Queen Victoria as a black-clad sourpuss? Not on your life. Goodwin’s new novel and hit PBS show (Sundays, check local listings) serve up the petite ruler in a most unexpected light: as a fun-loving, bubbly-swilling teen.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you first get interested in Queen Victoria?
DAISY GOODWIN: Growing up in England, I wasn’t all that keen on Victoria—she represented everything that was stern, sulky, disapproving. But then, when I was a 19-year-old history student at Cambridge, I decided to take a course on her. One of the assignments was to read her diaries. I was sitting in the university library, which is this hallowed space, and I opened one of the volumes to Nov. 3, 1839. Victoria was 19, like me, and she’d just gotten engaged to Prince Albert. They’d been on a [horseback] ride and gotten soaked in the rain, and she wrote, “My dearest Albert, he was wearing white cashmere britches and nothing on underneath!” When I read that, I whooped out loud. I thought, “She wasn’t the grumpy, boot-faced old bag we all imagine; she was a feisty, spirited teenage girl who liked dancing, parties, and men—just like me.”
That taste of her early life seems to have really struck a chord.
Yes. Fast-forward a few decades, and I’d made Victoria a character in my novel The Fortune Hunter. I found her so easy to write about that I thought, “I’ll do an entire novel just about her.” I started it and realized that it could be a screenplay. Well, be careful what you wish for, because I went out to pitch the show; everyone said, “Yes, please!”
I’ve been reading Victoria‘s diaries online, and it seems like you drew very heavily from them. I thought, for example, that you’d made up the scene where Victoria comes home after her coronation and decides to give her beloved little dog Dash a bath.
That really happened! It’s in the diary. In fact, people have said there are things on the show that couldn’t be real. But my scripts—and my novel—are based on deep knowledge of the real woman. I read her diaries looking not just for facts but for mood, for intention, for nuance. I was also inspired by my own daughter, who’s 15 and very strong-willed. I remember having a row with her and thinking, “What would happen if she were the most powerful woman in the world? What would that be like for me?”
Victoria was so young when she was crowned—only 18.
She was. And everyone wanted a piece of her—everyone. As a child she’d been kept almost under house arrest by her mother and John Conroy, her mother’s adviser/lover/evil genius. She had to sleep on a cot next to her mother’s bed; she couldn’t play with other children. She really wasn’t allowed to have any kind of independent life. A lesser woman might have been broken by that, but Victoria, clearly, just bided her time. The moment she became queen, she said, “All right, now we’re going to do things my way.”
So she asserted herself from the very beginning?
She did. And that’s really quite remarkable. You have to remember what a patriarchal society it was—and she just was not having any of it. All these men who ran the country were very pleased to have a young queen because they’d just had a string of dissolute old kings who’d had mistresses, been corrupt, and generally brought the throne into disrepute. They saw Victoria and they thought, “We’ll be able to mold her, manipulate her into what we want her to be.” But Victoria refused to be molded or manipulated by anyone. She chose her own destiny.