The queen who stirred the emancipation of women

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Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird, Random House, US $35.00, PP 752, November 2016, ISBN  978-1400069880

Queen Victoria remains buried under a mountain of myths, created by observers, sycophants, monarchists, republicans, and herself, and bolstered by the royal family ever since. Myths such as that when Albert died, she died too. That she loathed her children. That she was an impeccably constitutional, well-behaved queen. That she disliked power, lacked ambition, and loved only the domestic. That she was simply a product of the men who advised and shaped her, like a walking, talking Galatea. And that her servant John Brown was just a good friend. Then there are the myths of her own creation: that Albert was flawless and their marriage spotless. That he was king, and she only his supplicant shadow.

In Victoria, Julia Baird says all of this is non-sense. Baird writes, “When Victoria first sat on the throne, her feet did not touch the floor. Below the soaring arches of Westminster Abbey she was a mere dot, burning under the curious gaze of the gathered crowd, trying not to dangle her legs. Thousands thronged the streets of London before sunrise to claim a vantage point to have a glimpse of Britain’s new queen who was just eighteen years of age and less than five feet tall.” But she was different from her predecessors. Baird says the previous kings had been profligates, philanderers, opium-addled, or mad; now the country was infatuated with “the fair white rose of perfect womanhood, their new ruler, the tiny teenager who was sitting uncomfortably in a large abbey festooned with gold drapes and exotic carpets as diamond-laden aristocrats stared at her.” Her prime minister was half-stoned with opium and brandy and he viewed in a fog.

Many believe she stopped ruling when Albert died, and that she had abdicated almost all of her authority and power to her clever husband when he was alive. When she was crowned, people were amazed that Victoria could think clearly and speak without stumbling; when she married, they were convinced she had deferred all major decisions to Albert; and when he died, she was castigated as a remote, grieving widow. All of this is wrong. Queen Victoria was a decisive ruler who complained of the weight of her work while simultaneously bossing prime minister about daily, if not hourly. Baird quotes Prime Minister Gladstone who wrote, “The Queen alone is enough to kill any man.” Yet our generation, almost as much as the Victorian, seems to fail to understand how such a woman could wield power ably and with relish. Part of the reason for this failure is the sheer difficulty of digging through the mass of legend and hyperbole to reach the real Victoria.

But Victoria was so busy making herself small so Albert would feel big, she did not realize how little she had to fight for. Baird says that Victoria’s work gave a steady, rarely articulated impetus to the suffragette campaign because of all this. At the time of her death, Reynold’s News wrote that her life had “taught us the power we are willfully allowing to go to waste in the womanhood of the nation… there are many thousands of possible Victorias in the kingdom. No longer can it be argued… women are unfitted for public duties. She was a symbol of female strength and intelligence. But perhaps her singularity was what made her more palatable during an era of persistent inequality.”

Victoria had, in a way she did not anticipate, changed everything for women. She stirred something that was difficult to name, a longing or a stiffening of the spine; she was a visible sign of a woman who adored her family, and yet had full rights and an independent and an independent income. H. G. Wells believed that at the moment the crown was placed on her head, there was a “stir of emancipation.” And her effect on women spanned the globe. A female Japanese magazine editor congratulated her on “awakening even in these distant parts the ambition to become empress over self.”

Victoria is a fascinating biography of a fascinating monarch. Julia Baird has busted many myths about Queen Victoria and presented the true, powerful queen she was. Baird has busted one of the greatest myths about her by shining light on her role in emancipating women of her time. This alone makes this book one of the greatest books on Queen Victoria. Reviewed by Jonathan T. Rich