My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“When Victoria was born, food was cooked in open fireplaces, horses carried messages, half of the population was illiterate, and a narrow band of property owners were the only ones with political power. By the end of her life in 1901, people travelled by subway, telegraphs shot messages across oceans, education was compulsory and women had some basic rights.” – Ch 2
Australian journalist Julia Baird has managed to do something quite remarkable; she has written a history book as compelling as a great fictional novel. If you had told me that I would be saddened to finish 500+ pages of a book I would have said you were crazy, but the reality was that as I turned the final page of this book I found myself wanting more.
This book looks deeply into the life of Queen Victoria and the history of the British Empire over an 80 year period. The writing is engaging and entertaining in style, never pompous or dry, a fault of many a history book. All too often documentaries on Victoria focus on her as a sole person; often Albert is little more than a chapter of being her great love who died young. This book looks fully as to Albert’s role in Victoria’s life. His unashamed grab for power is revealed here, as the belief of the day that women had no use for or ability with power.
“Albert assumed his command without affirming hers.” ch 18
Albert saw his wife as below him rather than acknowledging that she was at the very least, equal to him.
“Being married to Albert, though, had made her think that the act of governing was for men; that power was, perhaps, inherently masculine. For Victoria to hold this view, she had to bury her own instincts. But the more she devoted herself to Albert, the more she feared a fundamental incompatibility between being a good wife and being a good ruler. ‘Good women’ of the era did not even work, let alone possess immense power.” ch 17
This book watches a headstrong woman grapple with, and then fully work with her power as the Sovereign, from her rebellious youth, through her pandering to her husband’s needy attitude to full power after his death. Its interesting to note that Victoria believed that it was her role as a wife and mother that gave the Empire stability, rather than her own skill as a sovereign.
“Throughout her life, Victoria was a paradox: a model of female authority in a culture preoccupied with female domesticity. ….. 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.” ch 25
I’ve watched many a documentary on Queen Victoria and have often come to the conclusion that she wasn’t a likeable woman. This book gave a differing point of view to her and I came away with a grudging admiration of her, even though I had an even clearer idea of her many foibles.