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BOOK REVIEW: Victoria the Queen by Julia Baird

Saturday, January 07, 2017

THE BLURB (from GoodReads):

From International New York Times columnist Julia Baird comes a biography of Queen Victoria. Drawing on previously unpublished papers, Victoria: The Queen is a new portrait of the real woman behind the myth—a story of love and heartbreak, of devotion and grief, of strength and resilience. 

When Victoria was born, in 1819, the world was a very different place. Revolution would begin to threaten many of Europe’s monarchies in the coming decades. In Britain, a generation of royals had indulged their whims at the public’s expense, and republican sentiment was growing. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the landscape, and the British Empire was commanding ever larger tracts of the globe. Born into a world where woman were often powerless, during a century roiling with change, Victoria went on to rule the most powerful country on earth with a decisive hand.

Fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, Victoria was an ordinary woman thrust into an extraordinary role. As a girl, she defied her mother’s meddling and an adviser’s bullying, forging an iron will of her own. As a teenage queen, she eagerly grasped the crown and relished the freedom it brought her. At twenty years old, she fell passionately in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, eventually giving birth to nine children. She loved sex and delighted in power. She was outspoken with her ministers, overstepping boundaries and asserting her opinions. After the death of her adored Albert, she began a controversial, intimate relationship with her servant John Brown. She survived eight assassination attempts over the course of her lifetime. And as science, technology, and democracy were dramatically reshaping the world, Victoria was a symbol of steadfastness and security—queen of a quarter of the world’s population at the height of the British Empire’s reach.

Drawing on sources that include revelations about Victoria’s relationship with John Brown, Julia Baird brings to life the story of a woman who struggled with so many of the things we do today: balancing work and family, raising children, navigating marital strife, losing parents, combating anxiety and self-doubt, finding an identity, searching for meaning. 


I have spent the last two years deeply immersed in Victorian Britain. I have watched dozens of documentaries, and read more than a hundred biographies, memoirs, and histories of the time. Queen Victoria was a constant looming presence, sometimes revered, sometimes reviled. 

I was just finishing the final edit on Beauty in Thorns, my novel set in the mid 19th century, when Julia Baird’s immensely thick biography was published. It seemed a fitting way to finish my investigation of the period and so I paid the hefty $50 purchase price and lugged it home. I expected it to take me a while to finish, but the book is so warmly and engagingly written, and so fascinating, I whizzed through it in a couple of days. 

Described as ‘An intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire,’ Victoria the Queen busts open many of the myths about both the woman and the era. Victoria was tiny, forthright, and loved sex. She refused to be a mere figurehead, and used her position to promote profound changes in the society in which she lived. For example, she hated cruelty to animals and was instrumental in bringing about anti-vivisectionist laws. Even though she famously said women who marched for female suffrage should be whipped, Queen Victoria was a great example to many women and supported education and job training for girls. And she condemned those around her for their snobbery and racism, and was actively engaged in trying to break down such societal barriers.

It is clear Julia Baird’s research has been impeccable, and there is much in this biography that is fresh and new. However, it is her storytelling skills that really shine.  The crowded streets of London, the stifling atmosphere of the court, the pure air of the lonely Highlands, are all brought vividly to life, as are the people in Victoria’s life – her austere and brilliant husband, Prince Albert, the rough yet tender gilly John Brown, and the many different Prime Ministers who served her. By far, the best biography of Queen Victoria I’ve yet read.

You may also be interested in my review of The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria's Rebellious Daughter by Lucinda Hawksley 



Wednesday, January 13, 2016


A chance encounter with Andrew Lloyd Webber at a summer party sent Josceline Dimbleby on a quest to uncover a mystery in her own family's past. Her great-aunt Amy Gaskell was the subject of a beautiful dark portrait by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, but all that was known about Amy, according to family lore, was that she had 'died young of a broken heart'.

In her search, Josceline discovered a cache of unpublished letters from Burne-Jones to her great-grandmother May Gaskell, Amy's mother.They formed a passionate and prolific correspondence, of up to five letters a day, from the last six years of the painter's life. 

As she read, more and more questions were raised: why did Burne-Jones feel he had to protect May from an overwhelming sadness? What was the deep secret she had confided to him? And what was the tragic truth behind beautiful Amy's wayward, wandering life, her strange marriage and her unexplained early death?


Josceline Dimbleby has been one of Britain’s favourite food writers for a long time. A PROFOUND SECRET is a departure for her – it is the story of how an old portrait inspired her to dig deeper into her family’s past and its many secrets and mysteries. The portrait was of her great-aunt Amy Gaskell, and it was painted by the Pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones. 

As a girl, Josceline was told her great-aunt had died young of a broken heart. Deciding to find out more, Josceline uncovered a box of secret love letters between the famous artist and Amy’s mother, May. Both were married to others. Josceline also discovered the tragic truth of Amy’s early demise.  The book is as much about Josceline’s search as it is about what she discovered, and so it is as much a detective story as it is a story of a secret love affair. 



Thursday, December 31, 2015

I spent quite a lot of time on planes last month, which meant I had plenty of time for reading (the best thing about spending so much time in airports and hotels!) I read eight books in total, with my usual mix of fiction and non-fiction (not counting research tomes!)


For readers of Proof of Heaven, this is the astonishing true story of a woman who possesses an extraordinary gift: Laura Lynne Jackson is a psychic medium, able to converse with souls from the other side. In The Light Between Us, she tells her story of how she struggled with her abilities, and even denied them, for many years. 

She explains how she ultimately found peace through a scientificunderstanding of her gift, and discovered that she could help people come to terms with loss. And she shares the deeply affecting lessons she has learned in her work, teaching us what she has come to understand about the universe in order to help us live better lives in the here and now.


A fascinating memoir from a young American woman who first began to realise she had psychic talents when she was a child. Her story chronicles her struggle to understand her gift, her search to learn to use it wisely, and some anecdotes of the many people who she has helped along the way. 

Simply and beautifully told, Laura Lynne Jackson has tried hard to find a new vocabulary for her strange and uncanny experiences (though the book is, of course, laden with phrases such as ‘the Other Side’ and ‘spirits crossing’, which may set off sceptics’ alarm bells).

Some of the most fascinating chapters are on the scientific tests she has submitted to in order to better understand and validate her gifts ... and the book is filled with a quiet wisdom that will resonate even with those who do not believe in an afterlife. 

What do YOU believe?  I would love to get your feedback on this book.

BOOK LIST: Best books on World War II chosen by Thomas Harding

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Thomas Harding is the author of the fascinating non-fiction book, Hanns & Rudolf: The German Jew and the Kommandant of Auschwitz, which I reviewed earlier this week (you can read the review here)

He’s very kindly taken the time out of his busy touring schedule to prepare a list of the best non-fiction books he’s read on World War II:

1. Hannah Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem. Provides a key exploration of the ‘banality of evil’.

2. Rudolf  Hoess: Commandant at Auschwitz Rudolf Hoess, also known as Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant of Auschwitz. This autobiography was written in a Polish prison cell while Rudolf awaited his death sentence

3. Sybille Steinbacher: Auschwitz: A History. A fine introduction to the camp and its background

4. Robert G. L. Waite: Vanguard of Nazism. The best book on the Freikorps para-military movement of the 1920s

5. Daniel Goldhagen: Hitler’s Willing Executioners. An examination of why ‘ordinary’ Germans perpetrated the Holocaust.

Please leave a comment: I love to know what you think

BOOK REVIEW: Hanns & Rudolf by Thomas Harding

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Hanns & Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz

Author: Thomas Harding

Publisher: William Heinemann 

Age Group & Genre: Biography/Historical Non-Fiction for Adults

Reviewer: Kate Forsyth

The Blurb:

The untold story of the man who brought a mastermind of the final solution to justice.

May 1945. In the aftermath of the Second Word War, the first British War Crimes Investigation Team is assembled to hunt down the senior Nazi officials responsible for the greatest atrocities the world has ever seen. 

One of the lead investigators is Lieutenant Hanns Alexander, a German Jew who is now serving in the British Army. Rudolf Höss is his most elusive target. 

As Kommandant of Auschwitz, Höss not only oversaw the murder of more than one million men, women, and children; he was the man who perfected Hitler’s program of mass extermination. Höss is on the run across a continent in ruins, the one man whose testimony can ensure justice at Nuremberg. 

Hanns and Rudolf reveals for the very first time the full, exhilarating account of Höss’s  capture, an encounter with repercussions that echo to this day. Moving from the Middle Eastern campaigns of the First World War to bohemian Berlin in the 1920s to the horror of the concentration camps and the trials in Belsen and Nuremberg, it tells the story of two German men- one Jewish, one Catholic- whose lives diverged, and intersected, in an astonishing way.

Hanns & Rudolf 

What I Thought: 
The author of this utterly riveting and chilling book found out, at his great-uncle’s funeral, that the mild-mannered old man he had known had once been a Nazi hunter. And not just any Nazi. His Great Uncle Hanns had been the man who had hunted down and caught Rudolf Höss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz and the architect of the Final Solution that saw millions of people efficiently and cold-bloodedly murdered.

This stunning realisation led Thomas Harding – a journalist who has written for the Financial Times, Washington Post and The Guardian – on a quest to find the whole story. His research is remarkable and at times harrowing. As a result, his book Hanns and Rudolf is as illuminating and fact-filled as a biography, and as personal as a memoir. Harding tells the life stories of both men in parallel, moving from their childhood towards the outbreak of war, which happened when they were both young me, and then onwards through all the horrors of the death camps, Rudolf’s to escape and hide himself and Hanns’s determination to hunt him down, and then on the execution of one and the peaceful old age of the other. 

The most awful aspect of the book is, of course, Auschwitz. The steps Rudolf Höss took to turn this prison camp into the most efficient killing machine the world has ever known is told with absolute clarity, often in the Kommandant’s own words. The lack of guilt or pity or mercy is utterly horrifying.

However, the book is so filled with a sense of the strength and resilience of the human spirit that I was left both moved and uplifted. This is one of the best non-fiction books I have read in a long while. 

Shoes of Auschwitz victims

Thomas Harding's website 


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