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Bio delves into epic reign of Queen Victoria

January 12, 2017 GMT

You can learn a lot about a queen from the contents of her coffin.

In her frisky, adventurous new biography of Queen Victoria, Julia Baird offers not only an inventory of the items with which the queen wished to be buried but also the exact placement she specified for them.

Of course her treasured husband, Prince Albert, would be represented; Victoria had spent much of her life draped in black, showily mourning his death. So Albert’s framed photograph and a cast of his hand were duly buried with her.

But John Brown, a Scotsman who became both Victoria’s employee and constant companion, took pride of place. A leather case holding photographs of Brown and a lock of his hair was to be placed right in the queen’s hand. Brown’s handkerchief was to be laid atop her, while Albert’s was merely to be included in the large collection of burial accouterments.

She also wanted photographs of all her children and grandchildren, and to be adorned with 10 rings, including five from Albert, and one that had belonged to Brown’s mother.

As Baird notes, this information isn’t new.

But she was nonetheless asked to remove it from the book by the senior archivist of the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. Those archives hold extremely rare material to which Baird was privy. And in exchange for access she agreed to remove any Royal Archives material she was asked to from her finished book.

But when asked to remove the results of her independent research, she refused.

“It was the object of this book to hack through myths, not hew to them,” she writes.

When Baird goes after those myths, her alternative versions are exhilarating.

She describes how and why young Victoria, born in 1819, had to be a fighter from the start: “Not long after she pulled the first fistfuls of air into her lungs, there were rumors that her wicked uncles were planning to kill her.”

She details the wretched behavior of those uncles, all sons of the famously mad King George III, who gradually cleared a path for her.

This book shows how Victoria’s girlish naughtiness turned into a regal, willful, complex nature that other biographers have tended to simplify.

It’s also very astute about the way the man she deemed pure perfection, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (her cousin), would undermine that nature during their years together.

Baird brings a strong feminist awareness to the ways in which Victoria’s letters, edited by two men, have been censored to excise the full range of her personality, and also to the subordinate role any wife was expected to assume when Victoria was a young bride.

But “Victoria the Queen” describes the 20 years of Victoria’s marriage to Albert as the weakest period of her reign.

It presents her as working tirelessly but too deferentially to sustain her authority. It was only after Albert’s death — and the years of numbing grief that had the English wondering whether their queen was still able to fulfill her responsibilities — that she could recover her grip, return to politics, deal with prime ministers she either liked (Disraeli) or detested (Gladstone) and win back her subjects’ loyalty.

It helped that she fell happily in love with John Brown, the Scottish servant who doted on her, teased her and never dreamed of treating her with condescension.

If there’s one thing missing from the book, it’s Baird’s thoughts on why Victoria let herself become submissive to Albert for so long, but perhaps the answers to that are too obviously linked to the loss of a father so early in life.

In any case, she adored being coddled, and Baird says she got that from Brown. And as many witnesses attested, she also got a lot of shocking back talk and loved it. And however he earned the nickname the Queen’s Stallion (a chapter heading here), Victoria seemed to love him for that, too.