Before there was Hillary, there was Eleanor. The third volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s magisterial biography, Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and After (Viking, $40), covers the period from 1939 to 1962, completing Cook’s comprehensive and widely praised portrait of FDR’s wife with an account of the time when she most passionately fought for civil rights—battling against both racial and religious prejudices. In her daily newspaper columns and regular lecture tours, the first lady confronted the pre-war climate of xenophobia and bigotry, pushing for more generous immigration policies, especially for the burgeoning number of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. Later, when the State Department refused to honor her pleas on behalf of wartime refugees, Mrs. Roosevelt’s controversial crusade made her hated by many Americans, mocked by the press, and targeted by the FBI, which monitored her mail. Although Cook never mentions Hillary Clinton, her admiring, unfailingly fascinating biography makes clear that the independent and courageous 32nd first lady is Hillary’s ideal role model. And though Eleanor dismissed the idea of ever holding public office herself, she was the first First Lady to speak at a political convention, and she accepted President Truman’s post-war appointment to serve as a U.S. delegate to the U.N., a position in which Cook believes she demonstrated leadership and diplomatic skills.
One of the standout biographies of the season is Victoria: The Queen (Random House, $35) by Julia Baird, an engaging portrait of one of the most famous and influential monarchs in European history. Victoria was the longest-reigning English monarch until her great-great-granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II, broke her record in 2015. At a time when women were supposed to be submissive and subservient to men, Victoria reigned over the vast British Empire at the pinnacle of its power and influence. Baird’s book covers the whole of Victoria’s life, from her childhood in Kensington Palace through her marriage to her first cousin Albert and her sixty-four-year monarchy until her death at the age of eighty-one. Her reign saw a massive expansion of the British Empire as well as significant political, industrial, and cultural changes and progress. This survey of her life focuses not just on her personal and professional triumphs but also on her missteps and flaws, presenting a well-paced, compelling portrait of a powerful woman who was, at the end of it all, still profoundly human. Baird’s book is biography at its best.