Fact, Fiction, or Fudge: The Truth Behind PBS’s ‘Victoria’

Jenna Coleman (Credit: PBS Masterpiece)
Jenna Coleman (Credit: PBS Masterpiece)

Warning: This post contains spoilers from the premiere episode of Victoria.

Kings and queens may seem like mythic figures out of storybooks, but they were real, living, breathing people. In PBS’s new drama Victoria, which premiered last night, the titular queen is just 18 years old when she ascends to the throne of the United Kingdom.

The truth is, she was a young girl who suddenly became one of the most powerful people on the planet. But are other aspects of the story told in Masterpiece’s Victoria all fact, too? For instance, what was her relationship with Lord Melbourne? Did she accuse lady-in-waiting Flora Hastings of being pregnant out of wedlock? And what’s the deal with the rats?

We fell into the Wikipedia rabbit role, so you don’t have to. Here’s what’s fact, fiction, or just a bit fudged in Victoria.

Fudged: Victoria’s relationship with Lord Melbourne

Jenna Coleman and Rufus Sewell (Credit: PBS Masterpiece)
Jenna Coleman and Rufus Sewell (Credit: PBS Masterpiece)

In the show, Victoria (Jenna Coleman) clearly has a crush on her prime minister, played by the dashing and handsome Rufus Sewell. Author Daisy Goodwin, who created the show, told the Radio Times, “Melbourne is a worldly, funny, elegant aristocrat in his 50s with a tragic, romantic past. Victoria was besotted.”

In real life, the nature of their relationship is debated. Historians have noted that Melbourne was 59 and “enormously fat” when Victoria became queen. And in her diary, on Christmas Day 1839, she wrote, “I was very glad Lord Melbourne was there, the one whom I look up to as a father.” But people really did call her “Mrs. Melbourne,” and their closeness was gossiped about in London society.

Still, the show’s historical adviser, A.N. Wilson, said, “Of course, they did not have a physical relationship, and marriage would have been out of the question. But they did love one another.”

Related: Your 2017 Winter TV Preview of New and Returning Shows

Fact: Victoria destroyed Flora Hastings’s reputation with unfounded pregnancy accusation

Alice Orr-Ewing, Catherine Flemming, and Paul Rhys (Credit: PBS Masterpiece)
Alice Orr-Ewing, Catherine Flemming, and Paul Rhys (Credit: PBS Masterpiece)

The lady in waiting to Victoria’s mother gets a raw deal in the show. Gossip starts to circulate that Flora’s (Alice Orr-Ewing) expanding belly is due to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, the result of an affair with the hated Sir John Conroy (Paul Rhys).

Victoria did in fact force Flora to undergo an examination by her physician. And Flora did, in fact, turn out not to be pregnant — but to have a cancerous tumor growing inside her. And she did die from it.

The only bit that was fudged in the show is the timing. The Flora Hastings scandal took place a year after Victoria’s coronation. But public opinion of Victoria did tumble because of the incident.

Fiction: Rats did not invade Buckingham Palace

In a memorable scene, Victoria’s birthday is ruined when rats overrun the cake. She freaks out, and her uncle, the Duke of Cumberland (Peter Firth), and Sir John Conroy plot to use those “hysterics” as a way of declaring the queen insane and installing a regency. But Matthew Dennison, author of Queen Victoria: A Life of Contradictions, called the rat invasion “foolish and psychologically facile.” And James Delingpole wrote in The Spectator, “There was almost certainly never a moment in young Queen Victoria’s life when she was frightened into hysteria by vermin suddenly materialising on a giant cake, thus causing onlookers to speculate that she might have inherited the Madness of George III.”

Fiction: The Duke of Cumberland plotted against his niece

The Duke wants to use the rat episode to become co-regent and rule in Victoria’s place. But in real life, the duke left for Hanover almost immediately after Victoria became queen and stayed there for six years.

Fudged: Marianne Skerrett, the queen’s dresser

Nell Hudson and Jenna Coleman (Credit: PBS Masterpiece)
Nell Hudson, Jenna Coleman, and Eve Myles (Credit: PBS Masterpiece)

In the premiere, a young woman named Miss Skerrett (Nell Hudson) comes to Buckingham Palace to work as an assistant dresser to the queen. She’s a working class girl with a shady past.

In reality, Marianne Skerrett was Queen Victoria’s dresser for 25 years and became one of her closest confidantes. And the real dresser came with impeccable credentials as the well-educated daughter of an army officer.

Victoria airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on PBS.