[All images other than the first are from the sources specified, rather than the book under review. They can be used without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose, provided you cite the photographer / source, and link your document to the Victorian Web or cite it in a print one. Click on the thumbnails for larger images.]
Front cover of the book under review, showing "Locket and cameo of Prince Albert" by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, against the faint background of an engraving of the Albert Memorial, London
Helen Rappaport has scoured the Royal Archives at Windsor and other collections both here and in Germany to present the events leading up to Prince Albert's death, and its consequences for Queen and country, with poignant immediacy and in minute detail. The story is familiar enough in outline, but gains much from the added texture. In particular, Rappaport has brought vividly to life the various personalities involved. Having earlier shown the terrible incompetence of the Prince's doctors, even that of the highly reputed Dr Jenner, she adds an appendix at the end calling into question the conventional diagnosis of his illness as typhoid. She is not the first to have done so, but perhaps the first to have proposed the specific alternative of Crohn's disease leading to "the opportunistic onset of pneumonia" (260). She might well be right, though she admits that "such a diagnosis is, of course, entirely retrospective and anachronistic" (258).
The same might be said of her central idea. Victoria and Albert are usually held to have set the precedent for the British royal family's rather bourgeois, cosy domestic life. Received wisdom is that two emotionally needy young people, whose meeting was engineered by others, obligingly fell in love with each other. After some initial friction, they settled down, produced enough offspring to people the thrones of Europe, and lived happily ever after, or at least for over twenty-one years. Then death unexpectedly wrenched them apart, plunging the survivor into an even longer period of grief. Rappaport, however, sets out to show exactly why the Queen reacted to her consort's death "in the extreme way she did, by explaining her obsessive love for her husband and her total and utter reliance on him" (xi) — in effect, by analysing the royal couple's relationship and suggesting that it was an unhealthy, unbalanced one.
Left to right: (a) Prince Albert, by Joseph Durham (1863), in St Peter Port, Guernsey — one of the earlier monuments to the Prince. (b) "The Prince Consort and the Queen, 1860," photograph used as frontispiece to Martin, Vol. IV. There is a jaded look about the couple here, supporting Rappaport's claim that by 1858, "much of Albert's vital spark had irretrievably faded" (27). But, of course, posing for these early photographs was a tedious business. (c) The Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1872, and unveiled by the Queen herself in 1876.
There were, Rappaport suggests, inherent personality differences. Albert, for his part, was reserved, abstemious, prudish and authoritarian, intent at first on gaining the ascendancy in the marriage, and then remodelling his young frivolous wife in his image. Helped by Victoria's pregnancies, Rappaport claims, he succeeded in making her "his creature" (20). This sounds more than a little unpleasant. Rappaport really does mean it as a criticism. Later on, she says: "It took years of crucifying self-doubt for Queen Victoria to overcome the sense of sexual inferiority that had become ingrained during her marriage to Prince Albert" (240). But Victoria, it seems, was equally at fault. Succumbing to her husband's steady masterfulness, she absolutely "swamped" him with her adoration (16):
Victoria was always there ready to admire him, to hang on his every word, his every kiss, to praise unstintingly and to monopolise his time, but Albert was tiring of her relentless, cloying admiration, and her never-ending emotional hunger. Her love was too inverted; she enjoyed the satisfaction it gave her, without thinking of the good it should do him. He meanwhile longed for space, for spiritual companionship, and the wisdom and cool detachment of his old friend and guardian angel, Baron Stockmar. (52)
In short, Rappaport argues that not only did Albert miss his old principality in Germany, and feel like an outsider in his adopted country, but he was he lonely within his marriage. Victoria, it seems, was not just unable to "hold back the tide of melancholia and pessimism that was engulfing her husband" (27). She even exacerbated his problems. Apart from, and perhaps because of, her failure to understand him, she put him under various kinds of stress. Some she could hardly help. These were "her bouts of post-natal depression and [towards the end] the excessive burden of her hysterical grieving when her mother died" (251). No wonder he sought more and more outlets for his own energies and interests, exhausting himself in the process.
Though couched in contemporary terms (Albert "longed for space" etc), this is not an entirely new reading of the royal marriage. Lytton Strachey noticed long ago that "[t]he husband was not so happy as the wife." Strachey saw that Albert's position was an awkward one, and that the xenophobic British failed to appreciate their new prince adequately. Moreover, Strachey recognised that Albert was temperamentally unsuited to life at court, and wondered, like Rappaport, how well Victoria,"filled to the brim though she was with him," understood her husband ("How much does the bucket understand the well?" he asked, in a rather inelegant analogy). In the same discussion, he even said, "Victoria idolised him; but it was understanding that he craved for, not idolatry" (113). In this connection, it is curious that Rappaport should condemn Theodore Martin's dutiful five-volume official biography of the Prince "and all the other written memorials to him" as missing the real Albert in "their slavish hagiography" (240; emphasis added), while never once mentioning the acute and independently-minded Strachey by name in her text. She does quote from him, using his description of Albert as "full of energy and stress and torment, so mysterious and so unhappy, and so fallible, and so very human " (240). But even here, the author of these words (first published in 1921) is given only in the endnotes.
As her title suggests, however, Rappaport's main focus is on Victoria's "magnificent obsession." With regard to Albert's achievements, for instance, there is only a paragraph or two about the Great Exhibition in the first chapter, followed by a few glancing references to it later on. Albert's reform of the royal household, his cataloguing of the royal collections of prints and drawings, his diligent patronage of the arts, his supervision of building projects at Osborne House and Balmoral, his role of Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, and his demanding committee work, are also passed over rather quickly in the first chapter. His involvement with the affairs of state is given more weight: his memoranda on the military campaigns in the Crimea alone, we are told, amounted to "fifty folio volumes of documents" (25). He rose even from his deathbed to help avert war with the United States by diplomatically softening angry dispatches from England when Confederate envoys were taken off the HMS Trent. But even these endeavours are presented partly as proof that he was a "compulsive obsessive and workaholic" (26), and partly also to show how he had taken the reins (and the reign) into his own hands. Queen Victoria's own other interests and connections get even shorter shrift. There is little sense here of the "active, eager" Queen of Strachey's description (110, a figure fully present in her wide correspondence and journals of these years.
More significantly, neither party expressed dissatisfaction with their marriage. Victoria certainly never did (quite the contrary) and Albert never did either, as Rappaport herself acknowledges (52). Indeed, Albert told Stockmar on the day before their twenty-first anniversary, less than a year before his death, that the marriage had now "come of age" — that they had kept their vows to each other, "and have only to thank God, that He has vouchsafed so much happiness to us" (Martin V: 293). To be fair, he also hints at having weathered storms. But Strachey quotes the sharply observant Stockmar as saying, "The relations between husband and wife ... are all one could desire" (119). Perhaps, then, Rappaport is judging this rather typical Victorian marriage (dominant husband / clinging wife) from a modern perspective? One social historian of Victorian sexuality has found much to support the clichéd picture of the subordination of wives even, if not especially, among the élite (see Mason 116). Speaking more generally, it is presumptuous to judge any marriage from the outside, to maintain, for instance, that in any given relationship, one party is too controlling, the other emotionally suffocating.
The second part of the book deals with the events following Albert's death, including the lavish way in which he was memorialised — something that clearly would have horrified him. Prompted by the mourning of the Duke of Wellington in 1852, he had once pleaded, "If I should die before you, do not, I beg, raise even a single marble image to my name" (qtd. in Rappaport 137). The Queen's retreat from the public gaze posed a much more serious problem, with a "fawning" Disraeli (204), a worried Gladstone (see 211), and her tactful private secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby, all playing their part in prodding her back into it. She finally came to the City in 1870, for the first time in eighteen years, to open the new Blackfriars Bridge and the Holborn Viaduct, but even then she only stayed for an hour and a half. Rappaport calls it a "paltry gesture" (209). Had she not actually fallen ill in 1871, with a large and dangerously deep-seated abscess, public sympathy might never have returned to her, Republicanism might have taken firmer hold, and the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens might have been exactly what the eccentric diarist Arthur Munby thought it would be: a "tawdry yet interesting memento of an extinct monarchy" (qtd. in Rappaport 212).
Again, Strachey was here first, declaring: "The death of the Prince Consort was the central turning-point in the history of Queen Victoria.... The sudden removal of the Prince was not merely a matter of overwhelmingly personal concern to Victoria; it was an event of national, of European importance" (190). Strachey believed that if the Prince had lived, "the whole development of the English polity would have been changed" (190-91), and Rappaport herself opines that "had he lived, [the Queen] would willingly, gladly, have given up her throne to him" (241). But as it was, of course, "boosted by the assumption of her new role of Empress of India and her unrivalled supremacy over her royal relatives in Europe as 'the doyenne of sovereigns,' Queen Victoria grew into the familiar, imposing image that has come down to us as 'Victoria Regina et Imperatrix" (245), and her people became proud to call themselves "Victorians."
Rappaport's book is full of fascinating detail, and makes an engrossing read. On these grounds, it is heartily recommended to anyone with an interest in the period, especially in the monarchy and the politics of the time. But we shall never really know "What Killed Prince Albert" (the title of Rappaport's appendix), because the Queen would not sanction a post-mortem. Nor shall we ever really know why Queen Victoria was so reluctant to emerge from her mourning. There were probably various factors. We do know, for instance, that she was temperamentally prone to prolonged mourning. As Rappaport herself says, by 1861 it had already "become a regular feature of court" (36), and the Queen had only recently "wallowed in grief," as Rappaport unsympathetically puts it, on the death of her mother — on whom she had by no means been obsessively fixated. This episode of excessive mourning Rappaport reads as "a form of atonement for her own past sins" (39), something that did not apply in the case of Albert's death, which she blamed instead on stress caused by the Prince of Wales's peccadilloes. Then, Albert's death was followed by others: Stockmar's in 1863, Palmerston's and her uncle Leopold's in 1865, and so on. Mourning became a habit that she saw no reason to break.
Very much in keeping with Franz Winterhalter's paintings of the royal family, Prince Charles has portrayed his great great great grandmother as having lived "a married life full of joy, humour, excitement and romance" (Marsden, foreword) That is perhaps only half the picture; but so, no doubt, is Rappaport's more sombre version. The truth, as usual, must lie somewhere between the two.
Marsden, Jonathan, ed. Victoria & Albert: Art & Love. London: Royal Collection Publications, 2010. Print.
Martin, Theodore. The Life of His Royal Highness the Prince Consort, Vol. IV. London: Smith, Elder, 1979. Internet Archive Web. 28 March 2012.
_____. The Life of His Royal Highness the Prince Consort, Vol. V. New York: Appleton, 1880. Internet Archive. Web. 28 March 2012.
Mason, Michael. The Making of Victorian Sexuality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Rappaport, Helen. Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy. London: Hutchinson, 2011. 336 + xiv pp. £20.00. ISBN 978-0-09-193154-4. [Print: the book under review.]
Strachey, Lytton. Queen Victoria. London: Chatto & Windus (Phoenix Library), 1928. Print.
Last modified 29 March 2012