I love Prince Albert.
For so many years portrayed and seen as a dour, miserable, straight-laced Germanic bore, it is a delight to me that over the past twenty or so years, various biographies have put the record straight. He had had an idyllic childhood in Rosenau with his brother Ernst spending their time ‘walking, hunting, shooting and fencing, as well as indulging their fascination with science and nature in a passion for collecting specimens’. Albert was an accomplished pianist and organist as well as a fine singer and talented composer. All this at 21 and at that age he found himself married to one of the most important monarchs on the European stage. One wonders what would have happened if this marriage, long arranged, had been an unhappy one, if Victoria had not loved him. We all we all know she adored him.
In fact she probably adored him too much. Her passion for her husband was all consuming though in the first years of her marriage this did not stop her from trying to dominate him and jealously guard her royal prerogative and status. It was a tricky time but Albert negotiated his way through the minefield that was Victoria’s temperament with consummate skill, understanding and love until the stage was reached when he was her ‘beloved Albert’ and she allowed herself to become subsumed in him, looking for his approval in everything, consulting him in all state matters and allowing him to expand her knowledge of books, music and art. She was aware that her own education was sadly lacking and was happy to bow to him in everything. By the time of his death in 1861 he was acknowledged to be King in all but name.
Helen Rappaport’s splendid new book is called Magnificent Obsession and it was Victoria’s obsession with Albert after his tragically early death that nearly brought about the fall of the monarchy when she shut herself up at Windsor or fled to Balmoral and was not seen by the public for many years. Though there were times when reading this book when I longed to shake Victoria and tell her to snap out of it, I could not help but be moved by the depth of the all consuming grief that overcame the Queen after the Prince Consort’s demise. They had been married for 21 years, were blissfully happy (though it would appear that sometimes Albert found her excessive love and devotion exhausting) and at the age of 42, in the prime of her life, both mentally and physically, she was widowed. The man who was all in all to her and who she cared for more than her children had gone and she was left bereft. I cannot imagine the desolation that she must have felt when she viewed the years ahead without him, the panic and the fear of being on her own, nobody to love her, to hold her in his arms, nobody to comfort her. If you and I have a friend who was upset and sad we would go over and give them a hug. Well, you can’t do that to a Queen Regnant, nobody was her equal and that was the problem.
The news of Albert’s death hit the public like a thunderbolt. The bulletins issued from Windsor Castle regarding the Prince’s illness were bland and optimistic. In part this was to keep the Queen from realising the seriousness of his condition as it was feared she would totally break down. In the end she had to be prepared and by then it was too late to change the tenor of the medical reports issued and the first intimation that something awful had happened was when the great bell of St Pauls, which only tolled on the death of a monarch, was rung and people rushed out into the streets on hearing its sound.
The shock was profound and the nation seemed pulverised by grief and despair. Shops closed, theatres suspended all performances (Dickens had to cancel a series of readings much to his annoyance), and ordinary life ground to a standstill as the country tried to come to terms with the loss of a man who they had never appreciated in life.
“On the day after Albert died, when she had taken the Duchess of Sutherland into the King’s Room to see his body, the Queen had turned as they both looked down at Albert’s dead face and asked plaintively, ‘ Will they do him justice now?’. By day’s end, there was no one in the country who could have doubted the extent to which the nation had indeed done justice to its late Prince”
Queen Victoria went into deep mourning and seclusion and as the years passed by she came dangerously close to using up all the capital of goodwill which she and Albert had built up over the years in their stabilising of the monarchy. With her obsession with the memory of her Beloved Albert, the proliferation of statues and monuments all over the country, her unwillingness to be seen in public and to carry out any duties at all she was, to put it bluntly, pushing her luck. Albert had instilled in her the importance of one’s duty and it is a paradox that despite her adoration of him and all his ideals, her wilful turning of her back on this duty was totally at odds with Albert’s teachings.
“The habit or rather necessity, together with her intense love for him, which has increased rather than become weaker with the years, has so engrafted her on him that to lose him will be like parting with her heart and soul” – Earl of Clarendon.
And yet, she endured. She survived and over the years her real self began to emerge once more. Albert was all in all to her, he was her guide and mentor and the power behind the throne, but there were some who were beginning to worry about his influence and there were fears that sooner or later this might have caused a constitutional crisis. One wonders how history might have changed if Albert had not died and of course, how the Queen herself might or might not have developed. She might have come to regret the total capitulation of self to her husband, she might have begun to exert her opinions once more and not be quite so happy to be totally subsumed in her Beloved Albert. It is a fascinating thought.
Her tragic and early widowhood forced Victoria to rely on herself. She may not have wanted to but her inner strength and bloody mindedness kept her going, despite her best efforts to cling to her grief and her claims to be too fragile and weak to cope. A woman who could not cope would not have turned herself into the Grandmamma of Europe, the determined and feisty sovereign who shot off an endless stream of letters to Monarchs and dynasties all over Europe telling them what she thought, arranging marriages, forbidding others, never letting anything get past her eagle eye. To read the Queen’s later letters is to discover a determined fearless woman with purpose and will and one who never doubted for one moment the love and support of her subjects. She was right about that and many other things.
I loved this book. Helen Rappaport has the knack of making the reader feel totally involved with the subject matter. As with her earlier book on Ekaterinburg, reviewed here, she drew me in so that the joys and sorrows of the Romanovs were immediate and real. So with Albert and Victoria, this book gave me a lump in my throat and it also made me shed a tear or two.
It is a wonderful book about a wonderful, stubborn, irritating, selfish, self centered, brave and determined woman.
I love Queen Victoria....