Wednesday, 14 December 2011

New books: Prince Albert’s death and its impact

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Albert, Prince Consort of Britain, on 14 December 1861, which the British author Helen Rappaport has made the topic of her new book Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy, published by Hutchinson. The story is very well-known, but Rappaport’s book is well-written and she has used some less familiar sources to add some new voices to the story.
The opening scene is the happy Christmas of 1860, which was celebrated at Windsor Castle, a place, Rappaport reminds us, which Queen Victoria, despite how it is often associated with her, did not much care for. This makes for a sharp contrast to the gloom of the following Christmas, by which time Prince Albert was dead. Rappaport subscribes to the theory that Prince Albert got Queen Victoria on to the track of constitutional, politically un-biased monarchy, and shows to what great extent the Queen relied on her husband.
A significant event occurring between Christmas 1860 and Christmas 1861 was the death of Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent. Since her accession in 1837, Victoria had kept her mother at an arm-length’s distance, but when going through her belongings the Queen realised the extent of her mother’s love for her. Victoria threw herself into an extravagant grief, in which she seems to have found some sort of pleasure. She noted with relish how she was complimented on “the manner in which I have shown my grief” and stated quite openly that “I do not wish to feel better”. Victoria’s almost theatrical grief for her mother and the way she wallowed in it was obviously re-played, but on a much grander scale, after Prince Albert died later that year.
The story of Prince Albert’s illness and death in December 1861 is told in great detail, perhaps a bit too long-winded. More interesting is the account of the overwhelming public reaction to the Prince Consort’s death, which is followed by the story of Queen Victoria’s posthumous idolisation of her late husband, the cult created around his memory, her withdrawal from public life and the dangers this posed for the monarchy. This is again a story very well-known to anyone familiar with the history of the British monarchy in the nineteenth century, but Rappaport presents it well.
She also exposes Queen Victoria’s self-centred egotism and the way in which she was perfectly capable of doing what she really wanted, but when she did not want to do something she got her loyal (perhaps too loyal) physician to back up her claims that the fulfilment of her duty would pose a danger to her health. The author also shows how the Queen’s private secretaries were perfectly aware that she did not work as hard on the official papers as she tried to make people believe. Indeed, the more one reads about Queen Victoria the harder it is to like her.
While attempting to explain what caused Victoria’s extravagant mourning for her husband, it seems to me that the author misses out on one point, which again draws a parallel to the death of her mother. “Victoria was always there ready to adore him, to hang on to his every word, his every kiss, to praise unstintingly and monopolise his time, but Albert was tiring of her relentless, cloying admiration and her never-ending emotional hunger”, Rappaport writes about the relationship between wife and husband.
But what goes unmentioned is the fact that Victoria did not always treat her husband very well, indeed her at times irrational behaviour towards him seems to have tormented him. To lose the one she loved and realising that she had not been particularly kind to him when he was alive may well have caused a feeling of guilt and a desire to try to make it up to him by excessive displays of grief and idolisation.
The book disintegrates somewhat towards the end, where the author rather briefly sums up the remaining decades of Queen Victoria’s life before returning to Christmas 1878, when her second eldest daughter, Grand Duchess Alice, died on the seventeenth anniversary of the father she had nursed, and then moving on to a chapter where the author challenges the oft-repeated story that the Prince Consort died from typhoid fever and argues that the cause of death was most likely Crohn’s disease.
The appendix on what Prince Albert died from would have worked better if it had been inserted into its natural chronological place in the book. Particularly given the emphasis put on the Prince of Wales’s near-death experience from typhoid fever on the tenth anniversary of his father’s death it would have been better if the reader had already then been told that the author does not believe that the illness which afflicted the Prince of Wales was the same that killed his father.
The book might have benefited from a more thorough fact check. Queen Victoria was forty-two, not forty-three, when her husband died; Prince Arthur was at that time eleven and not ten. The bride chosen for the Prince of Wales was not Princess of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, but of Denmark; Princess Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck is erroneously demoted to “Princess Mary Adelaide of Teck”; there was no French “Emperor Louis Napoleon”, but an Emperor Napoléon III; the author continues to refer to “Princess Alice” even after she had become Grand Duchess; and the King of Sweden and of Norway is erroneously referred to as King of only one of these two countries when he, again erroneously, is said to have visited “the Swedish legation”. The titles of the British nobility also seem to be a mystery to the author; the same person cannot be both Lady Augusta Bruce and Lady Bruce, Lady Jane Churchill and Lady Churchill, Lord John Russell and Lord Russell, and so on.
Despite these reservations the overall impression is that Helen Rappaport has produced a readable account of the well-known story of Prince Albert’s death and its consequences.

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