Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire
For as much as we think we understand a historical figure like Queen Victoria, there’s always that little morsel to be found that opens our eyes and makes us wonder once more. Author Julia Baird does an excellent job of introducing us not just to Queen Victoria, but to Victoria herself, with all her faults and feats.
My knowledge of Victoria was always basic --- longest reigning monarch (until the current Queen of England changed that), petite, married to a man she adored, had nine children --- but I knew very little of her politics. It’s amazing to think of her at the age of 18 accepting so much responsibility, willingly, when having the poise and grace to do that at any age is difficult. Granted, we are talking about a woman who was raised to be queen. She was a spoiled child who was known to have an incredible temper later in life, but could somehow find the control to wield amazing power when needed.
While she clearly had a healthy respect for her position, and the power with which she was entrusted, Victoria had very little understanding of her subjects at large. For a woman who never interacted with the outside world, this wasn’t surprising. Victoria was intelligent and understanding, if clouded by her royal trappings. At times she could be very uncaring regarding certain sections of the population because she saw everything through the lens of being queen. What was good for her country was not always good for her subjects, and she sometimes missed that connection. Still, she always did what she thought was best for her country and never lost sight of that end goal.
"Julia Baird does an excellent job of introducing us not just to Queen Victoria, but to Victoria herself, with all her faults and feats."
For a woman so sheltered, Victoria never had a warm or comfortable family life, constantly at odds with those around her who were doing their best to control her future. It was not until she married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha that she finally understood what family could mean. She was a passionate woman who clearly was not afraid to express her love for her husband at a time when sex was not discussed, and found stability and maturity in marriage. While she clearly loved her children, she notoriously complained about the toll pregnancy took on her body and her life.
Family transformed Victoria in other ways as well. She went from a confident 19-year-old to a 35-year-old who was the leader of an empire in her own right, but who questioned her own intelligence simply because of her gender. She relied heavily on Albert, who ended up belittling her choices in order to increase his own power, and it’s sad to see a woman who fought so hard for her independence cave that easily.
Victoria’s inability to grasp the basic human needs of her subjects was a fault of hers. For instance, she believed that reducing the work day to 10 hours would harm the economy and throw the country into an economic slump as opposed to being concerned about the health, safety and welfare of her subjects. Victoria was a strange mixture of beliefs, and this was a prime example. While extolling the virtues of being a wife and mother, neglecting the fact that she was a working woman, she would also look down on females in the working class who were fighting for their rights. Fighting to keep and strengthen her own power was something Victoria did with fervor. Well into her 70s, she was still battling with her ministers. If she ever recognized this contradiction, it wasn’t noted, but it does make her all that much more interesting.
Victoria reigned during a time of amazing innovation --- railroads, indoor plumbing, the typewriter --- and seemed to marvel at it all. She was a curious and smart person who engaged with scientists, doctors and statesmen, and could intimidate like no other. She was admired but could be infuriating and forever will be remembered as a woman who helped to usher in great change, even if she didn’t agree with it. Victoria ruled an empire, sometimes by sheer will, and was an agent of change in ways she didn’t live to see.
Reviewed by Amy Gwiazdowski on November 23, 2016