Julia Baird Paints A Stronger, More Likable 'Victoria The Queen'
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Victoria, queen and empress, once held the record as the longest-serving British monarch - 63 years on the throne. She was surpassed last year by her great-great-granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II. Though Victoria is often remembered as a dumpy little woman in perpetual mourning, biographer Julia Baird presents her differently. In her new book, "Victoria: The Queen," Victoria is a hardworking, power-loving monarch who is passionately in love with her husband Albert, with whom she had nine children before his death at the age of 42. Julia Baird joins me now from our studios in New York.
JULIA BAIRD: Hello. Thanks so much for having me.
WERTHEIMER: Now, in my little introduction, I failed to mention, perhaps, the most intriguing part of your book, which is that Victoria had a very active love life. I guess we could infer that from the number of children she had. But...
WERTHEIMER: ...You tell us that she was a sexy lady.
BAIRD: She really was. She - the way she spoke about her husband and their intimacy, the way she described him and how he looked in his tight white pants - she was a very passionate woman. I'll tell you one story about one thing I found that had not been written about before, which gives you some kind of insight into it.
In Osborne House, a family home they had on the Isle of Wight, I was staring at a painting and a guide said to me, have a look closely at these paintings because there's often a trick in them. There's something concealed. And I stared at this painting for quite a while. It was these three women. It was a summer picnic, and they're sitting under a parasol and one of them is leaning back with this blissful look on her face. And if you look and look, you'll suddenly notice there's an extra pair of shoes coming out from under that woman's dress, right?
BAIRD: And then you look closely again and you see the outline of a man's back under there. Now, this was supposed to have been one of the first that Victoria bought - and bought for her and Albert. Now, if that doesn't tell you something about this young queen, I don't know what is. But it's certainly a side of her we never see because we tend to see her in these large, kind of formidable and forbidding statues.
WERTHEIMER: She was a teenager when she inherited the throne, way down the line of royals who might rule England. Was she, do you think, in any way ready for this?
BAIRD: She was ready in the sense that she was calm, and she was poised, and she wanted it. And she had had to fight off - like, her mother had wanted to become regent so Victoria would be - you know, become queen, you know, a few years later. Her mother's closest adviser, John Conroy, had tried to bully her into signing papers to say that could happen.
She was surrounded by people who wanted to take the power away from her. But in her standing up to them, I think, in a way, she demonstrated that this was going to be a strong-minded woman.
WERTHEIMER: She didn't really want to marry, I gather. She might have had the first Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen in mind, thinking that marriage would essentially cramp her style.
BAIRD: Well, look, she was brought up in such a stifling system. It was called this Kensington System. She was not allowed to walk down stairs unless someone held her hand and she was accompanied. Every mouthful of her food was tasted in case someone was trying to poison her. She had a very sheltered childhood.
And then suddenly - imagine the most rebellious teenager suddenly being given a throne. She becomes queen. And she was like, this is fantastic. She loved to dance. She was always the last at the party. She danced for hours. So she had a fantastic life when she first became queen. She absolutely relished it.
WERTHEIMER: She did marry. She was just ecstatic about Albert.
BAIRD: I know. Her diaries are full of lots of underlinings and capitals and italics. She talked about how he was such a fine figure. And she loved his mustache, which she called his mustachios. In fact, she ordered that all the soldiers in her army should then have a mustache just like Albert. So she really fell very deeply, madly in love with him. And she proposed to him, which was nerve-wracking. But because of her status, she had to propose.
WERTHEIMER: She had to be the one. He couldn't do it.
BAIRD: No, that's right. And in the first few days, she's really talking about how much she loved watching him shave and him helping put on her stockings and those intimate details.
But there were also signs of some kind of tension between the as well because he was very keen to take on responsibility and official duties, and he was incredibly bright. But she didn't want to relinquish any of those to him in the early stages.
WERTHEIMER: You know, I don't think that anybody believes that Elizabeth II rules much of anything in the modern world. But Victoria, she really did rule?
BAIRD: Oh, she absolutely did. I think that's one of the things that really surprised me. I felt that - when I was trying to unpack a lot of the myths about Victoria, I really felt that people had not recognized her love of ruling and her sense of duty about it. And at a time when there was a transition to a constitutional queen - so much more of a symbolic role - she was constantly trying to protect her own authority.
And when one of those complicated creatures who would say, oh, I don't think women are fit for ruling. This political stuff isn't - is obviously for men. But you will not be prime minister, sir. You know what I mean?
BAIRD: And she had much more of a hand on the realm than I think we tend to think. And we also forget she ruled for 40 years on her own.
WERTHEIMER: On her own because her husband died.
BAIRD: That's right.
WERTHEIMER: Albert died. She was in deep mourning for her husband, and she sort of faded away from public life. Late in this widowhood period, Victoria had a close relationship with a servant. His name was John Brown. He was a Scotsman. And she and he had a relationship which has been kind of a mystery.
BAIRD: A mystery and a scandal and been gossiped about for quite some time. I mean, even her own family, at the time, called him the queen's stallion. He had been her Highlands servant, initially Albert's. And he's always in her journals as this physical presence. He lifted her up over streams. He kind of guided her, and he protected her. He called her woman (laughter).
WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) The queen.
BAIRD: He made her laugh when he told her she'd put on weight lately and she was heavier than the other ladies. But it's a fascinating relationship because of its depth - the amount of time they spent together, her fierce loyalty, her complete denial to take on board any of her family's insistence that this was, in fact, causing a scandal.
And I was reading through her doctor's journals in - which are kept in Scotland in the family's house. And he had written in this tiny almost code on the corner of one of the pages that he walked in on Victoria and John Brown playing some strange kind of game where he lifted up his kilt and said, oh, is it here? And the queen lifted up her skirt and said, oh, no, it's here. What it is...
BAIRD: (Laughter) Right? - is open to speculation. But really, what it did show is a remarkable intimacy.
WERTHEIMER: Julia Baird's new biography is called "Victoria: The Queen."
Thank you very much for talking with us.
BAIRD: It's been such a great pleasure. Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.