Victoria was the most powerful queen, and the most famous working mother, on the planet. When we allow her to remain — as she has done in public memory for so long — submerged in her black piles of mourning, we forget that Victoria had been fighting for her independence, her prestige, and the honor of the Crown since she was a teenager, and did so successfully and in large part alone. We also forget that she fought for an empire and values she believed in and worked until her eyes wore out, that she advised, and argued with, ten prime ministers, populated the royal courts of Europe, and kept the British monarchy stable during the political upheavals that shook Europe in the nineteenth century. We forget that she loved again, that she giggled when grandchildren played at her feet, that she helped avoid a war with the United States, that she leapt upon opportunities to fire or anoint prime ministers. We forget that suffrage expansion and antipoverty and antislavery movements in the British Empire can all be traced to her monumental reign, along with a profound rethinking of family life and the rise of religious doubt. When she died, in 1901, she was the longest-reigning monarch in English history, and she remained so until 2015, when her great-great-granddaughter Elizabeth broke Victoria’s record.
Victoria’s legacy was enormous: a century, an empire, nine children, forty-two grandchildren. Today, outside Windsor Castle, amid ice cream stores and cluttered souvenir stalls, a statue of a portly woman stands in the middle of the road, unsmiling, looking over their heads to the distant horizon. The castle was built by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century and remodeled by a series of kings, including Charles II and George IV; Victoria found it large, gloomy, and “prison-like,” but she is the monarch who shields it today. It is a mother who is the custodian of this castle, and who safeguarded the British people as they took firm steps toward democracy in a century roiling with ferment. It is a mother, who followed her husband from room to room while they fought, storming and crying, and who struggled to reconcile her innate resolve with her lack of self-esteem. It is an ordinary woman who was thrust into an extraordinary role.
Victoria grappled with many of the matters women do today — managing uneven relationships, placating resentful spouses, trying to raise decent children, battling bouts of insecurity and depression, spending years recovering from childbirth, yearning for a lost love, sinking into the strength of another when we want to hide from the world, longing to make independent decisions about our own lives and to shape the world we live in. She lusted after and fought for power at a time when women had none. Victoria’s story is one of unmatched prestige and immense privilege, of defiance and crumbling, of meddling and mettle, of devotion and overwhelming grief and then, finally, a powerful resilience that defined the tiny woman at the heart of an empire. It is, above all, a surprising story of strength. What we have truly forgotten today is that Victoria is the woman under whose auspices the modern world was made.
From “Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire” by Julia Baird. Copyright © 2016 by Julia Baird. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.