with Goodwin defending this storyline as probable, but I find it unlikely and most historians agree with me. My problem is less with the execution so much as the concept itself. The actors carry it off just fine–and in that sense, it bothered me less in the show–but it just seemed really out of character for Victoria and the time period.
One other aspect that was changed for the show, but I think worked better in the book, was the addition of servant intrigue. I think this may have been calculated for maximum “attract Downton Abbey viewers” impact, but I often was confused by how much time was spent on the servants downstairs, especially the background of one of Victoria’s dressers. She may–or may not!–have a scandalous past, and one of the chefs may or may not be interested in her. (Or blackmailing her or stalking her or just being really awkward at making small talk. It took me a really long time to figure out what the angle was, but I also just didn’t really care.) As with the other storyline, the problem wasn’t the actors–Nell Hudson and Ferdinand Kingsley were fine,–but the plot itself seemed like it wandered in from another show. And I say that as someone who liked the downstairs shenanigans in Downton Abbey far more than what was going on upstairs!
Overall, I enjoyed both Victoria the book and the show, though they both have their flaws. I don’t know that one really needs to read and watch both since they are fairly similar to each other in tone and content. If you’re interested, I’d say either read the book or watch the television show, whichever prospect you find most intriguing.
The verdict: a draw.
As always, follow this link to our online library catalog for more information on either the book or the television series.
What’s your favorite historical fiction about royalty? Did you watch Victoria? How do you feel about servant intrigue? Tell us in the comments!