Did you love watching Queen Elizabeth II’s early reign unfold in The Crown? Are you watching the PBS miniseries Victoria, about young Queen Victoria, with breathless anticipation? If so, there’s a wealth of refreshing books—both fiction and nonfiction—about Queen Victoria, her contemporaries and her descendants (which included Queen Elizabeth II). Add these titles to your shelves to learn more about captivating royal women.
It might seem strange to call a 500-plus page nonfiction biography “compulsively readable,” yet Julia Baird’s biography of Queen Victoria is just that. Baird paints a full picture of the queen, capturing her strengths and flaws throughout the meticulously researched book. This biography follows the full course of Victoria’s life, including a look at new primary source material that sheds light on a particular relationship.
Queen Victoria was an unlikely monarch—the daughter of a German princess and the King’s fourth son. So too was Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. This historical novel takes the reader back to that royal’s origins as a German princess named Sophie. Told through the eyes of a trusted friend and confidante at court, this fictionalized telling of Catherine’s ascent to power is gripping and gorgeously detailed.
What was Queen Elizabeth II like when she was young? It’s a question that The Crown’s first season has done an excellent job exploring, but Kate Williams’ biography goes into even more detail. Covering the first 30 years of Elizabeth’s life, this biography takes us back to her childhood. Elizabeth was the daughter of a second son, unlikely to ever reign, but with the abdication of her uncle, she was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the heir to the throne.
When 15-year-old Elisabeth arrives at Hapsburg court in the mid-1800s to attend her sister’s wedding, she doesn’t expect to capture the heart of her sister’s bethrothed—and instead attend her own wedding to become Empress of the Hapsburg Empire. Allison Pataki’s historical novel brings Elisabeth, or “Sisi,” to life, as she finds herself joining the most powerful ruling family (and empire) in Europe and struggles to navigate the treacherous waters of court.
In this biography, Anand profiles Sophia Duleep Singh, an Indian princess in exile who grew into a life of activism. Her father, Maharajah Duleep Singh, was the heir to the great Indian Sikh empire, but he was deposed by the British and sent to Britain. Sophia, raised as an upper-class British woman and the goddaughter of Queen Victoria, was taught to be a demure woman, but found that she was called to working for rights that women and minorities were denied under British rule.
You might think I would recommend Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria, the historical novel the PBS series of the same name is based on. But that would be too easy (though you should definitely check it out.) Instead, I’ve included one of Goodwin’s other novels, The American Heiress, on the list. The book features young Cora Cash, a wealthy American woman who finds herself married to an English Duke. Cora must learn to navigate Britain’s society in the 19th century while also attempting to connect with her new husband.
Without Wallis Simpson, the scandalous American divorcée who captured the King of England’s heart, we might not have Elizabeth II reigning in Britain. Prince Edward fell in love with Wallis and abdicated his throne for her, leaving Elizabeth’s father to wear the crown. But who was she? Wallis has been reviled and villainized, but Anne Sebba’s biography of the woman separates fact from myth.
In 1897, a young woman named Charlotte arrived at the royal nursery at Sandringham to care for the great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria. Through Charlotte’s eyes, readers get a peek at how royal children were raised, the effects of their upbringing on Edward’s later decision to abdicate and Bertie’s assumption of the throne, and pivotal events in British royal history, such as Queen Victoria’s Jubilee and her death. Based on a true story, this historical novel is packed with fascinating information and boasts a compelling main character at its center.
Chosen as the wife for Victoria’s eldest grandson, Princess May of Teck was from a noble bloodline but a very poor family. Her life seemed destined for tragedy, as her fiancé died before marriage. However May (Mary after marriage) navigated this political firestorm and became engaged to his brother. Over the years, Queen Mary would become pivotal in British events and the royal family, devoted to her duty as a royal even at the expense of her family.
This history focuses on three mother-daughter pairs: Isabella of Castile and Catherine of Aragon; Maria Theresa of Austria and Marie Antoinette of France; and Victoria of England and Vicky, the Empress of Germany. Each of these daughters had successful mothers, yet were unable to find their own happiness. Gelardi tells each of these stories in parallel, contrasting a mother’s story of victory with a daughter’s story of tragedy, ever doomed to live in a parent’s shadow.