Book review: Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death That Changed the Monarchy by Helen Rappaport

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‘For me, life came to an end on 14 December. My life was dependent on his...’

When Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died in the winter of 1861, the 42-year-old queen and her nation were paralysed with grief.

Britain was in mourning for the German-born Prince Consort who had helped to bring stability to the monarchy and who had been everything to their popular queen ... husband, companion, father of their children, friend, confidant, wise counsellor and unofficial private secretary.

Sympathy poured out for the royal family at their shattering loss but gradually the public grew impatient with her cult of grief and court circles became weary of the never-ending imperative to wear nothing but black and festoons of jet mourning jewellery (albeit a boom time for Whitby’s jet-making industry).

Over the next ten years, Victoria’s retreat into a state of impenetrable pathological grief and her stubborn refusal to return to public life sparked a resurgence of republicanism and even talk of abdication.

Helen Rappaport’s fascinating book helps us to understand Victoria’s extreme reaction to Albert’s death by explaining her obsessive love for him and her total and utter reliance on him which the prince himself had helped to foster over the 21 years of their marriage.

And it’s a truly compelling account which takes us through the last painful years of Albert’s life, the catastrophic impact of his death on Victoria, her withdrawal from the public gaze and her obsessive memorialisation of his death.

A prudish, boring and humourless German to some, a hard-working, dedicated and virtuous prince to others, Albert confided in his diary at the age of only eleven that he intended to train himself ‘to be a good and useful man.’

It was a lofty ambition and one that, despite precarious personal health, he adhered to steadfastly over his years of unquestionably devoted service to the British throne and its people.

In the early years of their marriage, Victoria had been reluctant to share any official papers or business with her husband but when their nine children began to arrive, her dependency on him grew as her resistance to his control waned.

Rappaport believes that power and control were ‘the aphrodisiacs’ that drove Albert and thus he set out to chip away at his wife’s impetuosity and, with it, her instinctiveness and natural vivacity.

Like Frankenstein’s monster, Victoria became Albert’s ‘creature’ to the extent that she deferred to him on every aspect of her life from public business and politics to their children’s education and even which bonnet she should wear.

But by the time of his death, Albert was severely depressed and isolated, and had been in a progressive physical decline for years, worn out by his wife’s emotional neediness, overwork, stress and the exacting standards he set himself.

When he fell desperately ill with a ‘fever’ at Windsor Castle in late 1861, Victoria’s emotional dependency on him was complete to the extent that she refused believe that he was dying, forbade her son and heir, the Prince of Wales, to be summoned and would not allow the Press to be fully informed about the seriousness of the Prince’s condition.

When the end came, the ageing Prime Minster, Lord Palmerston, ‘fainted away several times’ with the shock and senior politicians trembled at the prospect of the potential catastrophic depth of Victoria’s grief.

In the years immediately after Albert’s death, Victoria found little comfort in her family having always preferred being alone with her husband, and insisted on hanging a photograph of Albert on his deathbed next to her bed to help assuage her feelings of desperation.

It took the near-death from typhoid of her much-maligned eldest son Bertie in 1871 to finally shock the reclusive queen out of her self-indulgent and self-imposed isolation and take up with renewed vigour the reins of monarchy for another 30 years.

Rappaport is a meticulous historian, seeking out forgotten and neglected sources and discovering new strands to an old story to put a fresh and revealing focus not just on Victoria and her extreme reaction to the tragedy but on the minutae of Albert’s death and its possible cause, his funeral and the initial public response.

But what makes her book so outstanding, and possibly one of the best history books of 2011, is its sheer readability and her attention to every intriguing detail of a crisis that had such a profound impact on our nation.

(Hutchinson, hardback, £20)