Sunday, 29 April 2018

Vivat Regina!

For the past few weeks I have been engrossed in the epic biography of Queen Victoria. Dr Julia Baird, historian and journalist, has crafted a fascinating portrait of the long-reigning monarch. Victoria the Queen (2017) is meticulously researched, drawing on correspondence, diaries and other primary sources from Victoria and those around her to produce fresh insight into the influential Queen.

Prior to reading this biography I knew very little of Queen Victoria and, in truth, had little interest. My image of Victoria was one of a grumpy old monarch, she of statues and memorials, aligned with the Dickensian bleakness of the era she defined. For months I would look at Baird's Victoria in each bookstore I passed, flick through the pages and wonder if I should give it a go. I am not sure what compelled me to finally pick up this weighty tome, but I am delighted that I did. Baird's biography of the Queen is an incredibly readable tale of an extraordinary woman.
Victoria was an unlikely monarch. Fifth in line to the throne at birth in 1819, she was never expected to rule. Her various uncles had no surviving legitimate children, so when she was just 18, upon William IV's death, she became queen. The young Victoria was a petite, adventurous girl who loved to dance. She became estranged from her mother, but was devoted to her governess and tutor, Baroness Louise Lehzen. A passionate young woman, Victoria was curious and keen to rule.

Many royals have arranged marriages, designed to strengthen alliances. Fortunately, Victoria was madly in love with her betrothed, Albert, and their union had all the hallmarks of a fairytale romance. However, in marrying Albert, Victoria essentially gave up her brief enjoyment of her important royal duties to become a homemaker. Albert had traditional views on gender roles in marriage, and Victoria settled in to being a wife and mother. Meanwhile, Albert increasingly took on the Queen's official duties, involving himself in the politics and policy of the realm.

Reading of Victoria's many pregnancies - each one fraught with danger for mother and child - one marvels at her pioneering spirit and the endurance of a woman who spent almost twenty years giving birth. Victoria ignored medical advice and sought pain relief by inhaling chloroform, and her actions paved the way for British women to follow her lead. But as I read of Victoria's challenges of motherhood, her tense and controlling relationships with many of her children, and the physical toll successive pregnancies took on her petite frame, I wondered at what might have been if Victoria had access to birth control. Would she have had fewer children, enjoyed them more, and returned to work earlier to actively rule alongside Albert?

The premature death of her beloved Albert, at age 42, sank Victoria into a deep mourning. She retreated from public view and wore black to display her grief. Disreali coaxed her back to official duties in the late 1860s.

Queen Victoria was influenced by a number of important men in her life. Lord Melbourne, the first Prime Minister (1835-1841) during her reign, was a paternal figure who guided her understanding of politics and her role as monarch.  Her beloved husband Prince Albert, with whom she had nine children between 1840 and 1857, expanded her thinking and helped her rule. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1874-1880) was also a close friend and adviser. As a widow, Victoria sought friendship from her highland servant, John Brown, and in late life had an unusual relationship with her Indian Munshi, Abdul Karim.

During Victoria's 64 year reign, Britain and the world underwent a tremendous transformation. In telling the story of Victoria, Baird covers the industrial revolution, the political unrest and overthrow of European monarchs, colonisation across India, Africa and the Far East, the Irish famine and movement for self-rule, suffrage and social reform campaigns, and numerous bloody wars. Importantly, Queen Victoria was a constant during a tumultuous time.

Victoria was a mass of contradictions. She vocally protested against racism and inequality yet turned a blind eye to the suffering of so many. She would not have identified as a feminist, but promoted women's education and was dismissive of the women's suffrage movement. Baird writes:
Victoria described herself conveniently as 'anomalous'. She protested that women should not hold power, all while being increasingly vigilant about the protection of her own power.
These contradictions make Victoria a frustratingly fascinating character and her life story a compelling read.

Baird is a gifted storyteller, using her talents as a journalist to explore Victoria's life and times in a captivating way. As a historian, she used her research skills to dig deep, examine diverse sources and uncover new facts about Victoria. Baird discovered that Victoria's family censored her correspondence, burning communications relating to John Brown and Abdul Karim, and removing items related to Victoria's domestic life and motherhood - a tremendous loss to history.

I would highly recommend Julia Baird's Victoria: The Queen to anyone with an interest in history and biography.