Colleen Mondor, Bookslut in Trainig, wrote this thoughtful review of Prisoners in the Palace!
Michaela MacColl carves out a delightful notch in historical fiction with her look at the surprising life of future Queen Victoria in Prisoners in the Palace: How Princess Victoria became Queen with the Help of Her Maid, a Reporter, and a Scoundrel. I never thought much about teenaged Victoria, assuming her life was similar to anyone else destined to rule and filled with many dull moments of pomp and circumstance, but as MacColl explains in her lengthy (and valuable) afterword, Victoria was not actually supposed to be queen, and when her destiny became more apparent due to deaths in the line of succession, her weak mother and the machinations of a man seeking to be the power behind the throne left her with a childhood that was miserable. MacColl tells the tale through a fictional character, Liza, who is forced to be a lady’s maid after the sudden deaths of her parents, instead of a debutante. With little knowledge of life “below the stairs” and a healthy amount of arrogance and righteous anger, Liza is the perfect foil for the frustrated Victoria and her retinue of servants (dedicated and not) and hangers-on (devious one and all). That there was a very real plot to wrest control of England going on in the background ups the stakes of what would otherwise still be a compelling read.
The plot for Prisoners is fairly straightforward: through family connections, Liza is able to apply for a job with Princess Victoria’s staff. She obtains the position largely because of her ability to speak more than one language and thus serve as a spy for the princess and those loyal to her (not including her mother). Stuck between the royal bedrooms above and the gossipy center of the house below, Liza is woman without a country in many respects and quickly decides to throw her loyalty in with those who side with the princess — on the hopes that when she becomes queen she will gain a reward and thus alleviate her severe financial position. Soon enough she is swept along by history, however, and while MacColl had plenty there to keep the narrative going, she expands the story to include a fascinating peek at the powerless lives of women during the mid-nineteenth century, a view that includes everyone from maids to royalty. (The portrayal of the sitting queen, Victoria’s aunt, is particularly heartbreaking.) While I am never interested in limiting a book’s audience to any one gender, I have to say that Prisoners will especially appeal to young women because it shows so effectively how much times have changed. While we all chafed under parental rules as teens, our complaints were nothing compared to what the women in this novel have to go through. The stark difference between opportunities for men and women is staggering, and while MacColl firmly keeps Prisoners of the Palace a book of household intrigue (and spying) with a sweet touch of romance, it was the social history that gave me pause. In many ways, this is a consciousness-raising read; the fact that it is does so in such a subtle manner just makes it that much more of a winner.