I ordered Helen Rappaport’s book from the library, which whizzed it over from Weymouth in no time. It tells the story of Prince Albert’s death and Victoria’s reaction to it in exhaustive detail. The subtitle ‘the death which changed the monarchy’ is less well dealt with in my opinion.
This book reads like a novel; I read it far more quickly than would be usual with a non-fiction work. By page eighty two the prince is dead and the rest of the book is devoted to the results of that calamity. Since officials had played down the seriousness of the prince’s condition, the news shocked the nation. Bells tolled throughout the land and people packed the churches, just as even in this Godless age they do in response to shocking events like the death of Princess Diana and 9/11. The queen’s hysterical grief and the following forty years of mourning are well documented. Some of her behaviour, such as preserving Albert’s room exactly as it was when he died (his shaving water replaced daily) and having a portrait of him hanging over ‘his’ side of the bed wherever she stayed now seems bordering on madness. Yet the queen was completely sane, if suffering from what we now call depression. For years she blackmailed her family, her ministers and the country in order to avoid public duties she felt unequal to carrying out alone, as she always emphasized. Although in robust health she played the weak little woman card for as long as she could.
Albert had not been particularly popular in his lifetime, being German, clever and stiff in his public manners. Once he was dead, eulogies flocked in and there was consternation among politicians; both Palmerston and Disraeli wrote privately that the prince had been king in all but name. At first there was enormous public sympathy for the queen and her mourning was shared enthusiastically. Not surprisingly, the people tired of it before she did, partly because of the loss of trade for all except manufacturers of mourning clothes and artefacts. She stayed at Balmoral and Osborne, forcing her ministers to travel long distances to see her; she refused to open Parliament or show herself in public. Before long republicanism was in the air as people asked ‘what she was paid for?’
Although she never left off her widow’s weeds (or allowed the court to come out of half-mourning) Victoria did eventually appear more often in public and as ‘Queen and Empress’ retained her royal dignity to the end of her long reign. This was made possible partly because she found another man to lean on, her faithful Scottish servant John Brown, partly because Bertie, Prince of Wales, nearly died. His illness and recovery from it revived the old enthusiasm for the monarchy and crowds thronged to watch him drive with his mother in an open carriage to a thanksgiving service. It was very unfortunate that Victoria continued to distrust her heir and refused to allow him any role in affairs of state. This ‘poor weak woman’ was autocratic by nature and clung to her power.
All this is very interesting but doesn’t explain how Albert’s death ‘changed the monarchy’. Rappaport suggests that had he lived his strong opinions and tendency to try to do everything himself would have brought conflict with ministers which could have affected the power of the crown and er, that’s it. So I’d say that if you want an interesting account of the historical events, read this book. If you want historical analysis, look elsewhere.
It’s rather appropriate to post this on the sixtieth anniversary of the present Queen’s accession to the throne. Who could have predicted that in the 21st century the monarchy would still be popular and that millions would turn out to see the wedding of the second in line to the throne? Today we congratulate the Queen but also commiserate. I’ve always found this picture of the ‘three queens’ extraordinarily touching.
Picture from Wikipedia.