Michaela MacColl’s new novel, Prisoners in the Palace takes place in London, 1836. King William IV sickens rapidly and the heir presumptive, sixteen year-old Princess Victoria is only rarely seen by the public. Rumors run wild that she weak of mind, her temper is unpredictable, she lisps. Liza Hastings, the wealthy daughter of a minor knight, finds herself abruptly orphaned and in possession of nothing but a huge debt when her parents’ carriage overturns into the Serpentine river. Her last chance is to take a job as the Princess’s personal maid in the hopes of gaining royal favor to pay back her debts. But when are things ever that easy?
If you’re not familiar with what Victoria’s situation was before she assumed the throne at age 18, here’s the short version: Victoria’s mother (Duchess of Kent) and private secretary (Sir John Conroy) created what they called the Kensington System in order to maintain control over the Princess and to keep her separated from her subjects. Victoria wasn’t allowed to walk down stairs without someone holding her hand, wasn’t allowed often in public, and deprived of any friends – even among the servants. None of this is fiction.
When Liza arrives at the drafty and dilapidated Kensington Palace, she is immediately thrust into this bizarre situation as the only confidante of the lonely and powerless Princess. Everyone wants to use Liza as a spy or to exert her influence over the future Queen, and Liza’s only friends are a young thief called Inside Boy who lives in the walls of the Palace, and a young newspaperman called Will whose loyalties are tied to what will sell his papers. Liza struggles to balance survival at Kensington with her loyalty to the Princess.
Victoria herself is only occasionally Liza’s friend. As a result of the KS, the future monarch is hugely out of touch with reality, and alternates between being swollen with authority and swamped with powerlessness. As characters go, she isn’t very likeable, but she is realistic – consider what the Crown Princess would be like if she was kept in seclusion and manipulated her whole life. But she isn’t cruel, nor is she weak – just very out of touch. As much as this story is about Liza, it is also about the change in Victoria in the years leading up to her assumption of the Crown and the longest and most profitable reign in British history.
Furthermore, Liza is not always an angel either. Orphaned so suddenly and unexpectedly, she can scarcely think about her parents without tearing up, and she finds it very difficult to adjust from having servants to being one. And while these preoccupations can be frustrating for a reader, they’re also very true to life. Here’s a character who found herself in terrible straights and though she manages to protect herself, she isn’t necessarily finding it easy to cope. She expects everyone around her to share her own ethics, and it is shocked to discover the extent of her own naiveté. But she also forces those around her – Victoria in particular – to align their moral compasses with her own, to the benefit of the nation.
MacColl has done her research, no question. The story is peppered with real events and personages, and chapters are interspersed with newspaper clippings, excerpts from letters, and Victoria’s journal entries – all of which are the real thing (or very closely mimicking it). She also introduces a side plot concerned with the plight of working (class) girls of the time. So while the huge volume of historical detail occasionally overshadows character development, this book rates a AJ on the PSA.
For more on Victoria’s time pre-epic-reign, check out the lovely film The Young Victoria.