An Interview with Anna Kirwan about Victoria: May Blossom of Brittania

  • Grades: 6–8

Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D.: Would you tell us about the research process you went through to write Victoria's Royal Diary?

Anna Kirwan: I began with four months of intensive reading and note-taking (hundreds of index cards!) before I started outlining the plot, and continued to read further background material for two hours or so a day while I was writing. My research bibliography included more than 50 books. I read half a dozen biographies of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, volumes of her own journals, letters and sketchbooks, and bios and memoirs of other diarists of the period, British and European history of the Georgian, William IV and Victorian eras, novels and poetry of the period, articles on the fine arts, travel, antiques, opera and fashion, sermons — the reading was a great pleasure. Also, I was fortunate enough to have many good conversations with Professor Michael Wolff, an eminent Victorianist, whose articulate insight into the sensibilities of that society and suggestions for my reading list were the essence of good teaching.

RFA & EST: In the Epilogue you mention Victoria kept extensive journals. Did you uncover anything in her journals that surprised you?

AK: I was rather more surprised at what was not in her journals. As published, she wrote mostly travelogue — no portraits of persons, except in the mention of some activities they shared with Her Majesty or her family. Yet she was very much involved and opinionated in personal and state relationships. Her family did follow her wishes that no inappropriately personal papers should be brought before the public. Perhaps this was a humble and compassionate choice on her part — a wisdom. Certainly, many historians believe they would have preferred the understanding of her observations to the wisdom of her discretion. She was the one who experienced the responsibility of the Empire for 64 years, though; maybe she knew what she was doing.

RFA & EST: Other than your main character, Victoria, who is your favorite character in the book? Why?

AK: His Majesty King William IV seems to me to have been a man of extraordinary character, of great human warmth, foresight and good humor. Of course, I am also partial to the Baroness Lehzen and Victoria's Uncle Leopold.

RFA & EST: Victoria is your first book written in diary format. What challenges did you encounter writing in this style?

AK: Victoria is my first published book in diary format, but I have kept my own journal for more than thirty years, and I have written first person narrative in short stories. The biggest challenge for me was to develop a style that seemed more the way a young girl in the early nineteenth century would record her daily cares and plans. My own style is more erratic than my character Victoria's. I just write whatever comes into my head; but a novel disguised as a diary has to be more purposeful and shapely. I also wanted the intimacy of the form to hint at Victoria's innocence and naiveté about some matters concerning which contemporary readers, girls her age, might be more knowledgeable or more vulnerable. I would also like to note here that I have been greatly influenced by the "late Victorian child" voice of E. Nesbit's character, Oswald Bastable, on whom I have always had a crush!

RFA & EST: Victoria's mother seemed so blind to the ways in which Sir John Conroy manipulated her and tried to dominate her. Why did she let him?

AK: Not so much blind to it as complicit with it, I would say. Neither Victoria nor her mother were "feminists" who questioned whether a man ought to be in charge of "protecting" the ladies. The Duchess of Kent was politically vulnerable, and (her "poor credit rating" reflecting her late husband's lavish indebtedness) not very powerful, in a Europe in which even royalty were not always even physically safe. She was not popular in England, and she genuinely believed her child could easily have become a pawn in worse games of ambition than Sir John Conroy's — his best interest certainly seemed to lie in his loyalty to her. Unfortunately, a certain amount of bullying and occasional domestic violence, then as now, might be paradoxically tolerated as "manly" martial temperament or passionate high spirits. Secrecy prevented inconvenient scandal, which could turn into an "international event."

RFA & EST: You mention how surprised you were to discover how much you grew to like Victoria as you researched her life, in part because she inspired many of the writers you loved as a child. What children's classics do you feel were inspired by Victoria? Why?

AK: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (Rev. Charles L. Dodgson) and The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald are all tales about a resourceful little girl/princess. (Remember, Alice crosses a chessboard and becomes a queen!) In Jean Ingelow's Mopsa the Fairy, Mopsa grows up so quickly, she rapidly becomes more adult and powerful than the boy, Jack, who first sees her as an infant in a nest whose other occupants get picked off by misfortune, leaving her to reign. Charles Dickens' story "The Magic Fishbone" features a royal family with nineteen children, who happen to be rather poor. I could go on, but I think it's clear that these themes show up frequently.

RFA & EST: Do you think young Victoria had a happy childhood?

AK: I believe Victoria was telling the truth when she stated that she did not have a happy childhood. Her relationship with her mother was not a warm one, and she was allowed few opportunities to form friendships with children her own age or with the servants she saw daily. A good deal of the time, she found the activities permitted her were boring and repetitive.

RFA & EST: If you could ask young readers of Victoria's Royal Diary one question after they finished reading your book, what would that question be?

AK: What was most meaningful to you, what did you relate to most clearly?

RFA & EST: What is one thing you would want your readers to take with them after reading Victoria: May Blossom of Britannia?

AK: I would like them to think about the extent to which history is personal, conscience is personal, and leadership has to be forged from individual experience and compassionate observation of human conditions.

Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.

  • Subjects:
    European History, Determination and Perseverance, Extended Families, Women's History and Experience, Leadership and Responsibility
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