Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review: Prisoners in the Palace by Michaela MacColl

Prisoners in the Palace: How Princess Victoria became Queen with the Help of Her Maid, a Reporter, and a Scoundrel
by Michaela MacColl
September 1, 2010

Borrowed from Library
Amazon Page
Goodreads Page
Grade: A-

Synopsis (from publisher): London, 1838. Sixteen-year-old Liza's dreams of her society debut are dashed when her parents are killed in an accident. Penniless, she accepts the position of lady's maid to young Princess Victoria and steps unwittingly into the gossipy intrigue of the servant's world below-stairs as well as the trickery above. Is it possible that her changing circumstances may offer Liza the chance to determine her own fate, find true love, and secure the throne for her future queen?

Meticulously based on newly discovered information, this riveting novel is as rich in historical detail as Catherine, Called Birdy, and as sizzling with intrigue as The Luxe.

I devour books about Queen Victoria, her family, her Court, the society, everything.  It’s a quirk, I know, and I couldn’t tell you why I’m so intrigued by that awfully stuffy Queen and her enormous family, but I’ll read anything that comes out about her.  Which is one of the reasons why I love the mini-explosion of books about Victoria R including the fantastic movie released recently Young Victoria.  Not so surprisingly, I loved it.

So I was excited to see this novelization of the year leading up to Victoria’s accession to the throne in 1838.  It’s a well-documented time period - not the least through her numerous diaries - and the history of her childhood and teenage years needs little dramatization to be interesting.  Michaela MacColl has obviously done a lot of research into this period and what results is a fantastic introduction to seventeen year old Victoria (or Drina as her family called her - smartly MacColl omitted this and thereby avoided possible confusion).  This is really the perfect book to recommend to someone who’s seen Young Victoria but maybe doesn’t want to dive into heavy (but excellent) biographies like Hibbert’s Queen Victoria: A Personal History or Kate Williams Becoming Queen Victoria.

Our entry to Princess Victoria’s world is the recently orphaned Liza.  Left destitute by her parents’ sudden death, she manages to turn her upper middle class background and knowledge of languages into a position as a lady’s maid to the Princess and her companion/governess Baroness Lehzen.  She’s immediately introduced to the tensions and intrigues in Kensington Palace as she’s asked to use her fluency in German to spy upon Sir John Conroy and the Princess’ mother, the Duchess of Kent.

I really love the use of Liza (a completely fictional character) both to give the reader a newcomer’s view to the insanity of Victoria’s life at the time and to see a young girl trying to make her way in a world so very different from the introduction at Court and rich marriage that her parents expected.  The daughter of a merchant, Liza views the world from a transactional basis: if she serves Victoria well, the Princess might reward her when she becomes the Queen, if she’s rewarded, she can retake her position in society and make that rich marriage she hoped for.  But as Liza serves and becomes friends with the Princess and also is introduced to the wider world beyond the palace, her focus slowly changes to one encompassing the possibility of true happiness and (oh yes) love.  The character development seen here is a lot of fun to watch, and while some of Liza’s escapades seem unlikely, her intelligence and interest in the world is both endearing and makes her a likable heroine.

As much as I enjoyed Liza, I absolutely adored the characterization of the Princess Victoria.  She’s so different from the popular culture image of “we are not amused,” black-clad Victoria of her later years, but you can still see how the eighteen year old can develop into that woman.  She's not always nice especially to those she considers below her, and one can very clearly see the blinders she wears that often block her empathy or loyalty to any besides herself and her governess.  Victoria struggles with her position in her family, resisting her mother and Sir John Conroy’s attempts to control her, and asserting any measure of power she can in the very restrictive and sheltered atmosphere of Kensington Palace.  It's a measure of MacColl's skill that in spite of this, Victoria still emerges as an engaging and sympathetic character.

I was really thrilled that MacColl decided to expand her focus include the quickly changing society outside the palace walls.  With Liza - and to a lesser extent Victoria - we get to explore London, the continued rise of newspapers and broadsheets and the professional middle classes, the position of women in society, and especially the plight of those lower class women without protection from society, the law or any opportunity to move up in the world.  Liza's love interest is a (very charming) printer who helps widen the focus of the story as well as the two rather sheltered girls at the heart of it.

I loved reading Prisoners in the Palace though I almost didn’t pick it up due to the truly unfortunate cover.  Don’t be turned off by that though, and definitely check it out if you’re interested in women in history or Victoria herself.  It's a fantastic historical read with just enough fiction (what's fiction is clarified in the afterword for those interested) to the historical fact and some truly interesting characters.

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