When we think of Queen Victoria (May 24, 1819 – January 22, 1901), we think of the stern-looking older queen from those iconic photographs taken near the end of her life, but that collective vision we have is really by her own design. It is because of the way she innately understood how to use the then-new technology of photography to shape her image. But there was a whole other Queen Victoria. In fact, one could say she had some secrets. The seven-part Masterpiece series Victoria begins to reveal them on Sunday, January 15 at 9pm on PBS (Passport Members can binge-watch the whole series beginning January 15 at 9pm!).
Book Report: For starters, you’re going to want to read Daisy Goodwin’s book Victoria: A Novel of a Young Queen (the queen began her rule at the age of 18 in 1837). Whether you pick it up before you watch the series or after, you’ll find it to be a fun, fun read! I was so engrossed that I wanted to call in sick to work one day so I could finish reading — something, I realized, that Daisy Goodwin’s young Victoria might consider doing as well. But then she’d think of her responsibilities and decide against it, and so did I.
You probably already know so much about Queen Victoria that it isn’t really a spoiler to read the book before you watch the series. Victoria: A Novel of a Young Queen is available through the PBS store.
Did she or didn’t she? One of the things impresario P.T. Barnum is best known for is the quote, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but there’s no evidence he ever actually said it. Likewise with Queen Victoria,”We are not amused” is a quote widely attributed to her — to such a degree it’s become a punchline — but there is no evidence that she ever actually said it. One supposes one could call that fake news, Victoria-style!
Bump it with a Trumpet: I’ve already screened the first episode of Victoria and it is FANTASTIC! If I have one criticism, it is that Victoria and her husband Albert have been prettified for television. (That was the case with the motion picture about her that came out a few years ago as well.) But it is a trivial criticism, because Jenna Coleman turns out to be terrific in the part. Here Coleman shares a few thoughts with PBS about taking on the role. As a side note though, actress Natalie Cassidy (who plays Sonia on EastEnders) is pretty much the spitting image of Queen Victoria, (something that was first brought to my attention when her co-star June Brown mentioned it, saying she hoped Natalie would get to play Victoria someday). Radio Times magazine (the BBC’s answer to TV Guide) had a little fun with that, having Natalie pose as Victoria herself (image at left).
Let them eat cake! A miniseries as glorious as Victoria requires the appropriate viewing snack (popcorn just won’t do). The Victoria Sponge Cake (sometimes referred to as the Victoria Sandwich) was named for Her Madge, who liked a bit of cake with her tea, and it’s a classic British cake. It is, essentially, a two-layer round vanilla cake with jam and sometimes whipped or pastry cream in the middle, and powdered sugar on top. Quite simple, but also (in the right hands) quite magical. If you’ve read my blog long enough, you know that I have a bit of an obsession with the Victoria Sponge. Because of all the times I’ve heard it mentioned on British TV shows over the years, to me it became an exotic delicacy that I had to hunt down on my first visit to London — and luckily I found a gluten free version at Selfridge’s food court. Victory! Thank you, Mr. Selfridge.
But you don’t have to wait till you visit London to have tea with Victoria. Thanks to the popularity of The Great British Baking Show, the Gray Lady recently published both an homage to the show and a recipe for Victoria Sponge, so you can bake your own. And as an added bonus for novice bakers (like myself), there’s a very helpful little video there with tips to help you get it just right.
Jam Up and Jelly Tight: Of course, you’ll need that jam to layer your Victoria Sponge, so why not use jam and preserves made by Fortnum & Mason, a store where Queen Victoria herself shopped? Fortum & Mason, established in 1707, is on Piccadilly, a short walk (or trot), across Green Park from Buckingham Palace, and Queen Victoria was a regular customer. What she used to actually buy there when she went in is lost to the mists of history because the part of the store’s archive where those receipts and documents were kept was destroyed in the Blitz. So we don’t know if she actually bought their jam, but I say, close enough! And here’s good news; you don’t have to fly to London to get it. It is now available at Williams Sonoma so you can slather royal strawberry jam on your sponge to your heart’s delight and add authenticity to your Victoria Sponge — or your (dare I say) bagel!
On your marks, get set, BAKE! As our favorite Dowager once said, “It seems a pity to miss such a good pudding,” and you don’t have to miss this one. Bake it yourself! If you do try it, please post a picture on Twitter or Instagram and tag us @THIRTEENWNET and @GOTHAMTOMATO so we can see! (FYI: Here in the States when we hear pudding we just think…pudding. But in the UK, “pudding” is the general term for dessert.)
You Oughta Be in Pictures: Victoria became Queen in 1837. The invention of photography was announced in 1839. Queen Victoria was introduced to this newfangled thing by one of the ladies in her court, who was a cousin of Henry Fox Talbot, one of the field’s early pioneers. This serendipitous occurrence led to the young couple, Victoria and Albert, becoming avid photo-hobbyists – not an easy thing in those early days when photography was much more complicated (and toxic). Given that they were trendsetters, Victoria and Albert’s interest in photography helped to popularize this new medium. They also became early collectors and patrons of the medium and of numerous photographers. When she needed to know what was going on in the Crimean War, she sent correspondents there to send back pictures. They became the first war photographers.
When she died, Queen Victoria left a collection of over 20,000 photographs, most of them of family, and the archive is housed at Windsor Castle. Because they are works on paper they are rarely exhibited, but they have now been digitized and posted on Windsor Castle’s website for all us hoi poloi to see. And if you are into photography and Queen Victoria, you will love this book, A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography, published to coincide with the exhibit at the Getty Museum on Los Angeles two years ago.
Dress for Success: In her day, the young Queen Victoria was as much a trend-setter as Princess Diana or Duchess Kate Middleton. Among the things that are common today because of her influence are Christmas trees and white wedding dresses. (Before her wedding to Prince Albert, with her big white dress and cake, women just wore their best regular clothes to get hitched.) So I suppose you could say she created that whole wedding-industrial complex. Another bit of trivia — she wore things like stockings and gloves only once before tossing them. That’s how a pair of her stockings once showed up on Antiques Roadshow! If you recall, they weren’t deemed all that valuable since they were so common, so the stockings’ owner’s retirement had to wait for another day.
Reading is Fundamental: Of course, you don’t need to do any research to enjoy Victoria — it stands on its own. But if watching this miniseries gets you interested in learning more about her and her influence, here are some resources:
- Some historic background from PBS
- Some great trivia from the BBC
- Additionally, the Queen herself was an avid diarist, and you can read some excerpts from her diaries here
Over a 64-year reign there’s a lot to discuss! Join the conversation in the comments section below, or on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #VictoriaPBS.