Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird

One of the best biographies I’ve read recently.

Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird

‘Few would have bet Victoria would become queen of the British Isles.’

Sub-titled an intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire, this book seeks to portray the person of Victoria behind the myth that has arisen since her death.  Myth? Many of Queen Victoria’s papers were destroyed or censored after her death, to preserve a particular image of her.  In preparing this biography, Ms Baird has had access to previously unpublished papers.  In a general note, at the end of the book Ms Baird states: ‘All passages that discuss what Victoria was thinking, feeling or wearing are based directly on journal entries, letters and other contemporary evidence referenced below.’

A lot has been written about Queen Victoria.  Born in 1819, she was fifth in the line to the throne and was never expected to become queen.  When Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, she was aged just eighteen.  She lived through a period of great change and by the time of her death in 1901, aged eighty-one, the world had changed significantly.  This was the era of great technological change, of disastrous wars, and colonial expansion.  It was also the era of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, and Florence Nightingale.

But what of the woman herself?  Victoria was aged twenty when she fell in love with her cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.  They had nine children.  In Ms Baird’s words:

‘The marriage between Victoria and Albert is one of the greatest romances of modern history.  It was genuine, devoted and fruitful.  Together, they ushered in an era when the monarchy would shift from direct power to indirect influence, and from being the fruit of the aristocracy to becoming the symbol of the middle class.’

Victoria was no cipher: when dealing with her ministers, she was outspoken and asserted her opinions.  She also survived eight assassination attempts.  After Albert died, aged only forty-two, she had a close relationship with her servant John Brown. A passionate woman who needed intimacy and closeness.  The image I’d previously formed was quite different.  I kept reading, interested to find out more about this woman who was still Queen when two of my grandparents were born towards the end of the nineteenth century.  I was fascinated, too, that the adjective ‘Victorian’ had come to mean stuffy, prudish or hypocritical when Victoria herself seemed more broad-minded.

‘What is more startling today is to discover what a robust and interventionist ruler Victoria was.’

This is one of the most accessible and interesting biographies I have read recently.  There are pages and pages of notes for those interested in sources, but the notes themselves do not interrupt the flow of the book. The picture of Victoria that emerges is of a complicated woman, a successful and strong woman who negotiated her path in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society.  I was interested in how closely she worked with her prime ministers, especially Disraeli, and how she disliked Gladstone.

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the life and reign of Queen Victoria.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith