Two new books, a novel and a biography, illuminate the life of Queen Victoria, who ruled much of the world in the 19th century. Julia Baird’s biography “Victoria: The Queen” is the best companion to the upcoming PBS series.
‘Victoria: The Queen’
by Julia Baird
Random House, 695 pp, $35
by Daisy Goodwin
St. Martin’s Press, 404 pp., $26.99
Should you wish, in these times of political turmoil, to step away from the present day and immerse yourself in the life of one of history’s most powerful women, opportunity abounds in both fact and fiction. Julia Baird’s new biography “Victoria: The Queen” is just out, as is Daisy Goodwin’s novel “Victoria,” based on the young English queen’s early years on the throne. The latter appears in tandem with the television miniseries “Victoria,” created and scripted by Goodwin and airing on PBS in January. (Expect, any minute now, breathless descriptions of the series as “the next ‘Downton Abbey,’ ” as every PBS costume drama is now required to be.)
And while I’ll definitely be watching the series next month (the bonnets alone should be worth the time investment), Goodwin’s novel feels pale alongside the biography, in which the woman herself emerges. “Victoria” the novel is pleasant enough but a bit plodding; the dialogue often stilted; the central character sweet but unformed.
In Goodwin’s account, Alexandrina Victoria, who became queen of England at 18 after her uncle’s death, squabbles with her overbearing mother, nurtures a crush on her first prime minister (the older, widowed Lord Melbourne), and dotes on her little dog Dash.
The novel, after a brief prologue, begins with a nightgown-clad Victoria receiving the news that she is now the monarch and concludes with her breathless proposal of marriage to her cousin, Albert. Reading it, you sense that this might work better on television, with lavish costumes and sets filling out the blandness of the language — and that the story ends just as Victoria’s life is beginning.
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Far livelier is Baird’s biography, which in a single sentence creates a character more intriguing than the one sketched in Goodwin’s entire book: Victoria, at 18, was “[a] girl who read Charles Dickens, worried about the welfare of Gypsies, adored animals, loved to sing opera, was fascinated with lion tamers, and hated insects and turtle soup; a girl who was bullied by those closest to her until her determination set like concrete; a girl whose heart was wound tight with cords of sentiment and stoicism.”
That girl became, in Baird’s words, “the most powerful queen, and the most famous working mother, on the planet.”
“Victoria: The Queen” walks us through the milestones of that long, remarkable life: the happy yet stifling marriage to Albert (to whom she was, awkwardly, both sovereign and subservient); the many prime ministers; the nine children; the dramatic, lengthy mourning upon Albert’s death at the age of 42; the astonishing transformation of a civilization during her 64-year reign, from 1837 until her death in 1901.
Like the best biographers, Baird writes like a novelist, and her book is crammed with irresistible detail and description. Most fascinating: Victoria’s relationship with Melbourne — “one of the great platonic romances of modern history” — and, later, her close friendship with her ghillie John Brown.
You might, as I did, wish the book had more detail on Melbourne’s late wife Caroline; a dramatic sort who, after an affair with Lord Byron (!), was banished to the country where she “broke furniture, smashed crockery, poked servants with broomsticks and appeared seminude in public.” And you might smile at Victoria’s rapturous but demure diary entry after her wedding night: “I NEVER, NEVER spent such an evening!”
Upon her death, a nation mourned; most of its citizens (like those of England today, where Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter reigns) had never known another monarch. Henry James, marveling at the crowds gathered for the funeral procession, summed up the feeling: “We all felt, publicly, at first, quite motherless.”