Nonfiction November is being hosted by Doing Dewey, Emerald City Book Review, Sarah’s Book Shelves, Hibernator’s Library and Julz Reads this year. Make sure to check out the home page for the event this week and each of the host’s blogs for the themed linkups they are running. It’s a great way to discover new book blogs and get great nonfiction book recommendations.
The theme for Week 3 is Book Pairings – matching up a nonfiction title with a fictional one on a similar topic. I was lucky enough to receive two Net Galley ARC’s for November 2016 releases on Queen Victoria – one the biography of the queen by Julia Baird, and the other a fictionalized version of the younger years of the queen’s life by Daisy Goodwin. Both are going to be released on November 22nd.
I actually read each book intermittently, switching at the end of each chapter from one to the other. I tend to read this way as a habit sometimes, alternating between chapters of a nonfiction and a fiction title, but it was definitely an interesting experience to read two books this way on the same topic. I think having the biographical information to support my reading of the fictionalized version of Victoria’s life really added to the experience, though ultimately I loved the biography and didn’t like the novel as much.
Victoria: The Queen
by Julia Baird
Published: November 22nd, 2016
Queen Victoria was an unconventional and inspiring female leader in a time when women were still very much relegated to the domestic sphere. During her 81 years of life, Victoria ruled an empire for over 50 years, giving birth to nine children and presiding as one of the pivotal ruling figures of a deeply and rapidly changing world. In this well-researched biography, Julia Baird expertly details the queen’s life, from infancy through each decade of her long reign.
What I Liked
I loved the narrative style of this biography. It really had a fluidity and ease-0f-reading that made it a pleasure to get through despite its 700 page girth (though that includes a good 200 pages of sourcing and notes at the end). I would go so far as saying that it had a comparative readability to some of my favorite royal biographies of Russian tsars and tsarinas by Robert K. Massie, which I can assure you is high praise indeed. Baird presents an incredible amount of information in a format that honestly felt more organic and natural to read than the fictional version of Victoria’s story by Daisy Goodwin.
I particularly enjoyed the many anecdotes about the historical times that Victoria lived in and the nature of English life, which Baird included for context and interest. Just as a few examples, Baird provides insights into what the top hat had come to represent as a symbol for gentleman in England, writes an aside on the frequency of intermarriage between cousins and how it was viewed by the British people (Albert was in fact Victoria’s cousin), and details social progress endeavors of the times like the Coal Mines Act of 1842, which bettered conditions for women and child laborers in coal mines.
In addition to how much new information I learned about British life at the times, there was also so much about the queen that I didn’t know and that I learned from this biography, including that she was less than five feet tall, that she was often partisan in her political views despite the expectation that British monarchs would remain neutral, and that she lived through not 1, not 2, but an astounding 8 assassination attempts. Baird writes:
“This queen would rule a quarter of the people on earth, an epoch would be named after her, and her stern profile would forever be associated with a paradoxical time of growth, might, exploitation, poverty, and democracy.”
Truly an incredible life to immortalize in print. I really felt that Baird was able to illuminate all the different aspects of Victoria’s personality and character, as a woman, as a mother, as a wife and as a queen. By interspersing Victoria’s actual journal entries amid her own additional research and commentary, Baird personalizes her narrative and makes Victoria more realistic and accessible for readers. The author paints a portrait of Victoria as strong-willed, prone to tempers and demanding, while also passionately loving with her husband Albert and tender with her children (despite the bouts of post-natal depression she was prone to suffer after her many pregnancies).
What I Didn’t Like
I thoroughly enjoyed this biography, so I don’t really have something negative to say about it. Be warned however that it’s one of those long books which if read on Kindle, has that frustrating effect of making it so that you feel you barely ever see the percentage of the book that you’ve read tick up. Am I the only one that hates that? If I don’t get them as ARCs, this is one reason that I prefer to read lengthy books in hardcover.
Engaging, beautifully written and highly informative biography of an exceptional historical figure – reads like the best novels but it’s actually real life!
Published: November 22nd, 2016
This historical novel focused on a section of Queen Victoria’s life that encompassed her first years as a monarch up until her early engagement to the German Prince Albert. Basing her fictionalized retelling on the queen’s own diaries, Daisy Goodwin merges fact with fiction, allowing readers a glimpse into the imagined workings of Victoria’s mind as a young woman facing her royal destiny and coming to grips with its demands.
What I Liked
Unlike the biography of Victoria’s entire life by Julia Baird, Daisy Goodwin’s novel about the queen was quick to read and was much less complex in scope. I think it would make a better choice for someone who doesn’t want to delve deep into various aspects of Queen Victoria’s life, and rather just wants a dramatic look at how the teenage Queen might have felt in her predicament.
I thought that the idea of trying to recreate the monarch’s thoughts from her diaries was interesting, and Goodwin’s writing really brings her specific imagined version of Victoria to life in an at times charming way. Some of Goodwin’s writing throughout the novel was quite beautiful, including a moving scene in which the author presents Victoria’s feelings when she first has the weight of the crown on her head during her coronation.
“But then the Archbishop was holding the crown over her head, intoning the words that had been used since the time of Edward the Confessor. Finally he put it down. It perched there fore a moment, teetering on her head, and then settled, and a feeling of serenity washed over her. She was the Queen of this great nation, anointed by God.”
Goodwin took some liberties with confirmed facts about the queen’s life, for example when she has the queen avoid waking up her mother on the morning she first finds out she will be crowned, when in reality Victoria’s mother found out about George VI’s death simultaneously on that morning. These small deviations from fact and the portions of Victoria’s thoughts and reactions which Goodwin invents make for a more sensational story than Victoria’s actual life must have been at times. For those looking for magnified scandal and emotion, Goodwin’s novel delivers.
What I Didn’t Like
I prefer detailed historical nonfiction or more elaborately written historical fiction, and Daisy Goodwin’s novel ultimately was too one-dimensional both in content and in writing for me. I felt that the novel was maybe meant for a younger audience, who would relate better to the sullen and volatile picture of the young Queen Victoria that Goodwin reproduces.
In Goodwin’s novel, Victoria is impulsive to the point of capriciousness, and even whiny when she deals with prime minister Lord Melbourne or her mother. Melbourne is often shown as being the knowing and soothing counterpart to the Queen’s inexperience and moodiness, sometimes in a way that I felt was implausible. In one scene, in which Queen Victoria is welcoming dignitaries at her coronation, Goodwin portrays Victoria as an immature child, unable to suppress a laugh in an important public ceremony until she is rebuked with a glance from her elderly prime minister.
There’s a definite discrepancy between the way in which Baird portrays the young Victoria, and the way in which Goodwin depicts her. Baird’s factual retelling shows Victoria as uncertain and unprepared in her early reigning years, but not petulant and immature as Goodwin instead chooses to characterize her. I really felt that Goodwin’s view of Victoria was overly caricatured, though I think her intention to humanize the queen and give the reader access to her innermost thoughts was an interesting premise.
This was a perfectly valid fictional imagining of the early years of Queen Victoria’s life which I didn’t personally like. I think a different reader would have appreciated it more for its theatrical quality and have been less annoyed at discrepancies or exaggerations.
Have you read the nonfiction book Victoria by Julia Baird or the fictional version Victoria by Daisy Goodwin? What did you think of them? Let me know in the comments.
Please note this post contains affiliate links from Book Depository. I received advanced review copies of these titles from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.