A Magnificent Obsession

In the union of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert he played the leading role – and she was only too glad to have him do so.

A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy By Helen Rappaport St. Martin’s Press 336 pp

The probability is that anyone who reads A Magnificent Obsession by Helen Rappaport already knows the story well. It is the latest  account of how Victoria, in 1819, while the 20-year-old Queen of Great Britain, married the 20-year-old Prince Albert of Saxe-Coberg and Gotha, a small German duchy. And it carries the marriage up to Albert’s early death at age 42 and Victoria’s subsequent life as a grieving widow for forty years until her death in 1901.

It was an arranged marriage, promoted by their mutual uncle (Victoria and Albert were first cousins) and they had only met twice before Victoria decided that she like Albert well enough and proposed to him – which is what reigning queens do in Britain.

The British populace had not initially been warm to the union. They regarded Albert as being significantly  beneath Victoria on the monarchial scale and they did not welcome a German princeling into their midst, particularly if, like Albert, he spoke English with a thick German accent. But what the public did not know at the first, was that Albert was an extraordinary person. Commencing from when he was only a boy, he had prepared himself for a life of Christian duty as a royal figure. Albert had studied international law, philosophy, music, and art. He had closely observed the rulers of various nations and prepared himself for a life as an important royal figure. 

In  his marriage to Victoria he made it quickly known that he was not content to be simply the Queen’s lapdog, which was apparently the role she had in mind for him. From the very beginning he reached out for responsibility and public service. He took over all of Victoria’s financial affairs, ran her household, and guided her in her relations with her government ministers. He directed the British Exhibition, a sort of world’s fair of goods, and made it a spectacular success. He undertook great responsibilities in re-organizing  the army, improving British education and promoting science. In all things he was successful and particularly so in his family life. Both Victoria and Albert had surely come into their marriage as virgins. But Albert was a quick learner and according to her diary, brought his wife delight and satisfaction.

Despite the fact that Victoria had been warned that infidelity by British royal figures was the norm – “Damn it, Madam,” Lord Melboune had declared to her, “you don’t expect that he’ll always be faithful to you, do you?” – Albert certainly was faithful. Not for nothing was he called “Albert the Good.” In their first 20 years of marriage Victoria and Albert produced nine children. Their domestic life was greatly respected and admired by the British public who regarded the Royal family as an exemplar.

Victoria basked in Albert’s devotion. He was clearly the more intelligent and better educated. He played the leading role in their marriage and she was glad to have him do it. “We women are not for governing,” she said.

But there was one aspect of Albert which was less than perfect. His health was problematic. From early youth he had experienced intestinal difficulties. He was frequently ill and as he grew older his health problems diversified into headaches, severe colds, insomnia, fevers, and diarrhea. They became more severe as Albert entered into his forties. But Victoria did not know this, or else she chose to ignore it. The thought that he might predecease her was too much even to contemplate.

Then, in December,1861, Albert became ill but insisted on carrying out his duties. These involved spending days outside in cold rain. Having almost literally worked himself to death, he died on December 14, 1861.

The nation poured out its grief for Albert. But foremost, by far, was that of the Queen. Unprepared and unready for her consort’s death, she was prostrated.

This was a time in Britain when mourning for deceased relatives was at a level which today would be considered excessive. In Albert’s case all shops in Britain, save those which sold mourning clothes or mourning paraphernalia, put up their shutters and closed. All entertainments ceased, most persons wore black, and economic activity slowed markedly.

The principal mourner was, of course, Queen Victoria who spent the first days of her widowhood at Windsor Castle, later moving to other royal properties but finally settling at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.

Victoria refused to see most persons, confining her company to a few ladies-in-waiting and several selected servants. At first Victoria was numb with shock, but this wore off and all she could do was to sob endlessly, cry out in grief, and speak of nothing and no one but Albert. He  was to be for years almost her sole topic of conversation. Desolate, despairing, and deeply depressed, she virtually abandoned her monarchial duties. She rarely received her ministers and rarely dealt with the dispatch boxes of government papers which were sent to her. She wallowed in her grief. And when the ritual two years of mourning for widows had passed, Victoria declared that she would continue in mourning and would wear nothing but black until the end of her life.  She continued to isolate herself at Balmoral. Crippled by grief, she rarely left her home .

Her failure to make any public appearances came to be a serious problem. A wave of interest in republicanism was sweeping through Britain. Victoria was in real danger of becoming the last British monarch. She was isolated, needy, complaining and selfish. Lord Cecil pointed out the danger to her. “Seclusion is one of the few luxuries which Royal figures may not indulge. The power which is derived from affection or from loyalty needs a life of uninterrupted publicity to sustain it.”

Gradually, and it took several years, Victoria came to see the need for her to make occasional appearances, such as a short carriage ride in London in an open landau. She, of course, complained bitterly about these little rides, but she did them and she instructed her family to host various events which brought the royalty into some favorable limelight. These affairs, and a little good fortune, turned away republicanism and enabled the Queen to survive on the throne until her death in 1901. She probably mourned Albert’s death every minute of those years. This is how "A Magnificent Obsession" ends. It is an oft-told tale.

What is fairly new in this book is an appendix entitled “What Killed Prince Albert?” This is a good question. Albert’s death certificate stated that he died of typhoid fever aggravated by exposure to cold and rain the previous days.

But subsequently, when no other cases of typhoid fever appeared in Windsor, the diagnosis was doubted. A problem was that the Queen had refused to permit an autopsy, so for many hears the typhoid fever diagnosis was generally accepted.

Beginning in the late 19th century, a number of Albert’s biographers came to regard the Prince’s primary cause of death to be Crohn’s disease, which author Rappaport regards as probably correct.

What this book does for present readers is to put a gloss on Albert and gives emphasis and detail of Victoria’s mourning. This is probably not sufficient return for a reader who already knows the Victoria-Albert story.

Richard M. Watt is a Monitor contributor.

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