IF THIS BOOK had been published 50 years ago, it would have been titled The Best of Queen Victoria and received as a joke, conceived in the same iconoclastic spirit that led Dickens to invent facetious titles to put on the spines of the fake books in his library. But times have changed, and the short, plump lady who ruled Britain for 64 years, once an object of Stracheyesque derision, once again enjoys the respect, though perhaps not the affection, she commanded in life.

"We authors, ma'am": the wily Disraeli well knew that his sovereign prided herself on being a published writer, her Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands having been a bestseller in 1868. But the great bulk of what she wrote remained unpublished until after her death. Her paperwork, both personal and official, has been calculated to amount to some 60 million words. If, like Disraeli, she had been a novelist, the same wordage would have filled 700 volumes. As things stand, abundant selections from her journals and letters are now available in two dozen thick volumes. But few readers are prepared to slog through them, and Christopher Hibbert's judicious selection, enriched by some previously unpublished material from the Windsor archives, fills a real need. In addition to supplying unobtrusive annotation, Hibbert has smoothed the reader's way by deleting that exasperating characteristic of the queen's style, the double and triple underlinings by which she habitually added emphasis to language that never needed any such extraneous reinforcement.

Victoria's prose may not always be to the modern taste -- in her earlier years particularly she had an uncurbed girlish tendency to gush, and to the end everyone in her good graces was referred to as "dear" -- but her meaning, whether she was confiding only to her journal or writing to relatives or prime ministers, was never in doubt. She wrote as she spoke, incapable of diplomatic evasiveness or ambiguity, and the self-portrait she unconsciously painted is a true likeness, exhibiting, as Hibbert observes, "her simplicity and practicality, her sound common sense, her deep capacity for affection, the undeviating and sometimes highly uncomfortable regard for truth, the stubborn imperiousness protecting an inner security and awareness of her own limitations."

One more element might be added, the subject that always elicited the queen's most extravagant language: her sheer adoration of her "angelic" and "perfect" husband in the flesh and the dedication of her long widowhood to his sainted memory. In her womanly devotion to the Prince Consort, she was providentially suited to embody the domesticity that ruled her age's ethos, even though her protracted, mournful obsession with the dead prince sometimes tried the patience of her get-on-with-it subjects. What the public did not know was her lack of enthusiasm for the institution of marriage insofar as it was subservient to dynastic needs ("hate" and "detest" were among the words she used in this connection). The mother of numerous children, she was outspoken in her dislike of pregnancy, both the process and the product; babies she found to be uninteresting objects, though her affection for her own developed as they entered childhood.

These prejudices, so at odds with conventional Victorianism, appear at large in Hibbert's selection, along with the queen's often difficult relationship with her grown sons and daughters. Her correspondence with her oldest and favorite daughter "Vickie" after she became the Crown Princess of Prussia was laced with an uncomfortable amount of fussing and gratuitous advice and reproach, and in later years we see the queen repeatedly throwing cold water on Vickie's proposals that she and her family come to England to visit. More important, Victoria's private papers record in detail the ironic course of her relations with the Prince of Wales. As a young man, "Bertie" was a thoroughly unsatisfactory royal son and heir. During most of his youth his mother simply did not like him; she did not even like his looks. To make matters worse, she implicitly blamed him for the death of his father, whose resistance to typhoid fever was weakened by the energy and emotion he spent in anxious attempts at damage control following Bertie's involvement with a "vivacious and cheerfully promiscuous young actress" at the Grenadier Guards' camp near Dublin. Meanwhile, the queen concentrated her affection on the "darling," "beautiful" Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. But in time, the brothers exchanged places in the royal esteem. "Affie" distressed his mother by the conceit and arrogance which made him universally unpopular, while an improved, if not actually reformed, Bertie became the dutiful staff on which she gratefully leaned. She took good care, though, to keep his hands off the machinery of government.

EVEN IF SHE had had confidence in his abilities, Victoria probably would not have shared any of her power with him. She knew her constitutional prerogatives, and she zealously protected and exercised them. From Buckingham Palace, Balmoral and Osborne streamed memorandums, cast always in the regal third person, that conveyed her opinions and wishes. The positions she took on thorny issues like the Irish question may not have been the product of deep thought, but she clung to them with the unshakable conviction of a Margaret Thatcher. Her relations with her advisers and ministers were governed as much by personalities as principles. Her first prime minister, the tactful and world-wise Lord Melbourne, was as beloved and trusted a father figure as another early confidant, her uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians. By contrast, she thought Gladstone half-mad, his liberal policies lighting the way to national disaster. But despite all the burdens of office and her often expressed wish that she could join Prince Albert in the heaven he already adorned, her profound sense of duty lent her a residual toughness that lasted to the end.

What if, despite the labors of the formidable Baroness Lehzen to prepare the teen-age princess to become a queen, a vastly different woman had come to the throne in 1839 -- a frivolous, fluffy-brained nullity who was no better qualifed to preside over the greatest empire the world has ever known than one of the insipid models of femininity whose engraved portraits embellished the silk-bound coffee table albums of the time? At that moment, the monarchy, lately ill-served by two kings, the dissolute George IV and the amiable but ungifted William IV, was in danger of discredit if not actual collapse. Without Queen Victoria's confident, assertive presence, would the center of the British political system have held, or would it have succumbed to fierce partisan rivalries and ideological conflicts? In the event, Britain was spared the political turmoil that racked her continental neighbors in the course of the century, and her economic prosperity was matched by a generally solid and peaceful social order. The nation had a queen who had not only an inherent sense of responsibility but who, as we say today, instinctively "related" to the people, as they did to her. And that made all the difference.