Julia Baird: Victoria: The Queen

From International New York Times columnist Julia Baird comes a magnificent biography of Queen Victoria. Drawing on previously unpublished papers, Victoria: The Queen is a stunning new portrait of the real woman behind the myth—a story of love and heartbreak, of devotion and grief, of strength and resilience.

When Victoria was born, in 1819, the world was a very different place. Revolution would begin to threaten many of Europe’s monarchies in the coming decades. In Britain, a generation of royals had indulged their whims at the public’s expense, and republican sentiment was growing. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the landscape, and the British Empire was commanding ever larger tracts of the globe. Born into a world where woman were often powerless, during a century roiling with change, Victoria went on to rule the most powerful country on earth with a decisive hand.

Fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, Victoria was an ordinary woman thrust into an extraordinary role. As a girl, she defied her mother’s meddling and an adviser’s bullying, forging an iron will of her own. As a teenage queen, she eagerly grasped the crown and relished the freedom it brought her. At twenty years old, she fell passionately in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, eventually giving birth to nine children. She loved sex and delighted in power. She was outspoken with her ministers, overstepping boundaries and asserting her opinions. After the death of her adored Albert, she began a controversial, intimate relationship with her servant John Brown. She survived eight assassination attempts over the course of her lifetime. And as science, technology, and democracy were dramatically reshaping the world, Victoria was a symbol of steadfastness and security—queen of a quarter of the world’s population at the height of the British Empire’s reach.

Drawing on sources that include revelations about Victoria’s relationship with John Brown, Julia Baird brings vividly to life the fascinating story of a woman who struggled with so many of the things we do today: balancing work and family, raising children, navigating marital strife, losing parents, combating anxiety and self-doubt, finding an identity, searching for meaning. This sweeping, page-turning biography gives us the real woman behind the myth: a bold, glamorous, unbreakable queen—a Victoria for our times, a Victoria who endured.

OOOOOH boy. This book, like Victoria’s reign, is long and never ending. Except when it does end, it happens suddenly, without warning, and you’re left with half a book left of notes and annexation.

It was interesting reading this so soon after watching The Crown. Obviously two different queens entirely, different time periods, different manners, different ideals. But the same challenges, prejudices, ageism, and misogyny. I could certainly see how the groundwork for Elizabeth’s reign was laid by Victoria’s. But that’s a different story altogether. Back to Victoria…

There’s so incredibly much to be learned here. I really knew nothing about Queen Victoria before starting this, except that there is a whole group of people and culture named after her. Who knew that her husband was the main influence of that movement–not actually Victoria herself? My reading journal is filled to the brim with the new random facts I gained by reading this.

But, that’s also my biggest criticism too. Sometimes this book doesn’t seem like much of a biography of Victoria at all. Often I wasn’t sure if she even respected the Queen, and I feel like that is kind of a necessary qualification for writing a biography about someone. It’s hard to figure the author’s motivations. Did she want to write about Victoria, but lose respect after getting into the research? Was she just super into the time period and decide the Queen would be the best base? I’m not sure. At times it almost felt more of Florence Nightingale’s commentary on Queen Victoria’s lack of feminism.

Speaking of which, let’s be clear. Queen Victoria was NOT a feminist. Which was wholly disappointing to discover–and why I wonder if the author misses the respect needed to write the biography she intended. Albert was that husband that very much dissed woman’s suffrage and even though his wife was THE QUEEN, still managed to convince her that he deserved more power over her. The work felt bitter because of it, especially when Nightingale stuck her nose in.

As an informative biography, I think it’s extremely well researched. I found the details fascinating, and as usual I loved reading about a monarch I didn’t previously know much (or anything) about. However, there definitely seems to be a bias here. I am unsure if it was intentional or if the history really was colored that way, but there’s just some weird tone that I haven’t felt in other similar biographies. Hm. I need to think on this one.

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NetGalley and Random House provided this ARC for an unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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