Projected to run for six seasons, Victoria spans the long life and career of the queen. For Goodwin, who wanted to try a “bigger, less solitary project” than novel-writing, it marks a foray into scriptwriting. But how do you begin the story of a woman who ruled for 64 years? Goodwin got her answer after having a fight with her teenage daughter, Lydia, about homework. Reflecting on how Victoria assumed world-historical power at roughly the same age, she wondered, “What would it be like if Lydia were the boss of me?” And so Victoria took root.
The first season, airing weekly through March 5, follows Victoria from the time she becomes Queen in 1837 through her courtship and marriage to Albert. It portrays Victoria as a bold, sparkling, and clever teenager possessed of an iron will. “The first thing she did was give herself a new name,” Goodwin tells me. The monarch’s real name was Alexandrina Victoria, but as Goodwin explains, “Nobody back then was called Victoria. It was ... like calling yourself Beyonce.”
Still, Victoria’s first season doesn’t seek to lionize its subject or sugarcoat her reign. “She makes tremendous mistakes,” Goodwin says, “because she doesn’t yet understand the world in which she is operating. She shows girls that you can make mistakes and move on.” For example, Victoria callously decides to have the unwed Flora Hastings, one of her ladies-in-waiting, medically examined when she suspects Hastings is pregnant. It turns out the devoutly religious woman had a tumor. She dies soon afterward. Humbled and ashamed, Victoria becomes a much less impulsive ruler after this event.
As the series evolves, Victoria will also need to take into account those aspects of Victoria’s reign that cannot be written off as youthful “mistakes.” The British government’s response to the Irish potato famine during the 1840s and early 1850s, for example, was horrendously inadequate. Victoria often expressed pity for the plight of the Irish, but she took no action to address it. And so one million people starved to death over the course of seven years, thrown into the ground without ceremonies or coffins. During the Indian Mutiny of 1859, Victoria offered her support to those military leaders who punished troops for their revengeful actions against the Indian rebels. But during her reign, countless women in India, Africa, and elsewhere were raped or killed or widowed in the endless series of “little wars” that expanded her empire. Future Victoria episodes remain to be seen, but one hopes Goodwin will also address these more complex, more systemic failures; her audience needs to know about them too.
For now, and in keeping with its youthful appeal, Victoria’s first season deploys conventions from romance, fairytale, and young-adult fiction but refashions them to offer a complex portrait of its female protagonist. The series makes Victoria the dominant character (she appears in every scene of all seven episodes). It romanticizes her relationship with Lord Melbourne, the older and wiser man, but underscores his shortcomings as well as hers. The show plays up Albert as Victoria’s Prince Charming but also portrays him as a buttoned-up nerd who’s far less appealing to watch. And as with all young-adult fiction, the series presents a protagonist who matures quickly and dramatically; by the end of the season, Victoria is far kinder and less impulsive than she was at the outset. Most notably, Victoria offers elemental truths about courage, love, justice, and kindness all through a female perspective.