At year’s end I noticed that alongside all the Best Books of the Year lists from major newspapers and websites there were just as many, if not more, lists of the best TV shows for streaming. The new age of streaming means we are no longer tied to the TV Guide calendar and need never miss a good show. Some of the most popular are historical dramas, the grande dame of them all of course being Downton Abbey. Last year I particularly enjoyed two royal series, The Crown on Netflix and Victoria on PBS Masterpiece Theater. The first two seasons of both are also available from the library on DVD:
The series inspired me to turn to the library for some background reading.
It is hard to get past the familiar grim image of the elderly Victoria in widow’s weeds, but the early episodes of Victoria showed a pretty, flighty, fun-loving princess falling head-over-heels in love with the handsome Albert. That same young Victoria and the elderly widow are brought to life in Victoria the Queen, an intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire by Julia Baird published in 2016. The emphasis is on Victoria’s relationships with her family, her husband, and her ministers as she navigates the events and crises of nineteenth century England and its empire.
These books focus on specific episodes in Victoria’s life:
We Two: Victoria and Albert, rulers, partners, rivals by Gillian Gill
A portrait of a marriage, perhaps the most consequential in English royal history.
A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the death that changed the British Monarchy by Helen Rappaport
Her husband’s death plunged Victoria into incapacitating grief and a long withdrawal from public life.
Victoria and Abdul: the true story of the Queen’s closest confidant by Basu Shrabani
Late in life Victoria formed a close relationship with an Indian servant, scandalizing and perplexing her courtiers and ministers. The DVD of the film based on the book is also available.
Queen Victoria: 24 days that changed her life by Lucy Worsley
Based on letters and diaries this new book by the popular historian is currently on order.
Queen Elizabeth II surpassed her great-great-grandmother Victoria as longest reigning British monarch in 2015. I was initially skeptical of The Crown but soon drawn in by the wonderful true-to-life performances and period history. A favorite episode dealt with the Great Smog of London in December 1952 which lasted five days and killed an estimated 12,000 people. I lived through this myself, aged four, and remember the thick yellow fog we called a pea-souper. I had severe bronchitis that winter. The following summer the National Health Service sent me to an orphanage in Devon for two months, part of a program to help city children recover in fresh country air. That was one of the most memorable periods of my life, but I knew nothing about how the government handled the crisis until I watched The Crown. Prime Minister Winston Churchill behaved as many politicians do today, ignoring the warnings of scientists, declaring it was just weather, and doing nothing to protect the population until it was too late.
To learn more I turned to Death in the Air: the true story of a serial killer, the great London smog, and the strangling of a city by Kate Winkler Dawson, published in 2017. The author combines the story of the Great Smog with that of the notorious murderer John Reginald Christie who strangled six women in London during the same period. Based on interviews and archival material this is a vivid account of the experiences of ordinary Londoners in the smog and the attempts of the government to deal with the unprecedented situation.
The Crown’s portrayal of Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s troubled younger sister, is wonderfully true to life. The forced end to her relationship with Peter Townsend, carried out ruthlessly by her sister on the advice of the government, explains, if not excuses, her later notorious bad behavior. The portrait is confirmed in Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown, a gossipy and irresistible collection of anecdotes. Princess Margaret popped up in another streaming series last year, Showtime’s Melrose based on Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. St. Aubyn grew up in aristocratic circles and once encountered Princess Margaret at a dinner party where her behavior was particularly awful. The episode made its way into his fiction and the TV series.
Much has been written about Queen Elizabeth II herself of course, a lot of it airing the family’s dirty linen. But one book I can recommend is Young Elizabeth: the making of the queen by Kate Williams which is a good companion read to viewing the first episodes of The Crown.
If you are new to streaming it can be confusing with so many different sources, many by paid subscription. Learn more at MCPL’s E-Library guide to Movies and Video which includes a list of websites with free streaming. From the library website you can also stream films and documentaries from Kanopy and TV from Acorn TV.
Wishing you a Happy New Year of streaming and reading!