Magnificent Obsession– Helen Rappaport (2011)

Rappaport book cover

“For me, life came to an end on 14 December. My life was dependent on his, I had no thoughts except of him, my whole striving was to please him, to be less unworthy of him…”

Queen Victoria, letter to King of Prussia, 4 February 1862.

Subtitle: Victoria, Albert and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy.

A fascinating read about the life of Queen Victoria once she had married Prince Albert and how he affected the UK monarchy after he died, a lot of which I did not know. Rappaport is a Victorian and Russian scholar and so this is a well written historical study, but it’s also very accessible without losing its academic credibility.

vic1As you are probably aware (if you’ve been a reader of my blog for some time), I am somewhat obsessed about Victorian social history, and have not yet delved that deeply into the Royal Family of that time. Growing up in England, I was aware of numerous references to Prince Albert (road names, monuments, halls, etc.) but knew very little about who this Albert was (apart from being linked by marriage to Queen Victoria) so this was a very enlightening read for me.

There are monuments to Albert spread out across England and Scotland (and Wales?), and I can only imagine how much money was spent on this years-long project. The Frogmore mausoleum (where Albert was buried) cost thousands of dollars, took years to build and went way over budget. Victoria had her own personal set of keys to this building and would spend time there daily communing with “dear Albert” on the day’s events and decisions.  (See pic below.)

“…[T]urning the performance of grief into her very own personal art form…” , Rappaport describes how Victoria marries Albert quite young, and happily turns over the nuts and bolts of running the throne to her shy but capable husband. It was fascinating to me that Victoria’s advisors allowed this transfer of power to occur, but perhaps it was so incremental and Victoria was so independent that nothing could be done. Not sure….

In the end, Victoria had given so much authority and power to Albert (including all of her self esteem, it seems), that when he died, she just gave up. She refused to complete her duties (apart from minimal letter-signing etc.) and both her and Albert’s Personal Secretaries despaired of her. Due to her removal of herself from public life of any sort and her extreme grief, Victoria almost single-handedly destroyed the monarchy and its reputation.

And yet, at a later point in her long reign, she also bought it back from the brink of destruction. It’s interesting to think what would have happened if she hadn’t got her act together for the last years – the Victorian public were seriously annoyed with her and her withdrawal as it dragged on for decades, and it is quite reasonable to look back at the signs and think that it might have gone against her and turned the UK in a republic.

vic2(Above: Frogmore Mausoleum)

The image of Victoria gradually changes over time as she sticks to her guns: she morphs from being viewed as a stubborn selfish ruler to one who represented solidity, respectability and “a benevolent matriarchal widow”, but it was definitely a struggle to get there from where she was.

She and Albert had nine children, and the elder offspring played an important role in nursing Albert during his fatal illness and then looking after Victoria once he had died. As the years of strict mourning turned into decades for the Court, both Victoria’s family and her advisors were pretty concerned about her lack of involvement in the running of the country – she fled to Osborne House in the Isle of Wight and to her place in Scotland, and it was there in Scotland that she met John Brown, one of the employees of her estate up there. (That’s a whole other story right there…)

To me, it looks like Victoria was pretty controlling (childishly so) throughout her life – her mother was pretty awful to her so there’s probably a lot of issues linked with that. First, Victoria handed over the reins of her throne to Albert and then, when he died, she kept a tight hold on everything (control again) despite remonstrations from Parliament, and only when she had met and was comfortable with Brown, did she relinquish her control of things (or decide to join in again with the Royal duties). She sounds as though she was a real pain, controlling to be controlling, refusing to take advice, and when she did do some work, allowed outside influence to play a major role in her position.

Her own family was not without its problems, with Bertie (Prince of Wales) being a big party guy and womanizer, and the daughters playing a very helpful role but who could not be in line for the throne. (Glad that is different now.)

I was also rather fascinated by the available medical knowledge at the time (which is to say not much), and then also how strictly Victoria embraced the funeral customs of the time. (The sale of black cloth for mourning clothes more or less saved the cloth industry at the time.)

In the palace world, there was a Physician-in-Ordinary (around 1840+) and then her closest doctor, Sir William Withey Gull* (1859) who had the incredible title of Physician-Extraordinary.  Medical knowledge was rather basic back then, and so once someone became seriously ill, it was really luck of the draw as to what happened.

Extra note: QEII does not have a Physician-Extraordinary any more. Instead, she has a doc who is “Physician to the Queen” who is chief officer of the Medical Household of the Royal Household of the Sovereign of the UK. This position was created in 1973, and there are two positions. Traditionally, a senior Royal Navy surgeon accompanies the Queen on her travels abroad.

So – as you can tell, I found this to be a great read and it came with a lengthy bibliography for further reading. (Always a lovely touch, I think. More books!)

And here’s an article from the UK’s Daily Mail about one of Queen Victoria’s mourning outfits going up for sale…. It’s got a picture of her knickers – I imagine she is turning in her grave at this intrusion. 😉

And here’s an article from the journal, Medical History, with more details about Queen Victoria’s Medical Household (author: A. M. Cooke).  Fascinating if you like that sort of thing…

* Randomly enough, this guy Gull was also named as a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murder case. Well I never….  You learn something new everyday. 🙂

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