“Have you been watching Victoria on PBS? Swoon. I hear The Crown on Netflix is fabulous too,” my friend Sara Bhatia emailed recently. I’ve heard the same! Today, Elizabeth Colton Walls regales us with the life and times of Queen Victoria – prompted by Julia Baird’s new biography Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire.
Don’t let the frumpy photos fool you – Queen Victoria was a piece of work. As Prime Minister William Gladstone said with feeling, “The Queen alone is enough to kill any man.”
Victoria was self-pitying, stubborn, highly critical (especially of her children), partisan, humorless, selfish, prudish, and manipulative.
She was also touchingly self-conscious about her weight, passionate, loyal, brutally honest, tolerant (especially regarding race and religion), sentimental, dutiful, disciplined, and physically brave.
This rich, contradictory personality along with her roles as devoted wife, mother of nine, and Queen make Victoria endlessly fascinating to historians and the public alike. In recent years, two well-regarded biographies have been published, and Masterpiece Theater launched a Victoria mini-series (the latter an unsatisfying attempt to capture the popularity of Downton Abbey, but I digress!).
Under normal circumstances, as the only child of the fourth of George III’s seven sons, Victoria would be at the back of the line of succession. But as the years rolled on and her “wicked uncles” neglected to produce any legitimate heirs (William, the Duke of Clarence had ten illegitimate children), Victoria moved to the top rung of the royal ladder.
But it almost didn’t happen. Her father, the Duke of Kent, was quite happily living with his mistress when he belatedly realized that his family had a shot at the throne. So he quickly dumped his mistress, and at age fifty he married Victoria’s mother, a thirty-two-year-old penniless widow from Coburg, Germany. Fortunately, she produced a child.
After an isolated and simultaneously suffocating childhood, Victoria’s favorite thing about being a young Queen was getting away from her mother (literally – Victoria moved to another palace) and making her own decisions, a thrilling novelty for the nineteen- year-old.
But in a few years, she was thrilled to share decision making with her great love, Prince Albert, who has sometimes gotten a bum rap in the history books. In part, this was because he was German and therefore never fully embraced by the British. Also Victoria’s obsessive mourning had the counter effect she intended – by making Albert a saint, she obscured his real personality and accomplishments.
In reality, for twenty years, Albert was acting king with Victoria playing his able number two at their adjoining desks. Almost all the meaningful innovations and reforms of the early 19th century were Albert’s idea, who was more liberal and intellectually curious than Victoria. Of course, Victoria was busy giving birth to nine children. (That’s eighty-one months of pregnancy – not without risk in the mid-19th century.)
After Albert’s death, Victoria ruled another thirty-nine years, complaining all the time about the intense work load, which in fact she handled quite competently.
In the post-Albert years, her only other significant attachment was to John Brown, the Scottish servant to whom she was wildly devoted, scandalizing her government, her children, and her staff. (See the movie Mrs. Brown staring Judi Dench as Victoria.) Sadly, we don’t know many details of their long relationship because her family destroyed almost all mention of Brown from Victoria’s journals and correspondence.
In fact, much of Victoria’s correspondence was highly edited or destroyed. It is only because there was just so darn much of it, that we have anything left.
Victoria was a indefatigable diarist and letter writer. It is estimated that she wrote an average of two and half thousand words per day during her reign for a total of approximately sixty million words, with much CAPITALIZATION and underlining. She kept journals for her entire life recording conversations, political events, family drama, and her strong opinions. She also wrote a best-selling book about her life in the Highlands, Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands.
Although there is still reams of material, various officials and family members have chipped away at Victoria’s legacy.
Arthur Benson and Lord Esher, the officials tasked with culling the Queen’s early correspondence, used their own idiosyncratic criteria to delete anything that appeared excessively assertive, unfeminine, or insulting. References to the children and correspondence with other women were regarded as trivial and not likely to make the cut either.
Most of Victoria’s correspondence with her favorite prime minister, the witty Benjamin Disraeli, is missing and many of the details of the Lady Flora scandal have disappeared.
But it was Victoria’s youngest daughter, Beatrice, who did the most damage. Victoria asked her daughter to transcribe and edit all of Victoria’s journals, a job that took decades. (Beatrice was still editing her mother’s journals at the start of WWII!) Beatrice wrote the journals out in her own hand and destroyed the originals, a tragedy for historical research.
WHO WROTE IT
Julia Baird is a journalist, broadcaster, and author based in Sydney, Australia. She is a columnist for the International New York Times and host of The Drum on ABC TV (Australia). She has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Sydney.
WHAT OTHER REVIEWERS SAY
Jon Meacham: “With elegance and keen insight, Julia Baird has painted a memorable, moving, and surprising portrait of one of the most important women in history. This is a remarkable book; in Baird’s hands, Victoria’s story resonates in our own time, shedding new light on why we the live the way we do now.”
To fill in the gaps, I highly recommend An Uncommon Woman, Hannah Pakula’s biography of Victoria and Albert’s oldest child, Vicky, The Empress Frederick, wife of the Crown Prince of Prussia, and mother of Kaiser Wilhelm and The Heir Apparent, A Life of Edward VII, The Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley.
For a biography with more emphasis than Baird’s on the political and cultural history of the era, I also recommend Victoria, A Life by A. N. Wilson. (2014)
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For more wonderful reading recommendations from Elizabeth, check in at her blog! Today’s post originally appeared there.