Monday, November 14, 2016

Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird (2016)

A very strong first half.  I picked up this book thinking "what on earth is there new to read about Queen Victoria?" and then was more than pleasantly surprised - elated, intrigued - to find that Baird had spun out a lively and feminist point of view regarding the queen.  Princess Beatrice selectively edited her mother's journals and letters; King Edward VII burned the letters of some of the Victoria's sketchier companions; John Brown, the second great love of the queen's life after her beloved Albert, was mostly excised.  Male historians also selectively de-feminized the queen, thinking her letters to others about motherhood and childcare weren't of any importance; this erased some of the queen's feminity, and led future generations to think the queen hated children, her own children in particular (she did not; what she disliked was being pregnant nine times in a row).  Baird's re-imagining of the queen, at least in the first half or so, has my enthusiastic thumbs up.  I WAS amused.

If the second half falls a tad bit, I think that's simply because historians just have no idea what to do with Victoria once Albert is gone.  This is in large part due to the fact that much of the record from this time period has been purposely destroyed.  There is very little physical evidence of her relationship with John Brown, for instance; the queen's children all made sure of this.  As Miss Marple would say  "where there is smoke, there is fire."  Baird's baldly stating that the Queen was in love with John Brown, regardless of the physicality of that relationship, was a startling but also nice thing to see; she also has some proof about at least talk of the physicality (I won't spoil what that is though).  Baird also writes convincingly that Disraeli was homosexual, which I had never read before.  Quite intriguing!

"What exactly was the constitutional role of the queen?"  That seems to be the theme of the second half, to the exclusion of more intimate details.  I think these details must exist - the queen had ladies in waiting like Marie Mallet who later wrote books; grandchildren like Marie of Rumania who wrote books; there is plenty of sources in which to dig for treasure.  But Baird concentrates much on how, once Victoria emerged from mourning (when it was convenient, that is), she was a most unconstitutional monarch.  Although unlike her earlier pre-Albert blunders in which she acted out against her ministers, she was still quite an actor on the national stage of the United Kingdom and the world, particularly in foreign affairs.  This was not a surprise to me; I knew that in contrasting the modern monarchy with Victoria, power has evaporated and the current queen's ancestor was not only feisty, but also far more politically powerful.

The current queen's son sounds like he's going to push more boundaries - perhaps push the boundaries back to the time of his Great-Great-Great Grandmother.

Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an EmpireVictoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My initial instinct when I saw this book was "What more can we possibly learn about Queen Victoria?" Victoria and her family are one of my favorite subjects on which to read, but to be honest everything seems to be a rehash of everything else. But I came away from Baird's book pleasantly surprised! There are new new tidbits - I won't spoil - and Baird takes what I would call a feminist point of view on much of Victoria's life. She's proved beyond doubt (at least to me) that the Queen was a strong-willed, politically bent, unconstitutional monarch to her dying day, constantly trying to grab (back) power. Baird also argues that male historians (and the queen's descendants) have redacted some of Victoria's life, including her maternal instincts.

The first half of this book is the strongest, likely due to what plagues all Victorian scholars - most of the details of Victoria's life in mourning has been discounted or disappeared. But Baird makes the most of her material, and injects a few new discoveries.

If you've read everything there is to read on Victoria and are hungering for more, add this to your reading list. And if you are dying to start reading about the amusing queen, this is a terrific place to start.


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