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Victoria: The Queen

by Julia Baird
696 pages
Random House
Published: November 2016

“Victoria: The Queen” is Julia Baird’s popular 2016 biography of the seemingly indomitable Queen Victoria. Baird is an Australian journalist, broadcaster and author. She is a former deputy editor of Newsweek and co-hosts a current affairs show on ABC TV (Australia).

Queen Victoria seems to be the perfect biographical subject…but also an extremely challenging one. Charged with leading the British empire from the age of eighteen, she was a liberated, independent and fabulously obstinate woman far ahead of her time. Yet in other ways she was curiously accepting of cultural norms which limited women’s rights and status.

It is fortunate she was a prodigious author, but much of what she committed to paper was destroyed or heavily edited by her family after her death. Fascinated by this powerful but perplexing woman, Baird sought to look beyond the conventional, sanitized image of Victoria to understand what truly galvanized and inspired this remarkably long-tenured monarch.

Aided by some deft (and apparently persistent) research, Baird successfully teases out a compelling portrait of Victoria. The queen was a complex, contradictory and endlessly evolving figure but the narrative articulately captures her persona. However, since some of the clues into her intriguing essence were expunged from the record nearly a century ago, she will never be completely understood.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its nearly perfect balance between Victoria’s politics and her personal life. As the most iconic working mother of her generation, her nine children are rarely out of the spotlight for long. And her fairly progressive (if highly partisan) political perspectives are very well-parsed. But Baird is at her best when illuminating Victoria’s most important relationships: with her childhood governess, her husband Albert, and, following his death, her later-life dalliance(s).

The book begins with a nice summary of its numerous important characters before introducing the reader to the author’s objectives and her thesis. Coverage of Victoria’s coronation is particularly interesting as is the subsequent chapter detailing her political advisor’s tempestuous relationship with his wife. Also notable: coverage of the European Revolutions of 1848, the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the squalid living conditions for impoverished Londoners.

Baird’s writing style is generally light and accessible; this biography is easy to read and often quite engaging. But it can sometimes exude a sense of discontinuity or lack of fluidity – like a collection of interesting facts too-quickly stitched together. And as good a storyteller as Baird can be, she does not place the reader in a scene or embed a sense of narrative vibrancy as well as my favorite biographers. This is history from a detached, third-party perspective – not the world as viewed through the eyes of the queen.

Overall, however, Julia Baird’s “Victoria: The Queen” is an extremely competent, interesting and efficient biography of a complicated and fascinating woman. The great mystery is not how Baird managed to fill nearly 500 pages, it is how she could compress so much complexity and history about such a compelling woman (and her era) into a book this accessible.

Overall rating: 4 stars