Two new books, one fiction and one nonfiction, offer insight into Britain’s Queen Victoria, who reigned during a time of radical change.
British writer Daisy Goodwin’s novel Victoria is a delicious introduction to the young monarch’s world. Meant as a companion to the PBS series of the same name, which will air in the U.S. in January, it tells the story of Victoria’s personal and political struggles after her ascension to the throne. Goodwin’s engaging style is immediately captivating, and she deftly brings fresh life to a story familiar to many.
All historical fiction takes liberties, but Goodwin stays true to the basic facts while imaginatively filling in gaps in the record. Her queen is strong-willed and impetuous: a classic teenager, but one with a great deal more power than her counterparts. She frees herself from the control of her mother and Sir John Conroy, bonds with her first Prime Minister and navigates the difficult world between adolescence and adulthood. Goodwin makes us care about Victoria the girl, even when she behaves badly, because she breathes humanity into her.
One notable aspect of Goodwin’s account is her depiction of Victoria falling in love with Prime Minister Lord Melbourne. Readers who wonder if Goodwin is taking liberties here can turn to Julia Baird’s impressive biography Victoria: The Queen for answers—Baird confirms that the Queen had quite a crush on her Prime Minister. While many biographies can be a slog to read, Baird’s is a delight. She uses her sources well while employing a narrative style that is a joy to read; all history should be this well-written.
Victoria was a complex woman, and Baird presents the queen in all her contradictions. We cringe at her notorious tantrums and cheer when she manages to outmaneuver more experienced ministers. Baird reminds us that some commonly accepted truths about Victoria don’t hold up under scrutiny. For example, Baird argues against the idea that after Albert’s death, Victoria all but abandoned her responsibilities. While her devotion to mourning and excessive displays of grief are well-known, Victoria did not completely remove herself from the business of running the Empire.
Much of the difficulty in painting a full picture of the Queen comes from the destruction of many of her letters and diaries, done on Victoria’s orders. Later, the male editors of her correspondence excluded much they deemed unfeminine or inappropriate. Baird does a thorough job of synthesizing the primary sources that do exist, and even manages to dig up new information on the queen’s controversial relationship with her Highland servant, John Brown. A woman of her time, Victoria did not fight for women’s rights and was opposed to women’s suffrage. She was often more interested in intervening in individual situations than pushing for sweeping reforms, yet Baird skillfully avoids judging Victoria by modern standards.
Goodwin and Baird have given us two books that complement each other beautifully, offering readers the chance to learn more about one of Britain’s most famous queens.
Novelist Tasha Alexander is the author of the bestselling Lady Emily series, set in the Victorian era.
This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.