First Elizabeth, now Victoria: Why Queens are 'dramatic dynamite'

Mention the words "Queen Victoria" and an instant image of a dowdy widow comes to mind. But there's another image of a younger, feistier Victoria that will hit North American television screens Sunday night, continuing a dramatic fascination with women who wear the British crown.

And what about 'underestimated' monarchs Mary II and Anne — could other regal women be good fodder?

Jenna Coleman plays the young Queen Victoria in a seven-part television series exploring the early years of her reign. (ITV)

Mention the words "Queen Victoria" and an instant image comes to mind: a dowdy widow who has become famous for apparently saying "We are not amused," even though there's little proof she uttered those words.

But there's another image of a younger, feistier Victoria that will hit North American television screens Sunday night, continuing a dramatic fascination with women who wear the British crown.

Victoria, a seven-part series shown on PBS's Masterpiece, takes over the time-slot held for the last six years by Downton Abbey and promises some of the same melodrama of a period piece, perhaps with a more regal tone.

Queen Victoria, shown around 1897, became Queen in 1837. Though history has remembered her as rather humourless, some say the truth is that she enjoyed a cheeky joke every now and then. (Shutterstock/Everett Historical)

And it could rattle that long-standing image of Victoria, who died in 1901, as an old Queen, dour and cross and clad in black.

"It's clear that at the beginning of her reign she was a high-spirited teenager who loved dancing, theatre and the company of charming men," says series writer Daisy Goodwin.

"Far from being a prude, Victoria loved sex. She and [Prince] Albert had a passionate marriage which produced nine children."

The series dives into the early years of the reign that began in 1837, exploring how a young woman takes on the royal reins of power even though she was ill-prepared for the job.

"For a long time there was this focus on Queen Victoria's later years but recently we've seen a lot of interest in Victoria as a young Queen at 18 stepping into the political realm after a very circumscribed childhood," says Toronto-based royal historian Carolyn Harris.

As a teenager, Victoria had to sleep in the same bedroom as her very repressive mother, the Duchess of Kent. She couldn't walk down stairs without holding an adult's hand.

All that changed after the death of her uncle, King William IV. As monarch, Victoria was in charge and had to find her way in a world full of older, scheming men not necessarily enamoured of the idea of a young woman as Queen.

"There's a lot of fascination with women navigating the political realm during time periods when the political realm is quite male-dominated," says Harris.

'A difficult proposition'

For Victoria, it wasn't easy.

 "Victoria was in many ways a very difficult proposition as Queen," says U.K.-based royal biographer and novelist Sarah Gristwood.

As the new Queen, the young Victoria, played by Jenna Coleman, struggled to take charge amid plots to manipulate her. (ITV Plc)

"It's a triumph of this drama series perhaps to try and make  … her quirks, her determination to have her own way, seem laudable, feisty and spirited whereas in fact there was real concern from her ministers that she had mental trouble."

It's also, in Goodwin's mind, a good place to begin a TV series exploring a woman who has fascinated her since she was a student and started reading Victoria's diaries.

"I think women in power are always interesting, and a teenager who wakes up one morning and finds she is the most powerful woman in the world, well that's a great starting place for a drama," Goodwin says.

Mythic figure

Victoria's appearance on the small screen in North America comes a couple of months after the Netflix debut of The Crown, a 10-part series exploring the early years of the reign of the current Queen, Elizabeth.

In Gristwood's view, the interest in doing dramatic explorations of the lives of either Elizabeth or Victoria is something of a no-brainer.

"Where would you find better stories?" she asks, noting that a Queen is a "just one of those … complete mythic figures."

Victoria's mother, played by Catherine Flemming, left, was a repressive, controlling parent. (ITV Plc)

And considering the similarities between Victoria and Elizabeth, "when they came to throne, [they're] young, they're human, very vulnerable women, you've got pretty much dramatic dynamite, haven't you?"

Both Elizabeth and Victoria celebrated Diamond Jubilees, marking 60 years as monarch. The focus on Elizabeth reaching that milestone in 2012 prompted comparisons with Victoria, who had her jubilee in 1897.

"I think that inevitably the kind of focus on [Elizabeth] and on the consideration of her and her queenship does … lure us on to look at the others who've gone before," says Gristwood.

Other Queens?

But what about other Queens — could they also provide good dramatic fodder?

Elizabeth I has certainly had her share of attention. But Harris sees particular potential in two Queens who reigned in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, shown around 1860, reportedly had a very active sex life and were passionately in love. They had nine children together. (London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"What I would be interested in seeing is more dramatic portrayals of Mary II and her sister Queen Anne," she says.

"These are two Queens who have been underestimated in many ways."

Anne had 17 pregnancies but no surviving children. Harris, however, is also fascinated by the politics of the time and how "those women were quite closely involved in the events of the Glorious Revolution that led to the overthrow of their father James II."

Ratings hit

For now, though, the attention is focused on Victoria.

The series debuting on PBS Sunday was broadcast in the U.K. last year, where it was a Sunday night ratings hit, winning early renewal for a second season.

As with almost any period drama, there was grumbling about historical inaccuracies.

"Of course it took liberties," says Gristwood, noting for example that the actor — Rufus Sewell — portraying Victoria's first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, is far more youthful and charismatic than the real — and very fat — Melbourne ever was.

Lord Melbourne, played by Rufus Sewell, comes across as younger character in the television series than he was for the real Victoria in the 19th century. (ITV Plc)

"But I don't mind that in a sense. I think everyone makes their own deal with the changes, the liberties that they can accept and the ones they can't."

As much as the drama is set in the 19th century, Goodwin sees elements of Victoria's character making her interesting for a 21st-century audience.

"I think that some of the dilemmas she faces — how to combine her job with having a family, or being more powerful than her husband — are problems that many women have to negotiate," she says.

"Having it all has never been easy, especially if you wear a crown."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.