Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Review of Prisoners in the Palace by Michaela MacColl

When you picture evil regent types trying to wrest control of kingdoms from sweet young princesses, I don't think Queen Victoria instantly springs to mind. Yet that's exactly what this book is about. And while the inclusion of an intrepid maid as narrator and a rakish reporter and young thief as allies is an invention, apparently the young Victoria really did have to battle her mother and Sir John Conroy for control of her country and her future. See the Author's Note for all the gory details!

Now, on to the book proper. And, my, is it proper! In case you weren't aware, being a teenage princess in the 1800s would be like being a prisoner even if your mother and her comptroller weren't trying to keep you on a tight leash—a leash so tight that Conroy even gave it a name, the Kensington System. This meant that Victoria slept in the same room as her mother, was hardly ever allowed to see anyone, never got to be alone or talk with peers, and had to follow a strict schedule of schooling.

I had to double-check to see if this book was written in first person, but it is not. Even in third person, Liza Hastings gives us a strikingly strong narrative viewpoint as we read her tale of being suddenly orphaned and making her way by becoming the maidservant of 18-year-old Princess Victoria. (See chapter titles like "In Which Liza Confronts a Newspaperman and a Fallen Woman.") Liza's own position is precarious to start with, and then she enters into a politically perilous household. Victoria is dependent on her loving but highly protective governess, Baroness Lehzen, and is restless over the restrictions placed on her by her mother the Duchess of Kent and her mother's secretary and comptroller, John Conroy. Soon the Baroness is asking Liza to spy on Conroy and the Duchess, and Conroy is asking Liza to spy on the princess. Besides which, Conroy looks at Liza in a lascivious way, and there are rumors that he had something to do with the previous maid's departure. The Duchess of Kent's enmity with her brother-in-law the king makes everything all the more complicated. Meanwhile, Liza must navigate the hostile environment belowstairs, where she is distrusted because she was a lady before her parents died.

As for Victoria, the princess is spoiled and immature. Liza tries to befriend the girl for her own purposes; besides which, she feels sorry for Victoria. Unfortunately, it's hard to trust the princess, and Victoria is rarely able to converse with Liza. But little by little, Liza manages to find out more about what's going on, and she is even able to offer the princess her help.

In doing so, Liza has two allies: first, a scruffy boy she discovers is actually living in a little nest inside the royal rooms. (This, too, is based on real events, though from somewhat later in Victoria's life.) Inside Boy introduces her to a second ally, a reporter who publishes broadsheets hinting that Victoria is unfit to rule. Liza rightly suspects that Conroy is behind the stories and initiates a counter-offensive.She also finds herself being attracted to the journalist, Will Fulton.

The intrigue gets intrigue-ier, till finally Victoria is trapped in the palace with Liza, the Duchess having left her daughter in Conroy's hands so that he can force her to sign a promise to put him in charge of England's treasury when she becomes queen. It is only thanks to Liza and her friends that Conroy's plot is defeated. Then Liza must choose whether to stay with the princess or pursue a future with Will.

This is a lively adventure as well as a fascinating look at a time in history that I thought I knew, but got to know better thanks to Liza Hastings and Princess Victoria. For example, the contrast between Lisa's view of Prince Albert and Victoria's is a hoot. Another nice thing about Prisoners in the Palace: How Victoria Became Queen with the Help of Her Maid, a Reporter, and a Scoundrel (A Novel of Intrigue and Romance) is that we get to see some of the struggles of the servants and lower-class Brits, especially women. I should note that Victoria's diary entries are apparently all authentic, and the author incorporates them seamlessly into her story. Prisoners in the Palace is a thoroughly enjoyable read!

Note for Worried Parents: This is a book for teens. There's a thread about an unplanned pregnancy and fallen women here, with hints about rape. Of course, the context is how few options women had during this era in history.

Also: I requested a copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reviewing this. I might not have known it existed otherwise. I will definitely be reading it. I love British history and intrigue combined!