Interview

Novelist Daisy Goodwin: ‘Harassment isn’t about sexual attraction. It’s about power’

The novelist, TV producer and screenwriter behind the ITV hit ‘Victoria’ talks to Charlotte Cripps about writing her latest novel on Maria Callas, the ‘original girl boss’, why she is drawn to women from history who live life on their own terms, and why she wants to make it easier for victims of sexual assault to speak up

Thursday 14 March 2024 08:16
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<p>Daisy Goodwin has chosen another super powerful woman to write about in her new novel, ‘Diva’, about the opera star, Maria Callas </p>

Daisy Goodwin has chosen another super powerful woman to write about in her new novel, ‘Diva’, about the opera star, Maria Callas

I never intended to become the poster girl of sexual harassment,” says Daisy Goodwin, the TV producer, author and creator of ITV’s Victoria. But that’s what has happened when last year she told The Times that Daniel Korski, then a special adviser to David Cameron, groped her breast during a one-on-one meeting about a potential new Apprentice-style TV show, in Mrs Thatcher’s former sitting room at Downing Street in 2013. At the time she “brushed it off as a laughable, if humiliating incident”. “I mean, the whole thing was farcical,” she says. “But also, you know, deeply inappropriate.”

Goodwin, 62, initially opened up about being assaulted in 2017 without naming her alleged assailant. She says now Korski made her feel awkward by telling her she looked like Bond girl Monica Bellucci and “put his feet on the edge of my chair, leaning back so that I could get a clear view of his crotch”. Yet she only chose to identify him when he ran to be Tory candidate for the 2024 election race for Mayor of London. “It was a role that would mean he had responsibility for the safety of women and girls,” she tells me – and it made her blood boil. The MeToo movement had made her realise that to dismiss her own experience “was putting other women at risk, particularly younger women who might work in the same organisation and who therefore could less easily brush it off”.

When she filed an official complaint to the cabinet office, Korski, who had denied the allegations, dropped out of the Conservative mayoral race. It prompted three other women to make allegations of sexual misconduct against Korski to the Financial Times – one was a senior government official.

“I feel cross with the other men who protected him; they must have known what was going on,” says Goodwin, who is talking to me over Zoom from the lobby of a Swiss ski resort where she is on holiday, surrounded by lots of knotted wood panelling and with a blizzard raging outside. “The thing is, it’s not about sexual attraction. It’s about power,” she continues. “It’s about saying, you know, ‘Hey, I’m untouchable. I can grope you in broad daylight.’” But, she says, most men don’t behave like that. “So, it’s just important that the men who do are made aware that this is unacceptable and that they’re called out.”

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria and Tom Hughes as Prince Albert in ITV’s ‘Victoria’

Goodwin is looking almost diva-like as she reclines on a chaise longue in full ski gear following a morning of cross-country skiing. Which is apt considering her new novel is the story of a real-life diva – the glamorous and wildly talented opera star Maria Callas. It’s certainly timely – it was the centenary of Callas’s birth in November 2023; Callas is currently spotlighted in the major V&A museum exhibition Diva, and Angelina Jolie is set to star this year as Callas in Maria, a biopic from Peaky Blinders writer Steven Knight.

“Callas was a heroine for modern women, because she lived life totally on her own terms,” Goodwin says. “She was the original girl boss. And you’ve got to admire that at a time when that was extremely difficult to do. There was much less acceptance of women who were single-minded about pursuing their career. She did not suffer fools gladly. She wasn’t prepared to put up with a bit of flirting to get what she wanted. I mean, there was no question of anyone harassing Maria.”

Feminist narratives underline much of Goodwin’s work. She claims the 18-year-old Queen Victoria, the subject of her 2016 novel and TV show, was already a female icon in the 1800s because of her “incredible sense of who she was and what she wanted to be”. As was Consuelo Vanderbilt, the American heiress who apparently cried as she walked down the aisle with the 10th Duke of Marlborough in 1895, as part of an aristocratic trend for arranged marriages, whose life loosely inspired Goodwin’s 2010 debut My Last Duchess. Meanwhile, Goodwin’s 2014 novel The Fortune Hunter focused on Austria’s free-spirited and tragic Empress Elisabeth, or “Sisi”, who was married to Emperor Franz, aged 16. The dullness of palace life was too much for her to bear; she took up smoking, and suffered from an eating disorder and depression.

“I’m always interested in the difference between the public persona and the private person,” she says. “I suppose it’s a little bit of imposter syndrome. You know, they are in these incredible positions of power. But, I think, underneath, there is a person who feels vulnerable and alone. And unworthy of all this attention.”

She was keen to challenge Callas’s image as being “temperamental, difficult, all these things that you associate with the word diva”. “These adjectives wouldn’t be applied to a man who was as devoted to their craft as Maria was,” she remarks. “I admire her for her perfectionism.” As part of her research, Goodwin trained in opera singing, taking lessons with young operatic soprano Josephine Goddard, and went to places that Callas hung out – including the Parisian restaurant Maxim’s where Callas and the love of her life, the fabulously rich Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, dined.

She dispels the idea that Callas died of a broken heart after Onassis, her lover of 10 years, left her for former first lady Jackie Kennedy, whom he later married. “Until she meets Onassis, there are very few people in her life who she knows love her for herself, rather than for her musical ability.” Yet Goodwin’s novel ends on a high note: despite life throwing Callas dramas of operatic proportions, “she put on an amazing front... the show went on.”

Goodwin lives in west London with her husband, Marcus Wilford, a TV executive, with whom she has two daughters, Ottile, 32, and Lydia, 23. She studied history at Cambridge and then headed to New York’s Columbia Film School (her dad is Richard B Goodwin, who produced the Oscar-winning film A Passage to India). She found her niche creating TV property renovation shows such as Grand Designs and Escape to the Country before turning to writing.

She has had her own epic setbacks – and survived them. In 2015, when she had begun writing the novel and the TV script for Victoria simultaneously, her house caught fire, after a small mirror left on her windowsill reflected sunlight onto the curtains. Later that year, she got breast cancer. “It was a pretty traumatic year – a big watershed,” says Goodwin.

Goodwin’s new novel ‘Diva’ is about the glamorous and wildly talented opera star Maria Callas

“It was just a sort of catalogue of unfortunate events... but it put things in perspective. Everyone says, ‘Oh it must be awful when you’ve lost all your things.’ Actually, things really don’t matter. I was amazed at how little I missed the stuff that I lost. I mean, lots of things of great sentimental value, but in the end, you know, nobody died... my dogs are okay.” She now has a clean bill of health and still lives in her house, which was rebuilt. Victoria went on to become a huge Sunday night hit on TV in 2016, running for three series until 2019, and gained extra tabloid attention when its stars Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes, who played the Germanic, wooden-like Albert, had a real-life romance off screen. She is now working on a new novel, After Albert – about Queen Victoria in widowhood and her possible affair with her personal servant John Brown.

She’s also on a mission to help women find “safety in numbers” when reporting sexual assault. While women have become increasingly confident in speaking up since MeToo, the conviction rate is shockingly low. What’s more, according to a UN Women UK YouGov survey in 2021, 16 per cent of women still don’t report an incident of sexual harassment because they think they won’t be believed.

“I’ve been thinking about how to help women who have been assaulted, groped or harassed be able to report whatever has happened in such a way that, if there’s a match and other people report the same man, then it’s investigated,” she says.

The problem, at the moment, she says, is that “if you’re one person, it’s a ‘he said, she said’ situation’”.

“The moment you’ve got five women saying that the same thing that’s happened, and it’s usually never a one-off thing, then you’ve got a case because you’ve got a pattern of behaviour.” She pauses for a minute. “I think it’s very hard for one woman to come forward. I was lucky. You know, I had no skin in the game.”

Diva is published by Head of Zeus on 14 March

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