Sunday 11 March 2012

'Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death that Changed the Monarchy' by Helen Rappaport

I first heard about this book whilst reading BBC History Magazine sometime before Christmas. There was a fascinating article about Victoria and Albert, and it put me on to the scent of this book. The Victorian period is one of my favourites when studying history, though I admit I actually know very little about Queen Victoria herself, beyond the basics I was taught in primary school. Always having imagined she must have been a fantastic monarch, reigning for so very long, and being on the throne during such an important period, and yet this book made me feel that perhaps I had got it wrong (and also that I should actually find out a bit more about her!).

From page one this seemed liked my kind of history book. Fascinating, informative, yet exceptionally easy to read, it sometimes felt more like reading a novel than a history book. It opens with Christmas, 1860, setting the scene with a happy family gathering, making sure that right from the off the reader is aware of how important family was to the royal couple, and thus give us a better appreciation of quite how devastating Albert’s death would have been for Victoria.

I did find it somewhat unsettling, however, when it is described how Albert tried to change Victoria, and manipulate her into the type of monarch he wanted her to become. It’s difficult to reconcile behaviour such as this with a loving marriage, but then I suppose it’s important to separate the professional from the personal side of this relationship. The book makes it perfectly clear that Victoria absolutely doted upon Albert, and relied on him wholeheartedly, seeking his advice on every aspect of her life. It is claimed later in the book that she would happily have given her throne over to him had he survived. However, there are also passages describing what seems like unconcern for Albert’s welfare on Victoria’s part, always insisting on keeping the palaces at low temperatures, with windows flung open in the middle of winter, despite Albert suffering from such decisions. There seems to be something of a mix of self-interest which sometimes meant Victoria did not fully consider Albert’s feelings in his lifetime, but at the same time it is perfectly clear how much she loved him, and that her complete devastation at his death was not merely an appreciation of him once he was gone.

The way in which his death is described is moving, and makes you think of Victoria as a real human, rather than separating her from us as a monarch, whose life is so different we can barely relate. Here she loses the love of her life, her main support system (we are reminded throughout that she gains no great comfort from her children), and also her advisor in all matters, both political and personal. And thus the mourning begins.

Previous to Albert’s death it had been apparent that Victoria took part in the mourning rituals of the day to the very extreme. The loss of her mother hit her hard, but she also insisted on full mourning for members of the court, and more distant relatives whereby somewhat less extravagant mourning would be expected. I found it utterly fascinating to learn more about how death was perceived in the nineteenth century, so very different to today. I can’t imagine walking into my local Debenham’s and asking for their mourning section!

She completely secluded herself from public life for many years after his death, causing public unrest, and rumours of abdication. Rappaport comments on how different this was to her behaviour earlier on in her reign (only allowing a three day honeymoon with Albert because she had so much business to attend to). Having watched recent TV programmes about Queen Elizabeth in the lead up to her jubilee, I can see similarities and contrasts between the two. When Princess Diana sadly died the Queen was criticised for spending a few days at Balmoral away from the public. Queen Victoria also found Balmoral to be her place of safety, but left it far more than a few days. It must be a difficult task to juggle such personal grief, and the public duty that comes with being a monarch, and this is perhaps something our current Queen is more apt at. In saying that, on the recent Andrew Marr programme, many of the Queen’s relatives commented that she wouldn’t have been able to do it without her husband by her side, and this is exactly what Queen Victoria had to do for many years. A position she didn’t feel all that comfortable in, and a heavy burden to bear on her own. She had never had to make decisions on her own, having a somewhat over-bearing mother, and then straight into complete reliance on Albert. It must have been a hugely challenging personal task, and all the while suffering in her grief at having lost the love of her life.

Although Albert had specifically requested that she did not construct monuments and statues to him, they proliferated throughout her lifetime. Perhaps a sign that her grief was somewhat self-indulgent, but also forced the public to appreciate the man that had been so very under-appreciated during his lifetime. How very different South Kensington would look today without Queen Victoria’s obsession with commemorating her husband.

All in all a brilliant book; easy to read, informative, moving even. I did wonder at points how it would continue to progress, Albert had died, Victoria had been mourning, what now I wondered, but it manages to retain interest throughout, and I certainly feel I learnt a lot.

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