Lucy Worsley describes herself “by day Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, and by night a writer of history books.” I first met her as the narrator of a BBC documentary about the wives of Henry VIII as she whispered commentary behind the scenes of the royal trysts. Dressed as a maid servant in the series, her short blonde bob and posh accent gave her an air of the friendly yet knowledgable expert in British royal history. With PBS Masterpiece Theater about to launch the third season of “Victoria,” her children’s book about an overlooked chapter in Queen Victoria’s young life is tantalizing.
As I read, I checked Worsley’s facts. She didn’t make it all up; her historical novel fictionalizes a relationship between young Victoria and John Conroy’s daughter that did exist, and marks the introduction of Victoria’s beloved spaniel Dash into court life.
Kensington Palace may hold the upscale apartments of Princes William and Harry today, but Victoria felt trapped inside its dreary walls when she was a young girl, waiting to be queen. John Conroy, the villain Irish comptroller and lover to her mother the Duchess of Kent, imposes rules restricting Victoria’s access and keeping her under constant guard, not only to keep her safe from her relatives who would kill her to get themselves closer to the throne but also to control her. To offer some respite from the hostile environment of his Kensington System, Conroy brings his young daughter and her dog Dash to live as companions and playmates. His daughter, Miss V, also named Victoria is also expected to spy on the young princess.
Historical references to Queen Victoria’s diaries have Miss V as a despised and suspicious tool of her father, but Worsley discounts those descriptions and has the two girls as friends growing up together. The famous dolls are featured as are Victoria’s temper tantrums and her resistance to handing over regency power to the ambitious Sir John. Handsome Prince Albert makes an appearance later in the book.
Worsely deftly educates the reader while offering some tantalizing possibilities about Victoria’s personality. Her surprise ending actually has some creditability, feeding on the nineteenth century rumor of Victoria’s illegitimacy noted in A.N. Wilson’s biography Victoria: A Life. It was still a surprise,and I loved it.
Never again will readers think of Queen Victoria as the overweight matron in black. Worsley reminds us – like everyone who grows old, she once had a life.