The Most Famous Unknown Queen
Review by Lisa Barrow
Simon & Schuster
Before she went down as the longest-reigning monarch in British history, Queen Victoria was a fatherless little girl whose lonely, isolated life was controlled by people scheming to use her in their quest for power. Victoria Rebels, the most recent young adult novel by Albuquerque author Carolyn Meyer, convincingly renders the repression Victoria endured as a child at the hands of her mother and her mother’s unyielding advisor, and follows her eventual maturation into a devoted wife and capable young queen confident in her own abilities.
At the beginning of Victoria Rebels, the eight-year-old princess chafes under countless humiliations designed by Sir John Conroy. He marries off her beloved half-sister Fidi to a faraway German prince (she’s too “willful,” he says) and micromanages Victoria’s life so thoroughly that she’s never alone for a single moment; even her prayers must be heard by her governess. If he can weaken Victoria’s spirit and increase her dependence, he’ll pave his way to total influence over the future monarch.
Though merely her deceased father’s former horse attendant, the conniving Conroy has managed to both gain a knighthood and worm his way into the confidence (and finances) of Victoria’s mother. With her support, he even tries to coerce her into appointing him her private secretary, a position that would allow the hateful man unprecedented access into every facet of her personal and future royal life.
For the right kind of reader, Victoria Rebels will be pure pleasure. That reader—whether a YA-loving adult or the “12 & up” set recommended by the publisher—is the sort that prefers vivid authenticity to sugary melodrama.
Some authors might try to milk a historical character like Conroy, creating drama out of mere quarrels. After all, the point of view is that of a stubborn, privileged girl. Was he really as bad as she paints him? “Victoria was absolutely right about him,” Meyer recently affirmed in an email interview. “Her mother is much more complicated. I don't think she was a villain, but she was completely under Conroy's domination, and it was inevitable that Victoria, who was also strong-willed, would resent that and would rebel against her mother at the first opportunity.”
Based on the diaries that the real Victoria kept throughout her life, Victoria Rebels unfolds in a first-person voice that is at once penetrating and girlish, reveling in strong emotions that can be sufficiently expressed only by frequent CAPITAL LETTERS and underlining. While this device might annoy some readers, such details come straight from the historical record.
In fact, what’s most striking about Meyer’s approach is her scrupulous attention to accuracy. Not a single character is invented, and she seems to relish every chance to describe clothes, food, portraits and itineraries with vivid specificity. “My first impulse is to include every last little tidbit I've unearthed,” admitted Meyer, “but that can slow a story down to a crawl. So I throw in everything in the early draft and then take out (painfully!) anything that doesn't advance the action.”
Such openness is characteristic of Meyer, who maintains an author website at readcarolyn.com, where she provides everything from anecdotes about her life and novels to teacher resources to advice for young writers. While she acknowledges that the site is “extremely time consuming,” Meyer enjoys her readers’ responses and says she always replies to emails. “In a field that can be very isolating—all that time alone with my computer—I find it's a way of interacting without leaving home,” she said.
For the right kind of reader, Victoria Rebels will be pure pleasure. That reader—whether a YA-loving adult or the “12 & up” set recommended by the publisher—is the sort that prefers vivid authenticity to sugary melodrama. Think Lord of the Rings instead of Twilight.
Meyer’s fidelity to her source material does mean that Victoria’s character sometimes seems to vacillate strangely. For example, Victoria spends almost the entire novel declaring her love for and defending a particular character (unnamed here to avoid spoilers). But just a few pages from the end, the important character is dismissed from the queen’s employ with a startling abruptness. Victoria doesn’t even say goodbye in person.
In any other kind of novel, a sudden about-face like that would be unacceptable. Yet Meyer’s affinity for veracity means that the reader trusts her when these kinds of abrupt character changes occasionally occur. According to Elizabeth Anker of Alamosa Books, where signed copies of Meyer’s book will be available, Meyer’s books are “about the people that we only know as caricatures.” Victoria Rebels certainly is a convincing and enjoyable portrait of the famous queen we only thought we knew.
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