Victoria The Queen

by Julia Baird

  • HarperCollins Publishers 2016
  • ISBN: 9780732295691
  • ISBN 10: 0732295696
  • RRP $49.99 (hb)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

It has a glorious cover and at just under 700 pages is a long read. For all that, it is also a page turner. Julia Baird, in Victoria The Queen, has tackled a larger than life topic in writing a biography of Queen Victoria.

As Baird has said, the idea for doing so was generated with Hilary Clinton’s loss, against Barack Obama, in the 2008 US presidential election’s Democrat nominations race. Hilary’s consolation prize was to be appointed Secretary of State by President Obama. But Clinton’s rise was in the competitive world of democratic politics; Queen Victoria’s was vastly different.

To understand the connection, Baird has explained that the inspiration, for her, was to tackle the vexed issue of women and power in a predominantly masculine profession. In doing so, Baird’s biography digs into the layers of psychological and social entrapment for women against male superiority, in the nineteenth century and beyond, accepted as a fact by both men and women. Yet, Baird’s biography is no feminist tract.

Victoria’s long life as Queen (1837-1901) in a lineage dominated by males, as much as her own dominance of the politics of her age, has made Queen Victoria’s iconic status one that has been poured over and analysed for decades. Further, the lives of royals are shrouded in public relations puff and deference, along with secrecy akin to none. Unravelling a portrait that is credible and accessible for readers of the early 2000s of any such monarch is no small task.

With the destruction of much of Victoria and Albert’s personal archives by their youngest child Beatrice, as Victoria’s editor of her voluminous diaries, such was the prolific nature of the Queen’s pen that there is still much to explore. And rare rescues, such as the copying of a small book of letters between Albert and Victoria, before Beatrice destroyed the original, point the way to deeper understandings.

It is Baird’s mission to dig Victoria out from under what she calls “a mountain of myths, created by observers, sycophants, monarchists, republicans and herself and bolstered by the royal family ever since”. And those myths are listed in a somewhat dramatic tone as:

Myths such as when Albert died, she died too. That she loathed her children. That she was an impeccably constitutional, well-behaved queen. That she disliked power, lacked ambition and loved only the domestic. That she was a simple product of the men who advised and shaped her. … And, of course, that her servant John Brown was just a good friend. And there are myths of her own creation: that Albert was flawless, and she was only his supplicant shadow. All of this is nonsense.

All up, Victoria was a most unlikely candidate for the role of monarch. The only child of the fourth son of King George III, she would take the throne at the age of 18 having been brought up by her widowed mother whose anxieties that Victoria would miss her rightful inheritance meant that Victoria slept in her mother’s room until the day she became Queen.

Baird covers Victoria’s early experiences of life as Queen in intricate detail. In her early period as Queen, Victoria leant heavily on the then prime minister Lord Melbourne for advice. The portrait Baird draws of Victoria at this stage reveals most of her strengths and weaknesses in the long life as monarch she would live out. Melbourne was both flattered and frustrated at the hours he would spend with the Queen each day – partly, as Baird puts it, enamoured with “the child, the companion, and the affection he had long craved” and partly “defensive about whether his life as mentor, tutor, and paternal court jester was distracting him from matters of state”. As he put it himself, “By God, I am at it morning, noon and night.”

But the intimacy of their friendship also left correspondence that Baird uses to shed light on smaller matters of frustration in Victoria the teenage queen, worried about her weight, worried she was losing her looks and her energy for life – in short, in a delightful modern word Baird describes the young Queen as simply in a “funk” after barely a year on the throne. Victoria was bored and overeating – she had the keys to all riches and no idea how to use them.

Considering the huge task thrust at the teenage queen, it is to Victoria’s credit that she handled her personal relations with her over bearing mother Victoire, Duchess of Kent, and her mother’s ambitious advisor Sir John Conroy swiftly, placing her authority on the Crown firmly. Yet, the woman Baird crafts from her research is a curious mixture of dominance and insecurity. Which is also what makes the story of Victoria’s coupling with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who was her first cousin, quite compelling.

Victoria and Albert enjoyed 22 years of marriage before he died at the age of 42 in December 1861. They had nine children and their partnership was both intense and devoted. Like any enduring marriage, their relationship included passion, disagreements, sacrifice, torment, humour and great love. Baird covers this well marking out the many ups and downs in their lives together.

As the years went by, there was also Albert’s impatience with his wife’s complaints at the pain of pregnancy she had endured so often and for so long; there was also Victoria’s impatience at Albert’s “chronic stomach problems” which soon after caused his death. This long time married couple were physically and emotionally locked together with Albert using his work as a prop for what had become a burdensome life around a difficult and dissolute eldest son Edward (Prince of Wales and later King Edward VII), a large and rapidly growing brood of children and a working wife whose status far outshone any achievements he might himself have accumulated. As Baird puts it:

His endless, solitary deer-stalking escapades seemed unable to ease his fatigue. Victoria had become intensely dependent upon him, and she resented his absence in a fashion that became oppressive … She had forgotten her own colossal strength. It lay dormant for years as she worshipped and relied on her ailing, driven husband.

But, as the evidence makes clear, neither partner could prevent the expectations of the age that a husband must lead and a wife follow. A century later, a similar fate would befall Princess Elizabeth and her new husband Philip who would spend years struggling with his role as consort to Queen Elizabeth II.

In the early years of their marriage, as Victoria and Albert struggled with their respective roles, Victoria worried at times that Albert might be usurping her role as monarch. Laid up with pregnancies and married to an ambitious prince who not only sought opportunities to enhance his royal role as the male partner, but also was enjoying the chance to play politics at the top, Victoria had to pace her moments. Baird writes of Victoria’s unease about Albert stealing parts of her role such as when Melbourne told her of Albert’s triumphant reception at an event.

Albert was what Baird describes as “politically dexterous” and was not above “wooing current and future prime ministers and arranging meetings behind Victoria’s back”. Melbourne’s successor Robert Peel did not engage the Queen as Melbourne had but Albert and Peel had a lot in common. Given time, however, the couple worked their relationship into a more relaxed partnership.

Undoubtedly, Albert added a gravitas to Victoria’s reign as he took up causes and projects that enhanced the monarch’s image. But, as Baird’s research reveals, Victoria was too headstrong a person ever to be pushed into the background. She maintained her authority nonetheless.

Yet, in Victoria’s overly dramatic reaction to Albert’s untimely death (a two-year mourning for the entire court for starters), she placed him on a pedestal such that the myths came to dominate that she had been dependent on Albert for her ability to reign and that, from his death onwards, Victoria was nothing more than a grieving widow who had shut herself off from her people. Baird shows starkly that this was not the case.

In the 39 years in which Victoria lived as a widow, she was both a distant and hands-on monarch. Her years of isolation at Balmoral and friendship with her servant John Brown were at best self-indulgent and at worst irresponsible. But, then, she was an empress as well as monarch in an age without social media, 24/7 media grabs and invasive paparazzi. For all that, she did re-emerge to tend to matters of state, working closely with Disraeli who charmed her and opposing bitterly the terms of office of Gladstone. As Disraeli put it, “Gladstone treats the Queen like a public department; I treat her like a woman.”

In all this, Victoria was both complex and capable of extreme partisanship. She could be interfering, Baird writing, “She even threatened her ministers with greater intervention than the Constitution allowed.” She could be overly harsh in judging her children and played favourites, but she was also a concerned mother missing her daughters who married and left for distant new homes. In all, Victoria was able to use her position for good and ill.

Albert gave Victoria discipline and direction. In spite of her weakness for fatherly men who flattered her, Victoria honed her skills as monarch significantly over time. During her reign, she survived a number of assassination attempts with a remarkable coolness but she was also loved by the masses as a strong symbol of the power and prestige of Britain.

All up, Baird’s biography of Queen Victoria is an absorbing and refreshing retake on a remarkable and unlikely historical figure – an exceptional analysis of an individual as woman, queen, empress, mother, grandmother, lover, wife and widow. A woman who would cry at the death of her husband, “There is no one to call me Victoria now.”

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History