Born in May 1819 and living until January 1901, Victoria, the Queen of England lived a long time and that period would have been a fascinating study with almost anyone in Britain at the center. The Queen of England was not only in the spotlight herself but she had a front row seat for a vision of the world.
Baird’s compellingly written biography makes Victoria really come alive in all her complexity- warts and all.
Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire
by Julia Baird
2016 / 752 pages
read by Lucy Rayner 21h 8m
rating: 8.75 / nonfiction – biography
When King George died rather suddenly in 1837, Victoria had just turned 18. So, as heir presumptive, she took the thrown and proceeded to rule until her death at the age of 81 in 1901, a full 63 1/2 years during which a whole multitude of important things happened to her, England, the British Empire, Europe and the world including the excesses of the industrial revolution, the development of the arts and sciences, knuckle-crunching politics, revolution and war. She was one of the early users of anesthesia and her 9 children married royal cousins only to spread hemophilia amongst their ranks. That’s just the barest of tidbits regarding her life and the times.
This is a truly impressive book, but you might want to pay attention to the subtitle because this truly is “An Intimate Biography.” It covers not only the people and issues of the times but it’s primary focus is on Victoria’s ideas and her private life. To that effect it is carefully researched and incredibly well organized (think of putting all those quotes into a narrative), with Victoria’s character and family relationships threaded through the stories of the French difficulties, cholera, child labor, the Great Exhibition, the Crimean War, Indian uprisings, the British Reform Laws, the Irish Question, etc. through women’s issues (a particularly interesting section) and Disraeli and Gladstone and finally, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt all knew of her as they grew to manhood – my own grandmother was 8 or 9 years old when Queen Victoria died – and how long ago that seems.
The focus on family and personal life does not recede after Albert’s death and their children were mostly grown and gone to various places throughout the Empire, to Russia and Prussia, and Denmark with several in various places throughout Germany – only a couple left at home at that point. Because after his death she still had run-ins with Gladstone and others and it even seems Victoria had a couple of “best friends” who happened to be male – John Brown, a Scot with eyes similar to Albert’s, and Abdul Karim a Muslim from India who had his own plans. She lived a long full life so it’s a long full book.
Still, Victoria the woman seems wrapped in mystery and myth. She was certainly a strong enough ruler in general, but she managed to balance a traditional family life along with her work – or the appearance of a traditional family life, anyway, or the appearance of a strong leader. And the surprising thing, to me anyway, was how active a part Prince Albert actually played in her reign – for as long as he lived, anyway. And she was completely in accord with this as he was the man of the family. Whatever, they were generally well suited and very family oriented. He was more intelligent while she was more sensitive.
Although she worked hard daily, Albert also worked hard, harder maybe, at keeping abreast of all that was happening and the arguments for one side or the other on issues of the day. For all that, it also seems that while Victoria was a sentimental and dependent woman, Albert was more distanced, cognitive and sometimes calculating. He too, brilliant and pious as he was, was also devoted to their children and their lives together.
Victoria never really recovered from Albert’s rather sudden death in 1861 at age 42. Victoria was also 42 but lived another 40 years alone. And unbeknownst to the public at large, after awhile she went back to work although it took her 5 years to open Parliament.
I was fascinated by Victoria’s childhood and thought the book would probably lose its steam somehow. Not so! It was even more compelling as I read along.
I was intrigued by the woman of Victoria but that would have been too sweet-sop if it had not been broken by or interwoven with the accounts of world affairs. These subjects and the issues are presented with enough detail to recognize their complexity but not so much as to overwhelm the reader. Nicely balance overall.
There are great extras with the print or Kindle version of the book – maps, family trees, a list of characters, a photo section, notes at the end of each chapter (these are read in the Audible format) and notes at the end of the book.
The narrator is a bit heavy on the British accent and a gossipy little tone but imo, that might have actually made it less dry – (yes, even intimate can get dry). But I got totally used to the voice – it suited the book after awhile.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert,_Prince_Consort
Author interview: http://www.npr.org/2016/11/27/503489407/julia-baird-paints-a-stronger-more-likable-victoria-the-queen
Baird’s site: http://www.juliabaird.me/books/