Book Review of Helen Rappaport, A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the British Monarchy

There are two iconic images of Queen Victoria in modern culture. One is the Queen in the first years of her reign, as portrayed in The Young Victoriastarring Emily Blunt and Victoria & Albertstarring Victoria Hamilton and Jonathan Firth. In these films, we see Victoria succeed to the throne at the age of eighteen, enjoy freedom from her mother’s strictures then fall in love with her cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and have a successful marriage despite their differing temperaments. These early years have also received extensive analysis in the recent popular biographies The Young Victoria and We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals.

The other well known image of Queen Victoria is an elderly monarch, emerging from the seclusion of her decades of mourning for Prince Albert to celebrate her 1887 Golden Jubilee as the grandmother of Europe’s royal houses and her 1897 Diamond Jubilee as Empress of a worldwide British Empire. As 2012 is also a Diamond Jubilee year, the image of the older Victoria is receiving renewed attention in such works asĀ Ā  Empire and Queen Victoria’s Little Wars. In contrast, the circumstances of Prince Albert’s death, the pivotal event that transformed the happily married Queen into the widowed matriarch, has received little popularĀ  attention until the publication of A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy.

Helen Rappaport has a gift for capturing a snapshot of royal history and using it as a lens for understanding the larger political and social conditions of the period. In her previous book, The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburgthe final two weeks before the murder of the last Russian Imperial family shed light on the collapse of Nicholas II’s rule and the factions within the Bolshevik regime. In A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy, Prince Albert’s illness, death, funeral and memorials frames the prince’s political role, nineteenth century medical practices and Queen Victoria’s impact on British mourning culture.

While previous authors have focused on the impact of Prince Albert’s death on Queen Victoria, Rappaport’s work encompasses all social estates in Great Britain and the worldwide British Empire, demonstrating that mourning for Prince Albert was an event that created common ground amongst the Queen’s subjects. In this analysis, she draws on her extensive knowledge of nineteenth century history, demonstrated in her previous work, No Place for Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War. Rappaport discusses the reactions of Queen Victoria’s most famous contemporaries. There is Lord Palmerston’s fear that Albert’s death would destabilize Victoria and by extension the constitutional monarchy, Charles Dickens’s disappointment at having to cancel a lucrative lecture tour as the nation went into mourning, and Abraham Lincoln’s heartfelt condolences that stood out within the enormous number of sympathetic letters received by the widowed Queen.

The effect of Prince Albert’s death on ordinary Britons was no less profound. Long periods of court mourning, which Rappaport observes long predated the death of the Prince Consort, changed the nature of British funerals, social events and fashion. With cotton shortages created by the American Civil War, wearing wool crepe or bombazine dyed black out of respect Prince Albert was a practical choice as well as a fashionable one. As the Queen’s mourning was lengthy, long periods of seclusion and mourning attire were adopted by any widow who could afford the time and wardrobe to commemorate her own late husband in the same manner.

Rappaport also provides a well written and sensitive portrait of Victoria’s and Albert’s marriage and the impact of her intense mourning on her children and court. Like Matthew Denison in The Last Princess: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria’s Youngest Daughter, she is deeply critical of Victoria’s decision to keep her young children in an atmosphere of sadness and seclusion in the years following their father’s death. At the same time, she notes that Victoria had been raised to be dependant on others and a long period of mourning allowed her to avoid the terrifying prospect of exercising sovereignty alone. Rappaport also questions the one hundred and fifty year old diagnosis of typhoid fever as the cause of Albert’s death, revealing years of ill health before his final illness in 1861.

A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchyis a well written, insightful account of an important period in nineteenth century British history. Readers interested in the personal history of Queen Victoria’s family will gain a new perspective on the monarch as a wife, mother and widow while those looking for a snapshot of Victorian culture will be fascinated by the details of how an entire nation and empire mourned alongside the Queen.

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