Magnificent Obsession. Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy”, by Helen Rappaport. (Hutchinson), 336 pages. 22 black & white, and 21 colour illustrations.
The death of Prince Albert in December 1861 was a turning point in the life of Queen Victoria and for the British monarchy. Yet surprisingly little attention has been paid to the effect that his death had on his contemporaries and the nation at large. Using contemporary letters and diaries Helen Rappaport corrects this, showing what a national calamity Albert’s death was, both for the Queen and the country. She also examines the cause of his death. Was it really typhoid?
By 1861, when her mother died, Victoria had already “taken to the performance of bereavement with aplomb”, plunging the court into mourning for even the most distant relatives. As Victoria grieved for her mother the burden of official duties fell more and more on the far from robust Albert. Nevertheless, the shock was enormous when he died. The nation was totally unprepared, not believing him to be seriously ill, and the first many knew about it was the tolling of the church bells on Sunday morning.
At first there was great sympathy for the widowed Queen but soon apprehensions about what the author calls her “insatiable commemoration of Albert” began to set in. The only people who were pleased were the tradesmen – there was an almost incalculable demand for mourning goods as people remained in black longer for their own deceased relatives. The jet industry also flourished, as ladies ordered mourning jewellery and accessories.
As the Queen’s cult of Albert’s memory continued unabated through the 1860s the lack of court functions began to affect London’s trade. The only time Victoria appeared in public was for yet another commemoration ceremony as memorials sprang up all around the country. Her first major state appearance, opening parliament in 1866, was necessitated by the need to obtain grants for two of her children. Otherwise she remained secluded for months at Balmoral with her highland ghillie John Brown. Helen Rappaport looks closely at this relationship but find nothing more than a friendship between a lonely widow and her servant. By 1870 a strong republican movement argued that as the Queen was invisible anyway, the country could do quite well without a monarchy. It took the Prince of Wales’s recovery from typhoid in 1871 to turn the tide back in Victoria’s favour.
This is a well researched and very well written book. Helen Rappaport gives us a rounded portrait of an insular, self-absorbed, stubborn woman whose one aim was to perpetuate Albert’s memory in as many ways as she could, while those around her wrung their hands at her unwillingness to participate in national life. It was, indeed, a “magnificent obsession” and this is a magnificent read.