Resilient Rulers: From Victoria to Cixi to Catherine the Great | RA Crossroads

As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to Readers’ Advisory (RA) Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge and whole-collection RA service goes where it may. In this column, Queen Victoria leads me down a winding path.


Baird, Julia. Victoria: The Queen; An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire. Random. 2016. 752p. ISBN 9781400069880. $35; ebk. ISBN 9780679605058. BIOG
Until the current Queen Elizabeth II surpassed her reign of victoriathequeen-jpg1131663 years, seven months, Queen Victoria (1819–1901) was the UK’s longest-living monarch. Her extended residence as ruler saw vast changes in society, the status of women’s rights, and global outlooks. As a young girl, conceived as the result of a bet by her father, Prince Edward, that his elder brothers would not survive or produce progeny, Victoria rose from a nearly cloistered childhood into a woman who made men reckon with her power. Historian Baird pens a lengthy yet highly accessible biography of a queen who would build monuments to her husband, Prince Albert, and construct the same for herself, carrying readers through Victoria’s fabled marriage, survival of several assassination attempts, political ploys, and major cultural transformations and, most centrally, her self-development. While not a fast read, this fluid and engaging account abounds with telling anecdotes and character sketches.


Chang, Jung. Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. Knopf. 2013. 464p. ISBN 9780307271600. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780385350372. BIOG
During much of the same time period that Victoria lived and ruled, China’s Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) helped change the face of her country, becoming one of its most powerful women. Two years younger than Victoria when she became regent of the late Qing Dynasty, Cixi was first selected as a concubine of Emperor Xianfeng, and while not particularly favored, she bore his first son and heir to the kingdom. With her son too young to rule, Cixi claimed the throne upon the emperor’s death and kept it until her own death decades later. Previously very much maligned in history, Cixi here is presented as an empathetic and riveting figure, as best-selling author Chang (Wild Swans) details her rise and actions once the reins of state were held in her grasp.

Schiff, Stacy. Cleopatra: A Life. Back Bay: Little, Brown. 2011. 432p. ISBN 9780316001946. pap. $16.99; ISBN 9780316121804. BIOG
cleopatra-jpg11716Like Victoria, Cleopatra (69–30 BCE) became queen at age 18. The Egyptian pharaoh would go on to govern most of the eastern Mediterranean, consort with Roman emperors, and inspire many legends. In this captivating and gripping biography, Schiff attempts to prune away the lore surrounding Cleopatra and present the woman who ably served as head of state, skilled in politics, war, and diplomacy. Pointing out that the historical record used to shape Cleopatra’s story is tainted (both by those who had reason to portray her as an inauthentic figure and by others who weighed in without any knowledge at all), Schiff nonetheless offers a full and nuanced study of a woman who ruled and fought with her whole being, making even the greatest leaders of her time nod to her authority.

Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. Ballantine. 1999. 560p. ISBN 9780345425508. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9780307834607. BIOG
It speaks to the continuity of the British crown that the instant Elizabeth I (1533–1603) learned she would become the last queen of England’s Tudor dynasty—her moment of reflection, the scurry of couriers—would be similar to Victoria’s experience. In the opening preface to her inviting, accessible, and flowing portrait of another of the UK’s most dominant female rulers, Weir states that she plans to write a personal history that focuses on the queen’s character as set against her times. What follows is a completely readable account of just that—as Elizabeth’s personality, interactions, intrigues, and determination toward transforming change in her kingdom and defining an era come to life.


Goodwin, Daisy. Victoria. St. Martin’s. 2016. 416p. ISBN 9781250045461. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466844100. HISTORICAL FICTION
victorianovel-jpg11716Turning Victoria’s life story into a historical novel, Goodwin spends much of her time focused on the young queen’s turbulent learning years. From one mistake to another, Victoria lurches among crises large and small—some personally cruel, others politically tone-deaf—all the while falling deeper in thrall to her first prime minister, the smoothly organizing Lord Melbourne. All of the building blocks of the queen’s biography are deftly woven into the quick-moving tale, from her mother’s poor judgment to her early subjugation by comptroller Sir John Conroy to the power plays of her uncle, king of the Belgians. The start of the union between Victoria and husband Albert is presented as well, but not until the story’s end, by which time the young queen is a little less foolhardy.

Wilson, A.N. Victoria: A Life. Penguin. 2015. 656p. ISBN 9780143127871. pap. $20; ebk. ISBN 9780698170056. BIOG
Readers seeking another biography of Queen Victoria may want to consider Wilson’s well-regarded effort. As does Baird, Wilson seeks to reveal the woman behind the myth and curtain of history, emphasizing her effectiveness and character as a leader, her conduct as a wife and mother, her relationships with staff and fellow politicians, and her ties to others in the wake of tragedy. The balanced survey also discusses the social changes sweeping the country and the world during Victoria’s reign. Exquisitely crafted and nicely paced, this is as much a portrait of a queen as the era that bears her name.


Allgor, Catherine. A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation. 13 CDs. 16 hrs. Macmillan Audio. 2006. ISBN 9781593979256. $24. BIOG
perfectunion-jpg11716Delivering an exploration of the influence early U.S. first ladies deployed is Allgor’s depiction of Dolley Madison (1768–1849), wife of fourth U.S. president James Madison. Dolley knew the art of politics as clearly as any man playing the game while holding court in the White House, turning the presidential residence into an attractive locale for a charm offensive. Her savvy work on James’s behalf helped advance his career and agenda, just as her social skills heightened the political climate in an era marked by strife and dissent. As Allgor explains, James and Dolley were opposite in nature and age but produced a powerful duo and effective political partnership. Narrator Anne Twomey reads with a steady beat and an easy-on-the-ear voice, inviting listeners into this winning examination of the early republic.

Massie. Robert, K. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. 19 CDs. 23:52 mins. Books on Tape. 2011. ISBN 9780307970213. $60. BIOG
Born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, Catherine the Great (1729–96) married Grand Duke Peter III, the only living grandson of Peter the Great, and after his death assumed the role of Empress Catherine II of Russia. She grew into a figure who would build upon Peter’s greatness, forging a power base of her own and bringing innovation to her nation. Massie’s award-winning biography is a shimmering achievement, an immersive blend of life tale and history that fashions a strong pull on readers. Narrator Mark Deakins’s warm, rich voice amplifies that effect with a sense of place and pacing that confidently carries listeners through the events of Catherine’s life and times.


Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown. color. John Madden, Miramax. 1999. DVD UPC 071795100244. $29.99. HISTORICAL DRAMA
In the years following Prince Albert’s death, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench), wracked by grief and moldering in self-imposed seclusion, all but grinds to a halt. A highlander named John Brown (Billy Connolly), a favorite servant of Albert’s, assists her out of her despair—arriving at her stuffy retreat and all but bullying her out of withering away. He becomes a significant figure in her life, much to the outrage of those around her, including her son and heir and various courtiers. The stunning setting, largely shot within the wild, grand beauty of Scotland, enhances the film, as do the top-notch performances, delivered with verve by Dench and Connolly. For more Victoriana, look for the upcoming PBS series Victoria, airing this November.

The Young Victoria. color. Jean-Marc Vallée, Sony. 2010. Blu-ray UPC 043396349933. $18.95. HISTORICAL DRAMA
youngvictoria-jpg111716Emily Blunt delivers a radiant performance as the young Queen Victoria, who has a fairly rocky start to her long rule. As heir she endures both her mother and her mother’s scheming companion as they bully and isolate her at Kensington Palace. Upon inheriting the crown, Victoria soon teeters into unwise actions as she defers to her controlling, if charming, prime minister Lord Melbourne. As her kingdom faces crisis, she turns to Albert (Rupert Friend), the earnest, hopeful husband-in-waiting courting her from afar through letters. Lavish costumes; gorgeous sets of royal houses, gardens, and gatherings; and sprightly performances by all involved create a stunning and romantic biopic.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at