Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death That Changed the Monarchy 
by Helen Rappaport.
Hutchinson, 336 pp., £20, November 2011, 978 0 09 193154 4
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by Jules Stewart.
I.B. Tauris, 276 pp., £19.99, October 2011, 978 1 84885 977 7
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There were at least three Victorian ages, one of which, from around 1845 to 1861, might better be called Albertine. These were the years when the queen’s husband, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, was largely responsible for setting the tone, the pace and the scope of the monarchy and so to some extent of the reign. Despite which, as a personality, he remained obscure. Caricatured in his lifetime by an alternately sycophantic and satirical press, in death the immense shadow that Victoria’s mourning cast over him and the whole of the latter part of the century blotted out the prince consort again. The gilded figure enshrined in the Hyde Park memorial gradually congealed into Lytton Strachey’s ‘impeccable waxwork’ and Albert, as an individual, was for some time lost to history.

The younger son of a minor Bavarian duke of philandering habits, he had started at a disadvantage, which he never entirely lost. His parents’ marriage ended on such acrimonious terms that after the age of five he never saw his mother again. His grandmother and his uncle Leopold meanwhile had plans for him. He was to marry his first cousin, Victoria, a few months his senior, and as de facto king of England he would work for the creation of a united Germany under Prussia. Studious, intelligent and good-natured, Albert put his shoulder to the dynastic wheel. By the age of 16 he was writing an essay on German national character. Victoria meanwhile, having lost her father as a baby, was growing up as heir presumptive under the increasingly resented regime of her mother, the Duchess of Kent. These two childhoods equally rooted in an unusual combination of private insecurity and the imminence of public destiny must account to some extent for the personal success of a marriage planned so far in advance and with so little regard for the feelings of the parties involved.

Not that it was love at first sight. On Albert’s initial exploratory visit to meet his cousin before her accession, on a thinly contrived pretext which fooled nobody, he thought her ‘not beautiful by any means’. A youth of regular habits, he found the relentless ‘entertainments’ and late nights which Victoria so much enjoyed exhausting and pointless. After she had become queen he returned in 1839 with his brother at her somewhat peremptory invitation, the pair arriving at court haggard and underdressed having been violently seasick and lost their luggage en route. Victoria however was charmed. ‘It was with some emotion’, she wrote in her diary that night, that she beheld the bedraggled Albert who, despite it all, she could see was ‘beautiful’. Soon she was passionately in love and it was she who made most of the running. She was obliged by protocol, as queen, to put the proposal. Albert duly accepted and they married in 1840. If he had already tasted something of the potential humiliations of his situation he was soon fully aware of the fact that while her accession had set his wife free from her mother’s domination and brought her power and recognition, the fulfilment of his own long-foreseen destiny had merely ushered him into an elegantly appointed cul-de-sac.

As the queen’s husband he had no job and no authority. The title of prince consort was not granted until 1857 and he never received a peerage. He was known personally to hardly anyone in the country except Victoria and public opinion was initially wary of him, both as a German and as a consort in a nation that had had few happy experiences of royal husbands. They tended, it was felt, either to do too much or too little. Philip of Spain’s marriage to Mary Tudor had brought unwelcome foreign influence, while Queen Anne’s union with the ‘dull-brained, wine-bibing’ George of Denmark inspired little enthusiasm. Neither marriage was in living memory but Albert had arrived at a moment when the British were much preoccupied with reconsidering their past.

In particular, in the wake of Catholic emancipation and with the Oxford Movement gathering momentum, they enjoyed refighting the Reformation. Plays, paintings (famously Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey), new editions of John Lingard’s revisionist History of England, as well as Pugin’s architectural manifesto Contrasts, all treated it as the determining event in national history. The facts were fiercely argued and at a popular level there was much debate about whether or not it was a Good Thing. For Protestants, England’s saviour was Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen who had reigned alone and made her reluctance to marry an instrument of foreign policy. Hence, on top of everything else, the devoutly Lutheran Albert had to contend with persistent rumours that he was a Roman Catholic. He was still only in his early twenties, and it was understandable perhaps that when Benjamin Haydon saw him at a court ball he looked like a ‘kept pet, frightened to sit, frightened to stand’.

That he managed to make a success of his marriage and find a role in public life speaks powerfully of Albert’s sense of duty, his patience and his precociously sophisticated grasp of that relationship between the personal and the political which had been instilled in him from birth. He clearly came to love Victoria but she was always the more besotted and Albert used his hold over her, including the powerful sexual excitement which, as Victoria confided eagerly to her diary, had characterised the relationship from the beginning, to transform both the appearance and the reality of the monarchy. It was not easy. The early years of their marriage saw him not infrequently playing the stoical Petruchio to her bad-tempered Kate.

Victoria was less intelligent and less well educated than her husband, she was fond of her own way and saw no reason not to have it in matters of state as well as at home. All in all the young queen had more in common with her unpopular and self-indulgent uncles George IV and William IV than the fresh-faced appearance and the famous promise to ‘be good’ suggested. Courtiers and Victoria herself recorded tearful scenes and door slamming on her part and implacable calm, or the appearance of it, on Albert’s. Once he locked himself in his study while the furious Victoria bellowed outside that she was the queen and she commanded him to let her in. He refused to open up until she asked nicely.

Albert imposed order and regular bedtimes on his wife. He also explained her constitutional position to her, for he understood, unlike Victoria, that although the monarchy had received a boost in popularity with her accession, it could take nothing for granted. It was less than a decade since Robert Peel had predicted that it would not last another five years, and while the violent civil disorder of the early 1830s had abated, there was still considerable ambivalence towards an institution whose incumbents in the two previous reigns had done much to undermine it. Punch, which began publication the year after the royal wedding, was in its first satirical flush and entertained its readers with regular jokes about court protocol and the cost of the new and useless prince with his ‘tooth-brush in ordinary, and shaving-pot in waiting’.

It was Peel who came to Albert’s rescue by finding him a job. His first independent undertaking was the chairmanship of the royal commission established to oversee the decoration of the New Palace of Westminster and it suited Albert perfectly, while underlining the difficulties of his position. The commission was a response to increasing public pressure for state funding of the arts, still a relatively novel idea in Britain where the National Gallery had opened only in 1838. Albert saw an opportunity to do for his adopted country what King Ludwig was doing for Bavaria. He had taste as well as a knowledge of contemporary art, which he collected, and threw himself into the task with a will. Competitions were organised. Information about fresco, the most obviously suitable if technically difficult way to decorate a Gothic building, was obtained from the German painter Peter von Cornelius. Hugely popular exhibitions of potential schemes were held in Westminster Hall and much discussed, for the public expected a lot for their money. The scheme was supposed to encourage artists, educate visitors, stimulate the members of the Lords and Commons, and tell the national story from its misty Arthurian origins to the field of Waterloo.

The result was an inevitably mixed success. Fresco proved all but impossible to bring off amid the fog and soot of 1840s London. The subject matter was frequently changed, the architect quarrelled with the sculptors, and some critics, including Anna Jameson, questioned the desirability of the whole endeavour, suggesting that to encourage ‘mere liking’ for the arts among all classes would lead to them being ‘essentially vulgarised’. German influence was suspected, blamed on Albert and denounced in the press while the artists were not always as grateful for royal patronage as might have been hoped. William Dyce, one of the few painters to make a success of fresco in his murals for the Robing Room, warned Charles Cope, who was just starting work on the House of Lords, that ‘when you are about to paint a sky 17 feet long by some four or five broad, I don’t advise you to have a Prince looking in upon you every ten minutes or so – or when you are going to trace an outline, to obtain the assistance of the said Prince … to hold up your tracing to the wall … it is very polite … but rather embarrassing.’ Albert couldn’t win. He was either a parasite or he interfered. When things went wrong he was blamed and Victoria was not unjustified in feeling that he never got enough credit for his achievements.

The one project in which he was unequivocally successful with the public, the area in which even Punch did not like to criticise him, was in the creation of the royal family. After the unedifying spectacle of George IV and Queen Caroline’s divorce and the late and childless marriage of convenience between William and Adelaide, it was gratifying to Britain’s increasingly powerful and opinionated middle classes to see their own ideal of respectable family life reflected at the top of society. A cheerful vision of hearth, home and soon a burgeoning brood of healthy children was purveyed in dozens of popular engravings and chromolithographs. They showed Victoria and Albert among the toys in the nursery or the queen playing the piano as her husband turned the pages of the score. For its Christmas supplement of 1848, the Illustrated London News produced a coloured print of the whole family at Windsor, gathered round the candlelit tree. Albert was essential to this version of the myth of royalty, in which absolute uniqueness is counterbalanced by complete normality, a combination which still ensures that the most banal remark or the ability to perform the simplest domestic task prompts outpourings of excited loyalty.

By 1848, Albert had gained some degree of acceptance and, as the British looked anxiously across the Channel at revolution after revolution, there was a feeling that they could do worse. Republican agitation all but died away. His next major venture, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, in 1851, was the high-water mark of Albert’s career, a popular success and a personal one for which the prince did for once get the public appreciation he deserved. It was he who provided the impetus, addressing meetings of mayors and industrialists to whip up enthusiasm while Henry Cole got on with the practicalities of presenting what the prince envisaged as a ‘living encyclopedia’ of international production.

The resulting display in the Crystal Palace was a kind of Benthamite panopticon, a rational arrangement of all of human knowledge at a glance, or at least in a day’s visit. More than six million people came to inspect more than a hundred thousand objects arranged by nationality and material. Albert hoped that it would persuade the British to introduce some scientific and technical elements to their narrowly academic education system. It didn’t, but it did pave the way for the design reform movement and for the museum complex at South Kensington, which was popularly known as Albertopolis. It also ushered in with the mid-century the new, High Victorian way of interpreting the world and of ordering public life. The Great Exhibition was the acceptable face of Gradgrindery, orderly, safe and sanitary. As well as the exhibits, innovations at the Crystal Palace included a press office, fire precautions, public lavatories and refreshment rooms.

Meanwhile Albert had been gradually getting his hands on the levers of such political power as remained with the monarch. His wife trusted him more, needed him more and over a decade of constant childbearing was often too tired to attend to as much business as she once had. Mindful of public opinion and not personally vain, her husband was discreet about his role, content to let Victoria take the credit for his ideas and decisions. Behind the scenes he worked relentlessly. Still the public image and the reality were at odds, and now, while there was more to him as a politician than was generally supposed, there was also somewhat less of the happy family man. It was not surprising, given their own upbringings and their mutual self-absorption, that Victoria and Albert should not be notably successful parents. She made no secret of the fact that she disliked being pregnant and was not particularly fond of the babies when they arrived. He liked his children but expected to mould them as he himself had been moulded. Neither parent could get on with their eldest son, Bertie, the future Edward VII, who was not mouldable. He tried hard but had, as his mother put it, a ‘small empty brain’ and persistent discouragement and criticism made him unhappy and rebellious. He was growing up to be a worry and a disappointment.

Towards the end of the 1850s Albert seems to have lost heart and begun to give up the unequal struggle that had been his life’s work. His health, never strong, began to fail and Victoria’s torrential devotion did not extend to ensuring his physical comfort. Her neurotic dislike of overheated houses meant that at Windsor she had thermometers in ivory cases in every room to ensure that the temperature never rose above 15°. Poor Albert was so cold he had to wear a wig to breakfast. By 1861 body and spirit were fatally undermined. His feelings for Victoria were not, as he told her, enough to make him ‘cling to life’ as she did. He spoke openly about expecting to die and not minding much. Whether she was too selfish or too terrified to understand the true state of affairs Victoria managed to protect herself from much anxiety until it was too late. At the end of November she was writing to reassure their eldest daughter Vicky that her Papa was ‘in reality much better’, just rather depressed ‘as men really only are – when unwell’. Two weeks later he died.

The shock to the nation was immense at every level, out of proportion, it might seem at first, to the very mixed feelings Albert had inspired in life. The process of reassessment, reinvention and sanctification began almost at once, but just for a moment, indeed for the next few years, the place that he had in reality occupied in public and private life was laid open. This at least is the persuasive premise of Helen Rappaport’s Magnificent Obsession, a perceptive study of the marriage and its aftermath which gives an account of both Victoria’s and Albert’s lives but which looks for the key to Albert’s significance in the interstices between them and the reaction to his death. In his absence there was no need to conceal or minimise the consort’s role. ‘With Prince Albert we have buried our sovereign,’ Disraeli wrote, not, for once, overstating the case. When he died Albert had been working, to some effect, to avert a crisis in diplomatic relations with the United States which had become so strained that many people expected war. The American ambassador predicted accurately that ‘the English will value him better now he is gone.’ The Times talked of losing ‘the most important man in the country’. The stock market plummeted and as church bells rang out across the countryside a blanket of black crape descended on all respectable citizens, including, as the news spread slowly through the empire, Indians, Africans and Maoris.

Palmerston if anything understated matters when he said that ‘the queen would be a less national loss.’ In fact the queen without Albert was something of a liability. Victoria had never been alone before. First her mother and then her husband had centred their own existence on hers and ambivalent as her feelings for the Duchess of Kent had been in life, her death, nine months before Albert’s and much more foreseeable, had plunged Victoria into agonies of flamboyant distress which only her husband had been able to get her to curb. Rappaport is perhaps rather harsh about this, seeing it as an overreaction or, as she puts it, an ‘orgy of grief’. Yet Victoria had lost her father as a baby and who can say what anxieties resurfaced with the death of her other parent or to what extent the ‘morbid melancholy’ to which she had always been inclined might be better understood as clinical depression. What is certain is that love had in her experience always been intimately associated with control. Without Albert and her mother there was nobody to provide either on the scale required to restrain a temperament always inclined to self-indulgence and by now, as the queen of the Netherlands tartly observed, thoroughly used to ‘the habit of power’.

With the passage of time, as she clung to her grief as if it were Albert himself, Victoria’s state of mind lapsed increasingly into solipsism, her mourning spreading unconstrained like her figure, for she soon left off her corsets. She did exactly what she wanted and nothing else, spending as much time as possible at Balmoral, avoiding public engagements, refusing to entertain visiting heads of state and, to the dismay of the court and her family, allowing the ghillie John Brown more and more liberties, including lighting his pipe in her presence and taking frequent swigs from the whisky flask. Brown’s character resembled Albert’s in only one way, but it was the one that mattered most to the queen: he offered total devotion laced with just enough lèse majesté to suit her need for love to be combined with dominance.

Rappaport follows through the implications of all this for Victoria and for Britain, making use of magazines and private diaries and letters, many of them long overlooked. From the boost to the Whitby jet industry, which produced tasteful and affordable mourning jewellery, to Dickens’s reluctant cancellation of a lucrative reading tour, the blow to the republicans and the dismay of ladies-in-waiting doomed to wear relentless black, Albert’s absence was felt almost everywhere for the next two years. Then, as the country moved on through grief and sympathy to acceptance and lightened its royalism with an enthusiastic welcome for Alexandra, the beautiful new Princess of Wales, queen and people began to fall out of step. After three years, mourning began to look like sulking. Prince Humbert of Italy was not amused to find himself staying at the White Hart Inn in Windsor having been told there was no room at the castle. A cartoon of Buckingham Palace with a ‘To Let’ sign, rumours that Victoria had gone mad or was about to abdicate, the Saturday Review’s pointed remarks about ‘seclusion’ being ‘one of the few luxuries which Royal personages may not indulge’ coincided with a new boom in republican clubs, which sprang up from Plymouth to Aberdeen. For the rest of the decade most of Albert’s work in shoring up the monarchy was undone by the woman who claimed to have appreciated it most. As Gladstone put it, ‘the queen is invisible, and the Prince of Wales is not respected.’ The whole ‘Royalty question’, he regretted, was coming up for discussion once more.

Victoria’s obliviousness to what the living Albert had thought and wished extended to her enthusiasm for memorials to him, the unveiling of which, all over the country, were among the few activities she could be persuaded to undertake. In his lifetime he had dismissed the idea of a commemorative statue after the Great Exhibition on the grounds that he did not want to be confronted by his own image in Hyde Park and if, as he thought was ‘very likely’, it became ‘an artistic monstrosity’ he would be ‘permanently … laughed at in effigy’. Now, if he was not laughed at it was only because he was turning to stone in the public memory. There were indeed a number of monstrosities. That the grandest monument of all, George Gilbert Scott’s Albert Memorial, was also a great work of High Victorian art was the result of good luck rather than judgment, which the queen entirely lacked in matters of art. Nevertheless it would have embarrassed its subject horribly.

Just when it seemed that the nation’s patience might run out, the hapless Bertie inadvertently came to the rescue in 1871 by nearly dying of typhoid, the same disease thought to have killed his father exactly a decade before. Despite press scepticism about the long-term value of ‘typhoid loyalty’, the service of thanksgiving for the Prince of Wales’s recovery marked another turning point in the reign, a moment when, as in 1848, the British looked at the alternatives to hereditary monarchy and decided to stick with what they knew. Republicanism receded again. In the meantime one of Victoria’s few really original achievements was to publish a book, something no sovereign had done since James VI and I. Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, which appeared to rave reviews in 1868, let a little cosy gaslight in on the monarchy, its pretty but unremarkable watercolours and the plain prose, from which an editor had tactfully removed spelling mistakes and repetitions, reassured the public once again, as in Albert’s day, that Victoria was just like them, a devoted wife who had become a respectable, grieving widow.

As the queen aged into a bombazine silhouette, grandmother of the nation, empress of India, her people remained loyal and Albert faded still further from reality until, like his monument, he was rescued from oblivion in the second half of the last century. There have since been a number of biographical reassessments to which Jules Stewart’s lame effort adds nothing. A book on which every expense has been spared from the thinness of the research to the awkwardness of the typesetting, it overestimates Albert’s influence as much as earlier generations underestimated it, crediting him with the single-handed reform of everything from the army to Cambridge University and making such odd assertions as that Hyde Park was chosen for the Great Exhibition because it was a ‘London icon that had belonged to the city since before the Norman conquest’. Albert’s trials, it seems, are never-ending.

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Vol. 34 No. 6 · 22 March 2012

Rosemary Hill, in her review of Helen Rappaport’s Magnificent Obsession, refers to the ‘late and childless marriage of convenience between William and Adelaide’ (LRB, 23 February). It was not childless: two girls were born, but lived for only a short time, and there were several miscarriages. Also, to call Prince Albert’s father ‘Bavarian’ is eccentric in the extreme.

James Stevens Curl
Holywood, County Down

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