Victoria by Daisy Goodwin



First, let me qualify: I am not a fan of historical novels based on real, high-profile figures. I haven’t had good luck with them. I chose to review this book based mostly on my great interest in the Victorian period, its literature and history. My curiosity got the better of me, my hopes raised due to the praise I’ve read about author Daisy Goodwin, and the fame she’s achieved.

It was worth a shot.

My problems with historical fiction are two-fold: first, the question of what’s historical fact and what’s been embellished to further the plot and create interest; second, the artificiality prevalent in the prose style, the inability of many writers in the genre to write in any way that doesn’t come off self-conscious, jerking me out of the story when dialogue attempts to convey historical fact in a way that’s gratingly unnatural.

It would be something like one character telling another: “As you realize, the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066…,” or “As queen of England, you know I must wear a specific crown at my coronation, and this is kept in the Tower of London. Which is in London, a bit further down the Thames. The Thames being a major route of commerce for the city.”

Of course the other character realizes this, unless he’s a complete dolt. And if he’s an idiot, how the hell did he attain a position reporting directly to the queen?

Sets my teeth on edge.

The onus is on the author to find a way to relay historical and biographical information to the reader without creating dialogue that’s stiff and obvious. It takes much more work, which is why lots of popular writers just don’t bother. The audience must not mind, popular as these books have proven. If it’s making money, it’s not worth a writer’s time sweating and toiling in order to write at a higher level, appealing to a more literary audience.

In short: it sells. Nothing more is expected of it, thus nothing more given.

Daisy Goodman’s Victoria does, unfortunately, fall prey to all the lazy  quirks inherent in historical fiction. There is a large amount of artificiality in the dialogue, as well as terribly irritating and overly-precious writing, especially when it comes to describing how Victoria interacts with her dog. She loved animals, yes. Her dog was important to her and brought her comfort in her otherwise cold and impersonal upbringing, of course. Yet, her behavior is child-like to a cringe-worthy degree, and her dog anthropomorphized as if this were a children’s novel. Her pet’s response to her is nothing short of Disneyfied, inappropriate in a work meant to be taken seriously as a novel written for adults.

Victoria was 18 years old when she ascended to the throne. At 18, young women were then, as now, adults. That she was sheltered is unsurprising, considering the precarious position of heirs apparent, yet her words and actions are those of a much younger girl. Is this truly how she acted? Maybe, but then let’s portray that without beating it to death. A bit of understatement goes a very long way, presenting her as someone immature but not someone you want to slap.

That being said, I presume Goodwin’s done her research, that the novel does inform the reader as far as important points in Victoria’s early life. For lovers of historical fiction, have at it. Enjoy. I’m sure this book will be successful and highly popular. For those with a more literary taste, take a pass.

Time after time, historical fiction leaves me cold. It’s past time I threw in the towel. I’d be much better off reading a straight biography. At least then I’d know what’s true, unless it’s hagiography, and then all bets are off. Still, I’d rather pick my way through that than struggle with books like Victoria.

Another genre struck off the list. Just as well, considering how much really good writing there is. I won’t feel the lack. In fact, I appreciate the time this frees up in my reading, and the guilt of disliking these books lifting off my shoulders.

No genre is for everyone. This one, most definitely, is not for me.

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