This is my May entry in the 2010 reading challenge Year of the Historical.
The second in her four book Queen Victoria series, Jean Plaidy’s The Queen and Lord M chronicles Victoria’s life through her time at Kensington Palace while she waits to become Queen and her marriage to Albert. As the title suggests this is the story of Victoria’s close relationship with the Prime Minister. Although forty years her elder, Lord Melbourne charmed the Queen and was the most important male figure in her life until she married Albert. Victoria’s attachment to her dear “Lord M” is at first charming as he guides her through the earliest days of her reign, but her unwillingness to let go of their close friendship threatens the country when she stubbornly refuses to let Melbourne’s failing government be replaced by Sir Robert Peel’s Tories.
Plaidy’s novel is largely historically accurate, but does take one liberty with the age of “the boy Jones”. She writes that a boy of eight or nine was discovered in Buckingham Palace where he had hoped to meet the Queen. While there was a boy who found his way into the palace, he was Edward Jones, a fifteen-year-old sweep who had squeezed through a hole in the Marble Arch in 1938. The press called him “In-I-Go Jones” because his ability to find an entrance meant that he must be “a descendant of In-I-Go Jones”, a reference to Renaissance architect Inigo Jones. Jones made a second visit to the palace two years later when he was found under the sofa in Her Majesty’s dressing room.
The unfortunate case of Lady Flora Hastings is also true. She began to experience swelling in 1839 but refused a medical examination so the physician believed her to be pregnant. The pregnancy rumour was spread by Baroness Lehzen, Victoria’s old governess and close friend, and the Marchioness of Tavistock. Flora Hastings did eventually submit to an examination in early 1839 and the doctor found a liver tumor. After she passed away in July of that year, her brother and Sir John Conroy began a press campaign against the Queen and all others involved in the scandal.
She has been called one of the ‘grande dames’ of historical fiction, but until I started following historical fiction blogs I had never even heard of Jean Plaidy, let alone read any of her many novels. Although her books were published between 1941 and the early 90s, they have enduring appeal for many historical fiction devotees and there is even a Plaidy reading challenge you can take part in. Unfortunately many of her books are now out of print and I borrowed my copy from the local library.
I’m not quite ready to declare her the ‘Queen of historical fiction’ but I do understand why she is admired by so many. What Plaidy does well in this novel is to give realistic but interesting voices to historical figures. The Queen and Lord M didn’t immediately hook me, but once Victoria met Melbourne the witty conversations between Prime Minister and Queen captured my attention and didn’t let go. I thought that Plaidy did a wonderful job of getting into the minds of these characters and giving them distinct voices. Although the film came much later, I can just hear Paul Bettany and Emily Blunt as Lord M and Victoria from the wonderful movie The Young Victoria having these conversations as I read, and think that this makes a wonderful companion piece for anyone who enjoyed the film.
Of course the true strength of this novel is the amount of research that went into it, a joy for those historical fiction readers who like their novels heavy on the history but still very readable. If you read to expand your vocabulary you’ll also be in for a treat. Plaidy uses a number of unusual words but not in a way that suggests a case of Thesaurusitus.
This one really is a nitpick, but I found that Plaidy significantly overused the expression “with tears in his eyes” when referring to Lord Melbourne. Unless he was a particularly weepy man or prone to allergies I can’t imagine anyone being so often on the verge of tears. What begins as a touching reminder of his affection for Victoria quickly became, in my opinion, an odd and overused image in an otherwise realistic novel.
So how did I feel about my first Plaidy novel? I enjoyed it a great deal and I hope to read more by her in the future. Unfortunately, my local library doesn’t have a copy of the third Victoria novel (The Queen’s Husband) so I’ll be on my own tracking that one down.
Verdict: Recommended. Especially for anyone who enjoyed The Young Victoria and wants to learn more.