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 Drawing on previously unpublished papers, Victoria: The Queen is a stunning new portrait of the real woman behind the myth—a story of love and heartbreak, of devotion and grief, of strength and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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Review: The Woman in White

‘In one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop… There, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth, stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white’

The Woman in White famously opens with Walter Hartright’s eerie encounter on a moonlit London road. Engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, Walter becomes embroiled in the sinister intrigues of Sir Percival Glyde and his ‘charming’ friend Count Fosco, who has a taste for white mice, vanilla bonbons, and poison. Pursuing questions of identity and insanity along the paths and corridors of English country houses and the madhouse, The Woman in White is the first and most influential of the Victorian genre that combined Gothic horror with psychological realism.

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I’ll be real honest with you. I had no flippin’ idea what was happening in this book for the first half. This was one that I had to Wiki before I could start following the plot! That helped a LOT.

Don’t be afraid to cheat, kids. At least not when reading literature.

Once I did, I realized that Wilkie Collins 1)was a goddamn genius; and 2)probably confused the hell out of every single person in the 1850s. Think about the modern detective novel:  multiple perspectives, multiple narratives, documents as plot devices, and of course redirection. Those things we all expect now, but in fiction written before the turn of the century? I have never seen that before. It’s always written with one narrator, a steady, but pretty predictable plot. There might be some twists and creativity, of course, but The Woman in White does not look anything like a normal 1850s novel.

And that’s why I couldn’t follow it at first. I was expecting the normal classic pattern, and that is not what I was getting.

There IS a fair maiden, trapped in an arranged marriage, in love with someone else. But she’s not even the heroine of the story. She is the victim, and a secondary character. It is her sister–ugly, dark, mustachioed–who plays the femme fatale, with mind instead of body. The men may love fair Laura, but Marian is everybody’s friend and confidante, in on the schemes. She was by far my favorite.

Mental illness plays an interesting role in this as well, especially for the time period. Again, instead of being super stigmatized as it normally would be, the leads try to help the woman suffering instead of sending her back to the horrible asylum where she was kept.

Nothing in this book is normal or predictable. It was long, and hard to read, but once I found the rhythm I found I did not hate it. I can’t say I like it…not yet…but at least I understand it. I am intrigued. It’ll go onto the reread list for someday. I think a second read-through will make everything more clear.

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Fulfill’s #112 on Boxall’s List

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The Life and Death of Harriett Frean

Harriett is the Victorian embodiment of all the virtues then viewed as essential to the womanly ideal: a woman reared to love, honour and obey. Idolising her parents, she learns from childhood to equate love with self-sacrifice, so that when she falls in love with the fiance of her closest friend, there is only one way to confront such an unworthy passion. Or so it seems…

This short novella begins and ends with Harriett Frean and her mother. Sixty some years pass in between.  Childhood, family tragedy, romantic complications, and then navigating the perils of adulthood all must come. It’s only 184 pages, but Sinclair’s story is complicated and thoughtfully written.

I was most intrigued by Prissy and Harriett’s relationship. There are declarations of love–they say they will never marry for love of one another. It seems very gay. And then strangely…they fall in love with the same man? What a weird love triangle. Love quadrangle? It was all very tragic, indeed.

My love of female Victorians continues. I am not so surprised that I enjoyed this, except for its brevity. (Ugh, can you tell I’ve been reading Victorian fiction? This review is so pretentious!)

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This fulfills Boxall #107.

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The Madman’s Daughter

Man, I should have saved these last few books for next week. I am on an accidental Frankenstein kick…WHOOPS!

To be fair, I knew The Determined Heart was about Mary Shelley, but I wanted to get that review out before its publishing date. But The Madman’s Daughter was recommended to me by a friend and I had no idea what the subject matter was. It’s pretty much Frankenstein on steroids.

Juliet’s father left her mother when she was quiet young. As a result, her mother became a prostitute, and when she died, Juliet went to work as a maid for a hospital. She grew up hearing the rumors of her father’s mad experiments–she’s no stranger to the darkness everyone talks about behind her back. But when she comes across an old file in a place it shouldn’t be, she finds out her father is not only still alive, he’s still conducting his old experiments and sharing them with students. When she goes looking for him, what she finds is so much worse than she thought.

Megan Shepherd has taken Frankenstein’s need for god-like power and super-charged it by turning up the doctor’s creative powers and madness. Dr. Moreau (I didn’t realize until I just went to look up his name, but this is a spin-off story of HG Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. Moving that one up my list now!) has realized the ability to combine human with animal to create a “superior” beast, and he has isolated himself on an island to perform his experiments. Juliet arrives there somewhat naively, looking for her father–who she knows is mad, but not quite to what extent–and finds the island wild and bloody and scary.

The thriller aspect of the book drew me in, and there is also quite a bit of romance (LOVE TRIANGLE ALERT!). I did get a little bored in the middle, but then it picked back up again when all hell broke loose and we started to really see the creatures. I REALLY wish I could draw, because I can so clearly see some of them in my mind–Balthazar is very Mastiffy with floppy ears, and Alice, of course, is wearing a frilly blue dress like her Wonderland version…with just something rabbity about her face. And Jaguar–I could feel the power coming off of him. Oh man. Someone good at comics please make fan art for this book. Please please please. I need this to be a graphic novel. It would be SO GOOD AS A GRAPHIC NOVEL.

 

Overall, I’ll rate this one as a solid three. I really liked it, didn’t love it, mostly because the middle just dragged a bit. But it’s definitely an exciting read for sci-fi/victorian period fans. And of course if you like Frankenstein or HG Wells (MUST move that up on the TBR), grab this from your library…

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Oscar Wilde

June is Pride Month, and so to celebrate, I added some specific books to my TBR. The Empty Family had several gay narrators. I’m listening to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe on audiobook on my walks, so I’ll review that one when I am finished. And Under the Lights was a bit of a surprise that I’m not revealing, but that one turned out perfect for the theme too!

I wish there were more books out there with LGBT characters, and my library has been posting a lot of recommendations, many of which I have added to my TBR. If you have some good ones, shoot them my way!

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The book I was most excited to read for Pride was about one of my favorite authors, Oscar Wilde. Written as part of a series called Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians, Jeff Nunokawa gives us a short but informative piece on Wilde’s struggle to be a prominent gentleman in 19th century England, while living his life the way he needed to.

I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed. Obviously, you can’t fit that much life into 100 pages. The information was there, it just wasn’t that grandeur you expect when reading about Oscar Wilde. It was very “This happened on this date.”

And ok, I can live with that. What really got to me though was that here we have a book about a gay man in the 19th century, at the height of Victorian censorship. His very name stood for persecution.

And then in the book written ABOUT this man…this happens:

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Now, I am sure it was a publishing error, but still. There was about 10 pages missing, randomly in the middle of the book. And in a 100 page book, that’s a lot of information.

Just kind of makes you wonder, huh? It IS a library copy.

Anyway. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I skipped to the end, past the snow white pages, and read about the trial and sad end to this brilliant man’s career.

Time to read something a little less sad.

What are you reading for Pride? I hope all my LGBT friends are having a fantastic month!

Jane Eyre

I keep seeing this post floating around on Tumblr about how Charlotte Bronte fell in love with Jane Fairfax from Emma, and so she wrote a fanfiction about her as a governess. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but that post was enough to get me to read both Emma and Jane Eyre somewhat back to back!

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This is my second read-through (I listened to the audiobook when I was in college), and I love Jane Eyre even more now than I did the first time. Of course I always get more from a book by actually reading than listening.

Jane is such a prim, proper, plain-looking character. If you look up an images search of the way she’s been portrayed over the years, she always looks so delicate. But Jane Eyre is anything but soft. She maybe a woman with very strict ideals–but she fights for those ideals with conviction and a steady conscience. Not much can sway her.

This book is so much more than a love story. Of course, the romance is there, but that really isn’t the important part of the narrative. What else do we have?

  1. Child abuse
  2. Poverty
  3. Epidemic
  4. Feminism
  5. Mental Illness
  6. Importance of family ties and friendship
  7. Hypocrisy
  8. Disability

And the list could go on and on, but this is the major stuff that I noticed. All this from a Victorian/Gothic novel. You don’t see that happen to often.

I did have one question to pose, maybe someone out there can answer it for me.

One thing I am always curious about with 1800s women’s literature is why they never give the names of places (and sometimes dates). It’s always –shire or S(…setting). Is it a lack of creativity regarding places, or was there some unspoken rule about listing where the setting was? London is always mentioned, and Bath, but anywhere else is left to mystery. It’s always so frustrating to me, and I can not help but wonder why this is!

Rebel Queen

I read Michelle Moran’s Nefertiti a few months ago, and was completely drawn into her historical fiction, so when NetGalley offered me the ARC of her new book Rebel Queen my reaction was a resounding YES PLEASE!!!!!!

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There is “historical fiction” that is loosely based on a time period or event, but I never really take it any more seriously than any other fiction book that I read.

Than there is REAL HISTORICAL FICTION, where the author does buckets and buckets of research, and the end product is more fact than novel. There’s usually a hefty author’s note at the beginning, and an even bigger one at the end, explaining all of the changes made to the real events. And when you read the book, it does not take long to imagine yourself in ancient Egypt, or in India during the British colonization.

This is how I feel when I read Michelle Moran’s books. I really liked Nefertiti…I LOVED Rebel Queen. It is one of those books that even when I am not actively reading it, I’m playing parts of it in my head. Serious book hangover here. Last night while I was cutting potatoes for dinner, I was definitely reliving scenes from the Rani Mahal.

There’s such a vast spectrum of culture described in this book, and I was completely enthralled. And then when the bright colors of India clash up against Victorian England–it is almost comical to watch–the difference in modesty rules:  showing belly but not breasts vs breasts but not belly, men eating with women, kissing hands. Brightness does not always mean vulgarity.

The strength of female characters in this history is what struck me the most. The Rani and her Durga Dal are fierce competition for the British. In a country where most women are in purdah, and where in the rest of the world women are seen as meek and mild socialites, having a group of educated, strong, fighting women is such an amazing thing to me. These are good heroes. Can we start teaching our girls about these women in school?

This book is a win. It’s release date is set for March 3, and it is definitely on my TO BUY list!

Disclaimer:  This ARC was given to me by NetGalley.

I’m going to count this as #28 on PopSugar Challenge (A book with antonyms in the title), because it’s probably as close as I’m going to get.