VICTORIA THE QUEEN by Julia Baird. Random House (www.atrandom.com), 2016, 731 pp., $35.00. ISBN 978-1-4000698-8-0. Click here to purchase.
Many years ago, as a young girl who loved American and British history (and still does), I read a book on Queen Victoria. It was probably OK: I have no recollection of it.
Fast forward to 2016 and the wonderful PBS TV “Victoria” miniseries. The series reawakened my interest in her, and I went searching for a companion book of sorts. In late 2016 or early 2017, I picked up a new book at the library, but the focus was on the political aspects of the times. Thanks but no thanks. I wanted to read about Victoria the person, what she did all day in those big castles and all the gossip via her family, friends and associates.
Two weeks ago, while visiting the library, I spied it: VICTORIA THE QUEEN.
Two words: Simply superb.
Author Julia Baird has done painstaking research into Victoria’s life and takes you behind the scenes of the comings and goings from before her birth through her coronation, her marriage and into old age and ultimately, her death. It gives delicious details on all the many people -- family, friends, political associates and enemies -- that she enjoyed and sometimes endured for decades as the now second-to-longest ruling monarch in British history.
VICTORIA is part personal diary, diaries of associates and information from archives, and makes you believe you are truly observing the day-to-day life of the queen in real time.
It would be worth buying this book if only to read pages 73-81 for the play-by-play description of her coronation. Those who watched the PBS miniseries know that, as a very young, naïve and inexperienced but determined ruler, Victoria came to lean heavily on her Prime Minister Lord Melbourne. And for the record, he is quite dashing in the miniseries: yes, we women are still swooning! He was kindly and helpful to her, in a fatherly way, and she adored him. She fell in love with him, really, but it was not to be. For all his goodness, he was out of touch with the common-man’s struggles, a place where Alfred, her future husband, really shone. As such, Melbourne’s advice was not always on target.
The miniseries portrays the expected coronation scene: robes, crowns, pomp and an anxious young girl in Westminster Abbey. The real story is rather different, according to Baird. The many details are delicious, nothing short of the “Dynasty,” “Peyton Place” and “Dallas” TV series combined. In a word, Coronation Day was a spectacle. Victoria had never been to one and no one was really available or interested in helping her know what to do. Melbourne apparently took a heavy dose of laudanum and brandy for an upset stomach (seems almost everyone was drunk or drugged in those days) and was intoxicated at the ceremony. It is stated he looked very awkward and uncouth, with his coronet cocked over his nose and his robes under his feet. Victoria’s crown was specially made and worth 112,760 pounds (about $12.5 million today.) Her ruby ring was made for her little finger but painfully jammed on her fourth.
Still, Baird states Victoria performed perfectly, mostly concealing the many gaffes made by others. Arriving back home at Buckingham Palace as the newly minted queen, she promptly gave her dog Dash a bath!
Thousands gathered in London, and the atmosphere was like a circus. Baird wrote that about 400,000 people had slept in the streets of London the night before. Victoria’s three-mile journey to the Abbey for the service took an hour and a half.
What passed for entertainment in Victorian days surely wouldn’t today. Baird states, “dwarves, giants, albinos and obese boys rested in tents before they performed.” “Freak shows” were popular at the time. Eating, drinking, carousing: all in all it was a wild and wooly time all over the country, much of it in what we would call bad taste today. Too bad they couldn’t have included some of this in the miniseries.
The one thing that threw me though was the timing of the event. Baird states that church bells pealed at 1 a.m.? Shortly afterward, under a deep black sky, crowds starting winding through the streets? The Abbey opened at 5 a.m.? Many attendees came from parties and balls, hadn’t gone to bed and wandered around drunk, men and women alike. Victoria buried her head under her pillow in bed during a 21-gun salute as the sun rose just before 4 a.m.?
The fact that this book even came to be is rather a miracle. Author Baird informs us that much of Victoria’s correspondence and general writing has been lost. Sadly, it was burned or discarded by well-meaning but historically short-sighted family members and associates who were concerned about how she would look years from now.
Luckily, one forward thinking person, who, upon told to return Victoria’s correspondence to the family for certain destruction, had the foresight to take photos the all the pages which remain today.
Family apparently took particular offense at her writings about her years with her Highland servant John Brown. Baird indicates that Victoria was in love with him, and whether or not an intimate relationship occurred cannot be confirmed, but it sure looks suspicious. Interestingly, according to Baird, even today it seems the keepers of the Royal Archives are concerned about it. So much so that they suggested/asked that she remove large sections of the book based on materials Baird had gathered outside the archives, specifically public domain records from Victoria’s doctor, Sir James Reid. Those papers detail Victoria’s instructions on her funeral arrangements: apparently a hot subject, given that it states Victoria instructed them to place a lock of Brown’s hair in her hands and conceal it before they placed her in her coffin, which they did, among other mementos related to him. Happily, for us, Baird stood firm and the details remain.
Mostly, this seems really odd in a day and age where members of the British family have done much worse. Hey, I love them, but what are we to make of stories of today, with Harry cavorting nude, Catherine photographed on vacation naked, Diana’s issues, Charles and Camilla, the younger members obviously living with girlfriends and boyfriends prior to marriage? Victoria and Brown seem pretty insignificant decades later. Does it really matter now? Apparently so.
Most of us have seen a photo of Victoria, often as an elderly monarch, overweight and garbed in flowing garments. This book contains several pages of photographs, most delightfully new to this reader. In one, she even smiles! And the photos of associates and family members are great too.
Without Victoria’s correspondence and personal memoirs, we can never be certain that we have truly identified who she was and what she thought and exactly what her relationship was with Brown and others. Still, VICTORIA THE QUEEN appears to come close.
Often times you hear a reader say, “I couldn’t put the book down.” In this case, it’s absolutely true. Weighing in at a hefty 731 pages, it was a challenge to finish it in time for this issue of TRUE REVIEW. I would put it down, and then pick it up, and on and on. It was like an addiction!
If you love history and the foibles and intricacies of royal life, you will love this book.