Magnificent Obsession – Helen Rappaport

Queen Victoria was devastated by the death of her beloved husband, Albert, the Prince Consort. He died in December 1861 at the age of only 42 & Victoria withdrew from public life almost completely in the years that followed. Helen Rappaport’s subtitle, “the death that changed the monarchy” is no exaggeration. The public sympathised with the Queen in her grief at first. After all, Victoria, Albert & their nine children were the epitome of devoted, happy family life. But, as the months of mourning turned into years, sympathy waned & was replaced by dissatisfaction with a monarch who was never seen but who continued to draw a large income. Politicians & civil servants were forced to travel to the Queen’s private (& inconvenient) homes at Osborne & Balmoral to coax the Queen into performing her duties & keeping the wheels of government turning. Rumbles of republicanism were heard &, in some quarters, grew louder. It was only another near-tragedy in the Royal family, 10 years after Albert’s death, that silenced the republicans & restored confidence in the monarchy.

This is a brief summary of Helen Rappaport’s fascinating new book. By concentrating on the 10 years from 1861-1871, she has created a compelling picture of the central crisis of Victoria’s life & the impact of Albert’s death, not only on the Queen but on England. Even if, like me, you’ve read dozens of biographies of Victoria, Albert, their children & other personalities of the period, Magnificent Obsession is indispensable. The detailed story of Albert’s last year – his declining health through stress & overwork as well as supporting Victoria through her intense grief when her mother died; the torment he suffered in trying to mould his eldest son Bertie into a responsible young man; the political stress of negotiating a diplomatic solution to the Trent affair that could have seen Britain enter the American Civil War – all this is discussed in detail.

Albert’s death has always been attributed to typhoid, exacerbated by a chill he contracted when he visited Bertie at Cambridge to talk to him about his scandalous lifestyle. Rappaport shows that his illness could not be typhoid & was more likely a chronic condition like Crohn’s disease exacerbated by stress & a refusal to rest. Albert had been King in all but name for years. He took on most of the administrative work & Victoria rarely made a decision on anything without consulting him. Her attitude to his increasing illness through that last year was incredibly selfish. She was rarely ill & had little sympathy for anyone else’s ill-health. Maybe she also didn’t want to admit that Albert was unwell. Her reaction to the death of her mother in March 1861 had been extreme. Their relationship had always been difficult & Victoria’s grief may have had an element of guilt & regret in it.This led to the doctors caring for Albert being too afraid of disturbing Victoria’s fragile mental health to tell her how serious his condition was. It also led to the official bulletins released to the public being so anodyne that they gave no real inkling of the likelihood of his imminent death. This led to dreadful scenes of shock when the news of his death was announced. Arthur Munby recorded in his diary,

This morning came the astounding news of Prince Albert’s death: so unexpected and sad and ominous, that people are struck dumb with amaze (sic) and sorrow. The news-offices in the Strand were open and besieged by anxious folk; a strange gloom was upon the town; in church, the preacher spoke of it, and an awful silence there was, with something too very like sobbing, when his name was left out of the prayers.

Victoria’s grief was extreme. She collapsed with shock & decreed that nothing should be changed in the room where Albert died. The Blue Room at Windsor was left as it was on December 14, 1861 for the rest of Victoria’s life. Every day, a valet would lay out Albert’s clothes as though he was still alive, Victoria slept with his clothes, holding a marble replica of his hand. She gave herself up to grief & mourning & could think of nothing but how to memorialise Albert. Victoria wore deep mourning for the rest of her life. Her ladies-in-waiting were never allowed to wear colours. After a while, she allowed them to wear half-mourning – grey or mauve.

The effects of Albert’s death were felt across the country. The Queen’s devotion to the details of mourning was a bonus for the purveyors of mourning clothes & accoutrements. All of Society, the middle classes, anyone who wanted to be respectable followed the Queen’s lead & the elaborate mourning rituals we think of as typically Victorian were created. The jet workshops in Whitby flourished with the need for black mourning jewellery. Loyal City Councils & Shires across the country wanted to remember Albert with a bust or a statue or by naming a new building after him. Victoria was very involved in the many memorials built in Albertopolis, as the part of London that contained the Albert Memorial & the Victoria & Albert Museum, was soon being called.

Victoria built a magnificent mausoleum at Frogmore for Albert & visited often. She fully expected to die within months of his death but she survived him for 40 years &, once she realised that she was not going to die, she had to find a way to go on living while she waited to be reunited with him. Her family, servants, courtiers & politicians tried to encourage her to take up her duties. The country was increasingly restless & dissatisfied with a monarch who was never seen. Someone put a sign up on the railings at Buckingham Palace offering it for rent as it was unoccupied. The Queen’s Highland servant, John Brown, did more than anyone to draw the Queen out of her seclusion but his efforts only led to gossip about their relationship as she relied on his presence more & more. Victoria was determined to have her own way & simply refused to listen to anyone.

The contradictions were boundless; claiming with one breath to have the business of the country at heart, time and time again Victoria forbade a topic of conversation which was ‘precisely that on which it is most important that she should be informed.’ The problem, as (Lord) Torrington explained to Delane (editor of The Times), was that ‘Every one appears more or less afraid to speak or advise the Queen’ , so much so that she now had a habit of sending word prior to any meeting with ministers on what she would and would not discuss, ‘lest it should make her nervous’. If those about her had a little more courage, ‘things might mend.’ But no one did.

Matters had reached a crisis by the end of 1871, 10 years after Albert’s death & with Victoria showing no sign of coming out of seclusion. It was the near-fatal illness of Bertie, the Prince of Wales, that turned around public opinion. As the crisis approached, on the fatal December 14th, the public held their breath. Prayers were offered for the Prince’s recovery &, when he did recover, the relief was enormous. Victoria was convinced to attend a public service of Thanksgiving & the warm reception she received was another step towards her resumption of her duties & becoming more visible to her people. She became the revered & beloved Queen Empress, the Widow of Windsor who was regarded as the mother & grandmother of her people.

I loved Magnificent Obsession. It’s in my Top 10 non-fiction books of the year. It was enthralling, full of fascinating detail about Victoria & Victorian society & unputdownable. If you’re not obsessed by the Victorians before you read it, you will be afterwards.

15 thoughts on “Magnificent Obsession – Helen Rappaport

  1. Why are UK book covers often much more attractive than US ones? I'm sorry you have to wait to get hold of this Claire, it's wonderful & one of the best books I've read about V & A.

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  2. Passing Tramp, I didn't find Victoria at all likeable in this book although I could feel some sympathy for her in her grief. Her complete self-absorption was awful. I can't imagine how frustrated everyone around her must have been.

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  3. I've been so looking forward to this, and I was just getting ready to go look for this when I read Claire's comment. Drat. And I'm disappointed as well about the cover (the North American version of Penelope Lively's new book, which you just reviewed, also has an unfortunate cover).

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  4. Oh dear, the Lively cover is awful. I love floppy American paperbacks but the cover art is often really terrible. I'm sure you'll enjoy the Rappaport when you finally get hold of it, Lisa May.

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  5. Goodness me – what a wonderful review of my book, which I heard about thanks to a Google Alert. Thank you so much for your interest in Magnificent Obsession and for your generous comments. I am so sorry that US readers have to wait till 13 March before the US edition is out. I do hope you all enjoy it. Many thanks, Helen Rappaport.

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  6. What a great review. This is the second extremely positive review that I have read about this book. I defintely have to look at buying a copy!
    One of the things I love about reading is how themes, events and people can crop up in other books. I couple of years ago I read a biograpgy about the relationship between Arthur Munby, whose diary extract you included in this review, and his servant.

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  7. It's an excellent book about a part of Victoria's life that has not been discussed in much detail before. Thanks to the link to your review, Carolyn.

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