Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey. The dustjacket quotes a contemporary as saying that Strachey’s Victoria will become the Victoria, displacing the earlier myth, and this is indeed correct. I was watching an ABC documentary a week or so ago, and it could have been taken directly from Strachey.
A couple of observations on this. Although this is a very sympathetic portrait, by the standards of the time it was highly irreverent. Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, published a few years previously, though mild by today’s standards, was the beginning of the tradition of debunking biography that dominated the 20th century.
The other point is one of historical perspective. Victoria’s life was changed dramatically by the death of her husband, Prince Albert, when she was only 42. By the time she died 40 years later, most people had no memory of her as anything other than “the widow of Windsor”, and the eponymous embodiment of Victorian propriety and prudery. Strachey was the first writer to approach her as a historical figure. In this light it was her first 40 years that were of primary interest.
Reflecting my own biases, I’d say that at present, it’s the views of contemporaries that dominate the interpretation of events from the Vietnam onwards. On the other hand, the Labor Split and the McCarthy era, which were very much alive when I was younger, are now viewed mainly in a historical light, as are the World Wars.
fn1. I have a tentative impression that this trend has run its course.