Victoria: The Queen
For many readers of The Saturday Paper, the Victorian age has never really ended. In her namesake state and the city christened after her first and favourite prime minister, there are traces everywhere of Victoria Regina, Victoria the Queen.
She occupied the British throne for almost 64 years – a record surpassed by Elizabeth II in 2015 – so that when she died, in 1901, most people alive couldn’t recall a time when Victoria wasn’t queen. Her name defined an era of unprecedented imperial might and steam-driven momentum. “Progress” was the one-word slogan of an age in which Britain’s dominance was regarded as both God-given and sure proof of Darwin’s theorem. And reigning over this manifestation of divine evolution was… a woman.
Victoria was no mere ceremonial head of state. She was rarely less than elbow-deep in the business of government and empire building. When in London, she met daily with her prime ministers and generals; when at a distance, she bombarded them with letters and telegrams. She expected to be not only heard but heeded, and she was. Just 18 when crowned, she got her grounding as a hands-on monarch through the affectionate mentorship of Lord Melbourne, even if some future prime ministers would be less enamoured of Victoria’s interventionist style.
In Victoria: The Queen, Julia Baird, host of The Drum on ABC TV, presents a portrait of a woman with a job that never leaves her. After a childhood marked by grief and tantrums, Victoria, as queen, was delighted at first to have not just an occupation but authority. But in the course of bearing nine offspring and losing a beloved husband, she wearied of the demands of being monarch – and still had 40 years left to reign.
What stands out most clearly in Baird’s account is how Victoria’s position made her a freak. In the 19th century, it was considered impossible – morally, intellectually, even physically – for a woman to exercise power. The men around her, most of them titled and born to rule, struggled to reconcile the unnatural pairing of Victoria’s authority and her gender. The man who struggled most was Albert, her husband. Though groomed from infancy to become Prince Consort, Albert chafed at being Victoria’s helpmeet. He was unable to accept that a woman could wield authority, and believed that, once he proved himself capable, Victoria would step aside and allow him to be regent – monarch, in effect. But even after the children began arriving almost yearly, Victoria insisted on doing the job that she’d inherited. Albert – gentle, intelligent Albert – in trying to ease her off the throne, so undermined her confidence as queen that when he died, in 1861, she was doubly bereaved and believed, for a time, that she could not reign without him.
Later in the century, responding to calls for women’s suffrage, Victoria would take the firm view that women ought to keep to their proper sphere, of home and family. From that, you might suppose that it was a sense of duty alone that kept Victoria on the throne long after Bertie, her eldest son, was ready to succeed her. But it’s clear that, aside from genealogy, it was her temperament that chiefly fitted her to be monarch in the age of men. She was a demanding mother, overly critical of her children, and resentful when they “abandoned” her for their own marriages or independence. She could be sullen and selfish and never outgrew her tendency to throw tantrums. “Trembling” is a word that Baird, drawing on Victoria’s own letters and diaries, often uses to describe the queen’s emotional state. But it seems rarely to have been genuine self-doubt that set her atremble; more often it was pique and a pitched sense of drama. All in all, she seems to have been constitutionally predisposed to having her own way.
Victoria’s was a long life, and Baird makes a longish book of it. Over the course of 500-odd pages, there’s a sense that Baird is not entirely at home with an extended narrative. There’s an unevenness of tone: here flat (Victoria wore “a very long train” at her coronation), there novelistic (“She thought back on the past few hours: the look on dear Melbourne’s face as he tried to stem his tears …”). And for someone with a PhD in history, Baird is a rather poor manager of time: she seems to have trouble executing the trick of pursuing a narrative thread forward or back in time, then returning the reader to the point of departure. Many strandings and disjunctures result, with the chronology muddled and the narrative broken. Baird’s repeated use of the anachronistic “teenager” is jarring, but I did like the jolt of picturing Victoria on her wedding night, reclining on a sofa and “mentally scrolling through images of her chaotic day”. All that’s missing is the smartphone.
Baird and her publishers emphasise the book’s inclusion of never-before-published material, chiefly an eyewitness account of the queen and John Brown, her Highland servant and rumoured lover, engaged in a saucy game of Hunt the Thimble. Such details, though, add little to what was already known and in print. Victoria has been extensively biographised, with several “lives” still extant on bookshop shelves. So, why a major new biography, and why now? Baird, it’s true, has a longstanding interest in women in power. Her doctoral thesis – and her first book, Media Tarts – considered the “framing” of female politicians by the press. As a journalist, she worked in the United States during Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign and, tellingly, Victoria: The Queen was commissioned by a New York publisher for release the same month the first female nominee of a major party may enter the Oval Office.
You might suppose that, nearly a hundred years after American women won the right to vote, a biography of a 19th-century monarch would have little congruence with the current situation of a woman in power. Julia Baird, if I read her rightly, begs to differ. FL
HarperCollins, 752pp, $49.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 29, 2016 as "Julia Baird, Victoria: The Queen". Subscribe here.