A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy Hardcover – Mar 13 2012
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About the Author
HELEN RAPPAPORT studied Russian at Leeds University and is a specialist in Russian and nineteenth-century women's history. She lives in Oxford. She is the author of books including The Last Days of the Romanovs and A Magnificent Obsession.
Top Customer Reviews
Most of us have seen marriages where the spouses' devotion to each other is often greater than their connection with their children. Sometimes when a beloved husband or wife dies, the life is often drained out of the surviving spouse, and can result in endless lamentation. Psychiatrists can ask, I suppose, if this is because of the love between the two or is it a sense of dependency of one on the other? Whatever the reason, years of mourning occur, to the extent of turning away from the outside society. This seems to have happened to Victoria when Albert died at the age of 42, after 21 years of marriage and nine children. She mourned until the end of her life - another 40 years. After Albert's death in 1861, Victoria was joined in her grief by the country, but as society at large moved on, Victoria wore her widow's weeds and retreated to her country homes, rarely showing herself in public. She was thought to be letting her duties lag as the years went on.
The act of mourning was well established in Victoria's court by the time Albert died. She had lost her mother a few years before, as well as other relatives and courtiers. "Full mourning" was often observed, with full black dress.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was an intelligent and high minded man who had been destined from birth to marry his slightly older cousin Victoria. Despite the arranged nature of their marriage, Victoria and Albert were deeply in love and utterly devoted to each other. Victoria was a highly emotional woman accustomed to having her ever whim accomodated. She was determined to rule as well as reign and within two years of succeeding to the throne had already caused one major political crisis by refusing to accept a change in Government because it meant giving up her own attending ladies. After marrying her in 1840 Albert gradually gained influence over his wife, limiting the effect her frequent emotional storms had on the day to day running of the government and on their growing family. Successive ministers and other politicians came to appreciate and trust his hard work and common sense, and even though he was never really popular in his adopted home due to being thought excessively earnest and rather dull, by 1861 Albert had become an essential cog in national affairs and indeed king in all but name. Rappaport's prologue describing the 1860 Christmas festivities at Windsor and her first chapter ably depict the many ways in which Albert had become indispensable.
Unfortunately Albert was not a healthy man. He suffered from a series of mysterious digestive upsets and incapacitating pain. His tendency to moroseness and depression was amplified by the constant need to keep his wife's jittery emotions soothed, and his workload was increasing and never ending. By late 1861 he was convinced he hadn't long to live, and several deaths in his family and his overreaction to his eldest son Bertie's first illicit love affair just intensified his depression. Even so, Albert was able to do one final bit of good by helping to defuse an international crisis between Britain and the United States, literally rising from his death bed to work on the details. Rappaport's almost minute by minute description of Albert's final decline and illness reveal the hazards of being royal and unhealthy in the nineteenth century. The doctors chosen to attend him had good social connections but apparently little real medical skill, and no one, not even the feisty Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, was able to convince the Queen that other specialists needed to be called in. Victoria at first refused to believe anything was seriously wrong with her husband, and as the seriousness of the situation sank in she became more and more difficult to deal with. It fell to a few servants and his second daughter Princess Alice to nurse Albert through his final days, and when the end came on December 14 Victoria was devastated. Rappaport's account of the announcement of Albert's death, its reception by the country, and the subsequent funeral ceremonies is fascinating. Few had realized how ill the Prince Consort really was, and the nation was shocked when church bells began to toll across the land. Rappaport used newspaper descriptions of the funeral as well as more official sources, helping us better realize the way the British people were shocked and saddened by his death.
The period after Albert's death was a turning point for Britain and its monarchy. Victoria withdrew into a decade long seclusion, and the nation, at first sympathetic, began to resent her absence from public life. As republicanism began to gain favor some of Victoria's advisors and servants attempted to rouse her without success. As Rappaport againly vividly describes, it was not until the Prince of Wales fell seriously ill with typhoid fever in December 1871 that the Queen began to be seen more in public. When her visibility grew so did her popularity, and while she did not fully regain all the influence on government that she had had while her husband was alive, she nevertheless gained in prestige and visible grandeur, being proclaimed Empress of India in 1876 and becoming "Grandmamma of Europe" through the marriages of her nine children and numerous grandchildren. One of her prime obsessions during her widowhood was the setting up of memorials to her beloved husband, and Rappaport provides an excellent chapter called "Albertopolis" to describe their construction. The book ends with a sad little Epilogue describing the Christmas of 1878, which was blighted by the death of Princess Alice from diptheria on the 17th anniversary of her father's passing, and a fascinating final Appendix "What Killed Prince Albert" which reanalyzes his symptoms in the light of modern medical knowledge and presents a convincing diagnosis of what was really wrong with him.
Helen Rappaport made use of the Royal Archives at Windsor and family archives in Germany. She consulted many British national and regional newspapers for contemporary accounts of the Prince's illness, death, and funeral and used a multitude of primary and secondary sources to illuminate not just the effect of Albert's death but also Victorian views on death and mourning, including some fascinating material on mourning jewellery. The extensive footnotes add additional information as well. Rappaport has produced a formidable work of scholarship that is also, despite its somber subject, a delight to read.
A Magnificent Obsession is truly is a must-read for anyone interested in Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The reader is taken on a journey into how Victoria and the nation/world reacted to the death of Albert, and how Victoria became obsessed with the memory of her late husband.
Even the most knowledgeable historian will find that this title covers new and interesting material, especially into the cause of Albert's death.
Often-accepted theories are challenged, and done so in such an amazing way, that the reader feels as if they are alongside the writer uncovering the truth. This is all done with great respect, and with the advice and opinions of many experts (including physicians).
A must read...and great addition to any royal library!
This is an excellent refreshing biography with the focus on the impact of the death of Prince Albert in 1861 on his wife and their Empire. Ms. Rapport makes a strong case that Prince Albert's death is one of the key moments in British history. The tone reminds me of The Taylor File: The Mysterious Death of a President by Clara Rising, who makes a case that the one person who may have prevented the Civil War died mysteriously; though her theory arsenic poisoning proved false. Readers will appreciate this profound look at why the Queen needed her mate and a strong argument that his death was the first major step for the sun beginning to set on the British Empire.
Rappaport begins with a brief history of Albert and Victoria's marriage in happier times. They married in 1840, begetting twenty years over which Albert assumed more and more responsibility for the royal affairs. This was partially due to Victoria's sense that he could handle things better than she, but also the fact that she had nine children in the first seventeen years of their marriage. Rappaport documents the hostility that some government ministers felt over this invader from Germany having such influence on British affairs.
This is all covered in the first chapter. The book goes on to follow the slow decline of Albert's health until his eventual death on December 14, 1861. Victoria's penchant for intense grief and refusal to do her queenly duties due to such grief first reared its ugly head when her mother had died a few months before. Rappaport talks about Albert's decline, during which he had to support Victoria, even more than he already had been, through the long months following her mother's death. All of this while he was ailing himself.
The ten years after Albert's death were harsh for Victoria; she refused to appear in public at all and only rarely was convinced of the necessity of it. She hid up in a royal box for her son's wedding, for example. The nation grieved with her for a while but eventually wanted to get on with the business of living--something Victoria didn't seem to appreciate. Businesses in London were hurting because there were no royal balls, no state visits from other countries, no official functions put on by the Palace--the bread and butter of some of these industries.
Victoria was convinced that the rest of the nation shared her intense mourning despite all evidence to the contrary. It actually became a royal crisis. Many advocated her giving up her throne to her son, something she would never do because she thought him a layabout unfit to be king.
Rappaport delivers events in chronological order as the years of the 1860s go by: the political crises; Victoria's insistence on hiding herself away; the emotional relationship with the only man she really trusted after Albert's death, the Scottish Highlander John Brown. Her portrait of Victoria is of a woman completely lost in her grief, one who doesn't believe that she can function without the man she loved in her life. Rappaport posits that had Albert lived, Victoria would most likely have gladly abdicated her throne to him (something I'm not sure the British people would have gone for). Once he died, though, she held onto it ruthlessly.
It's not a pretty picture.
Unfortunately, it's also not the most interesting one. Rappaport's fairly straightforward style doesn't engage the reader much if the reader isn't already very interested in the subject. I hadn't read very much on Victoria and only knew what has bled into the popular perception of her. While informative, A Magnificent Obsession doesn't make you want to follow up on the subject.
That's not to say that the book is incomplete. Rappaport covers both Victoria's seclusion and the popular reaction to it. She devotes a chapter at the end to theorizing on what probably killed Albert. He was diagnosed with typhoid fever, but that is widely considered to have been a misdiagnosis.
A Magnificent Obsession is not a bad book, and it definitely serves the purpose of discussing the ten-year period of extreme mourning indulged in by Victoria. You will learn everything you need to know. You just might not enjoy the journey as much as you might have liked.
Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book © Dave Roy, 2012