Victoria: The Queen
Julia Baird, Harper Collins, ISBN 978 0 7322 9569, 700pp
Hot on the heels of the British TV series on Queen Victoria comes Julia Baird’s somewhat substantial volume on the monarch. At almost 700 pages this book is physically weighty though not quite as intellectually weighty as I would have liked. Nonetheless it is an easy and interesting read but I doubt that it will satisfy the serious scholar.
Julia Baird is a well-known journalist and broadcaster based in Sydney. I had heard of her from her 2004 book called, enticingly perhaps, “Media Tarts: Female Politicians and the Press” which looked at the (appalling) role of the press in the difficulties faced by female politicians in Australia. I had watched the British TV series and had conceived a new fascination for Queen Victoria so when I saw Baird’s volume at the airport recently I went for it.
Baird’s own website remarks that “this page-turning biography reveals the real woman behind the myth: a bold, glamorous, unbreakable queen”. I’m not sure that it quite did this but it is a more interesting and engaging attempt that Christopher Hibbert’s earlier life published 15 years ago. The book seems not to be quite balanced between the earlier part of her life, up to Albert’s death in 1861, and the latter part of her life, between then and her death forty years later in 1901. Perhaps Baird’s thesis is that Victoria’s character was defined by her experiences up to 1861. But there is an inconsistency here that Baird does not address. Victoria came to the throne somewhat unexpectedly at the age of barely eighteen. She seems to have dealt forthrightly with an overbearing mother and the dreadful Sir John Conroy. Conroy was kicked out of Victoria’s household and Victoria broke with her mother (though they reconciled later) yet in later years to have been less assertive.
One gets the impression from these earlier years that Victoria was a passionate, capable and determined young woman. But after Albert’s death she seems no longer to display these qualities, or at least not in such a striking way. To what extent this is due to the prevailing political circumstances is not clear. Baird set out to paint a picture of a person; she does not set out to describe the political environment of the latter part of the 19th century. I suspect our understanding of Victoria between 1861 and 1901 may be the poorer because of this. We learn from Baird that she got on well with Disraeli and that she did not like Gladstone. These two alternated as her prime ministers between 1864 and 1894 punctuated by a short and longer term by Lord Salisbury.
Baird’s book has caused me to re-evaluate the life and role of Albert, the Prince Consort. He died prematurely, Baird suggests of Crohn’s disease exacerbated by stress. He was a workaholic and seemed to suffer from what we would today call obsessive compulsive disorder. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was driven by his energy and foresight. I have certainly added to my reading list Stanley Weintraub’s “The Uncrowned King”. The relationship between Victoria and Albert was based on what seems to have been a strong physical attraction. They produced nine children between 1841 and 1857. Albert had a powerful influence on Victoria and she seems, eventually, to have succumbed to his intellectual prowess in spite of the fact that she seems to have been no intellectual slouch.
Having finished the book, I am struggling to reconcile the strong woman who came to the throne in 1837, with the woman who seems to have been over-awed by her husband until his death. And after his death, what was it that made her develop such unusual relationships with John Brown and later with Abdul Karim? It’s easy to say that this was driven by a need for male companionship and perhaps it is that simple, But I don’t think so.
Most interesting is Baird’s Epilogue in which she recounts her exchanges with the Senior Archives at the Royal Archives. It is clear there is much about Victoria and her relationships that we do not know and probably never will.
Above: Victoria wearing her small diamond crown Photograph by Alexander Bassano, 1882 Contributed copy by Trevor Moore