VICTORIA: THE QUEEN by Julia Baird

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(Queen Victoria)

The current airing of PBS’ Masterpiece Theater of VICTORIA and its popularity has created great interest in the British monarch who ruled her kingdom and the world’s largest empire between her accession to the throne in 1837 and her death in 1901.  The program is written by Daisy Goodwin who has recently published her novel VICTORIA a fictional account of the early years of Victoria’s reign.  For a full and intimate biography Julia Baird has filled that void with VICTORIA: THE QUEEN which is an in depth study of the queen focusing on what it was like to be a female monarch in a world dominated by men.  Baird takes a somewhat feminist approach to her subject and based on years of research and mastery of primary and secondary material, the reader will learn what it was like for the teenage girl to suddenly assume the throne in 1837, her views on Parliament, Prime Ministers, attitudes toward the poor, foreign policy ranging from the Crimean War to the Boer War, but also the effect of her reign on society and women in particular.  The approach Baird takes is informative, well thought out, provides impeccable analysis, but at times she takes her intimate approach a bit too far.  I understand the importance of Victoria’s multiple pregnancies that produced nine children, but I do not need to know the details of her menstrual cycle and her reproductive anatomy.  Details about her life with Prince Alfred are fascinating, but at times, here too, she goes overboard.  However, despite some flaws the book is beautifully written and an important contribution to the historiography of the Queen.

During her reign Victoria steered her people through the social and economic changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, and oversaw her kingdom as the European balance of power was radically altered through nationalism and imperialism.  The Queen’s reign was the longest in British history until it was recently surpassed in 2015 by Queen Elizabeth II.  Baird points to the many myths associated with Victoria relating to her marriage to Prince Albert, her use of power as queen, her treatment of her subjects, and her personality traits.  Baird accurately concludes that “Victoria is the women under whose auspices the modern world was made.”   Further, Baird does an exceptional job analyzing her subject in the context of mid to late 19th century socio-economic change and her impact on European society and the larger world especially for the role of women.  In a sense Baird has created an ode to the development of the women’s movement with Victoria’s situation seen as a primary motivator behind it.  Baird correctly argues that Victoria fought for her independence, prestige, and respect for her reign from the time she was a teenager, and did so mostly on her own.  For the author, she “worked until her eyes wore out, that she advised, and argued with, ten prime ministers, populated the royal courts of Europe, and kept the British monarchy stable during the political upheavals that shook Europe in the nineteenth century.”

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(William Lamb, Lord Melbourne)

Baird gives Victoria a great deal of credit but then she backtracks as she discusses the queen’s relationship with Lord Melbourne, who she leaned on for support in dealing with her mother, John Conroy, certain members of her family, Parliament, and policy decisions. Baird describes a young woman infatuated with an older man, who thankfully does not seem to take advantage of his positon.  According to Baird, Victoria will eventually concede powers to Prince Albert in most major social, political, and foreign policy areas.  Granted, Victoria was pregnant a great deal of the time during her marriage to Albert, and suffered from postpartum depression and other ills that made her involvement in decision making less of an issue, but Baird herself points out the differences in approach between Victoria and Albert.  The Prince was more of an intellectual than his spouse and was greatly interested in the problems of the poor and working classes.  Albert was a cultured and well educated person who did not want to crush public dissent like Victoria and it appeared he wanted to bring about reform in order to lessen that dissent.  According to Baird, “the role of the monarchy under Albert’s leadership, then, was a forceful influence, which urged the government to exercise restraint in foreign policy and democratization, to erode the authority of the aristocracy and exert influence through a web of royal connections that spanned Europe in a network of carefully planned and delicate backdoor diplomacy.”  Victoria on the other hand was not as empathetic toward her subjects.  A case in point is her approach to the Irish famine where she started out criticizing tyrannical landlords, but once a few landlords that she knew were murdered, her sympathy for Irish tenant farmers waned.  Baird argues that it was a stretch to blame Victoria for the famine, but there was a great deal she could have done to mitigate their effects.  It is clear that from the time of her marriage to Prince Albert in 1839 until his death in 1861 England may have gone through an Albertine Age as Baird suggests, and it took until the Prince died for Victoria to seize the reigns and create the Victorian Age.

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(Queen Victoria and Prince Albert)

For Victoria until Albert’s passing life was a balancing act; how to be a good mother, wife, and reign over her kingdom.  Baird does her best to show the Queen as a loving and doting mother, but then in the next sentence she will point out that she was rarely involved in certain aspects of her children’s care. Victoria possessed a quiet stubbornness that forced many who opposed her wishes to underestimate her, particularly when she ruled by herself.  Lord Melbourne did school her well on how to be an effective Queen, and she learned from Albert certain sensibilities that a monarch needed to possess.

Baird does an effective job dealing with Victoria’s views and impact on events.  Her role in the Crimean War debate is discussed in full, her fears of revolution in 1848 and why the social upheaval throughout Europe did not cross the English Channel, her distaste for the Russians in the Eastern crisis that led to war and the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, and her opposition to Home Rule for the Irish.  Further, Baird’s discussion and analysis of Victoria relationship with her Prime Ministers is top drawer particularly her negative relationship with Lord Palmerston when he was Foreign and Prime Minister, and her up and down relationships with certain Prime Ministers, particularly William Gladstone, Lord Derby and Lord Russell.  Her relationship with Lord Salisbury was excellent but nothing compared to her relationship with Benjamin Disraeli as he was the only Prime Minister to realize that the lonely queen wanted to be “fettered, flattered, and adored.”  As Victoria aged she moved on from her Whiggish liberalism under the influence of Melbourne to outright conservativism due to her close relationship with the Tory, Disraeli.  The last twenty years of her reign Victoria, who never acted as an impartial monarch, became greatly involved in politics, especially when the man she loathed, William Gladstone had defeated Disraeli in parliamentary elections in 1881.

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(Prime Minister William Gladstone)

It can be argued that 1861 was a watershed year for Europe and the world because of its impact on the United States and across Europe.  It witnessed the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States, the supposed emancipation of serfs in Russia, and the death of Prince Albert.  Her husband’s death became the greatest test for Victoria’s reign.  She seemed to succumb to an extreme depression and many wondered if mental illness would overtake her as it did George III.  Her depression would last for a number of years where she had doubts about how to proceed with policies and felt extremely alone.  During that time a number of major events in Europe would draw the attention of the British Foreign Office.  The Polish Revolt against Russia and the controversy over Schleswig-Holstein would lead to the Danish War between Denmark and Prussia.  English influence in this 1863 crisis was marked and if Albert had been alive he might have influenced events more than his mourning widow.  By the late 1860s it appeared that Victoria was emerging from her depressive state, and as she overcame her loss she would go on to be a strong monarch in her own right making a deep impact on her kingdom as well as Europe.

The key individual in Victoria’s emergence from her widowed state was John Brown, a Scottish Highlander who had been Albert’s outdoor attendant at Balmoral who became her most intimate friend.  Her children despised him and nicknamed him the “Queen’s Stallion.”  There are many rumors and myths about their relationship that Baird addresses, whether they were lovers and what impact he may have had on policies, as one writer referred to him as “Rasputin with a kilt.”  No matter what the truth may be, one thing is certain is that the Queen came to rely on him and he helped fill the void created by Albert’s death.  In fact, Victoria would spend eighteen years in his company, almost as long as she spent with her beloved Albert.

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(Wilhelm II of Germany, Victoria’s grandson)

Baird spends a great deal of time discussing royal genealogy and its impact on Victoria’s life and policy decisions.  Using the marriage of her children for diplomatic need had been a tradition of European and English monarchies for centuries, but in her case the result can be considered quite disastrous as her lineage connects her to Wilhelm II of Germany, and Nicholas II of Russia who both bear a great deal of the blame for the outbreak of World War I and the carnage that followed.  Her children were placed throughout Europe as a means of extending English influence, but in reality that goal was rarely met.

There is no doubt that no one person dominated her kingdom the way Victoria had, particularly from the 1870s onward as she applied the political lessons learned over the decades, especially working in the shadows to achieve her goals while her subjects thought she was romping in Scotland as any monarch would do.  Baird creates an absorbing picture of a fascinating life.  Despite a few flaws Baird should be commended for producing the most comprehensive analysis of Victoria and her importance in history, and it should remain the most important secondary source on Victoria’s life for years to come.

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(Queen Victoria)

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