Wednesday 3 July 2013

Victorian Mourning

Like most people, I knew that after the death of her husband in 1861 Queen Victoria shut herself away and took little interest in government and public affairs until her own death 40 years later. What I didn’t realise was the extent to which she turned Albert into a kind of icon, or that long before he died she was already obsessed with death, dying, and the ritual of mourning.  So I found Helen Rappaport’s The Magnificent Obsession absolutely fascinating – though by the end I did feel that neither Victoria nor Albert were particularly likeable people.

Rappaport is very scholarly in her approach, and this book is obviously meticulously researched, but she has the gift of making facts interesting, so it is never dull, or dry, and it kept me turning the pages until late into the night (well, to be strictly accurate I should say the early hours of the morning, and I was very tired and grumpy when I got up, which I find that’s always the penalty of reading in bed, but I still do it).

This book only takes us up to 1878, and as well as looking at Victoria’s response to Albert’s death, Rappaport explores the way the monarchy changed during those years and how, despite the Queen’s seclusion and the problems faced by the country, the nation took her to their hearts and a new role as established for her as the Mother of the Nation, who was a figurehead for her people. Rappaport sees Albert’s death as one of the pivotal moments in the development of the modern monarchy: she believes that had Albert lived his role in government and decision making would have become far greater, and led to a clash between Parliamentarians and Royalists. But in the end his death, and Victoria’s response to it, served to consolidate the position of the monarch as head of state, with no political power.

And although there are constitutional crises and battles for power, it’s the human story in the Magnificent Obsession that is so gripping. Towering over everything and everyone is the figure of Albert, a perfectionist, driven, controlling and as obsessive about the monarchy, its duties and role as Victoria was with him – the title could as easily apply to him. He comes across as being rather humourless and dour, very serious, self-righteous, a little pompous, but very hard-working and conscientious, determined to do the best he could for the Royal family and his adopted country.

In February 1872 Queen Victoria made a rare
departure from full mourning by adding ermine
trimming to her black gown for Bertie's
Thanksgiving Service at St Paul's Cathedral.
But it’s hard to know what his motives were. Rappaport sees him as the real power behind the throne, and is convinced that had he lived Victoria would have been happy to hand her authority to him and take a back seat, leading to conflict between the crown and the government, and the crown and the people. I  can’t decide whether he was completely selfless, a man who loved his wife and family and worked tirelessly for her good, wanting nothing for himself, or whether he was very manipulative and was quick to seize an opportunity which would give him unlimited power.

Victoria is equally hard to read. She appears to have been besotted by Albert and it’s easy to say she was willing take direction from him and was easily swayed, but there were times when she was quite capable of standing her ground, even if she did behave like a spoilt teenager hell-bent on getting her own way. And I really do wonder about that love she had for him, because it seems so stifling and obsessive. Did she really feel like that? Did she seize on him and make him the object of her affections and desires because she’d had a lonely, unhappy childhood and was desperate for attention? Was he someone she thought would belong to her, and be there for her, in a way no-one else had ever done? Or was she a young, inexperienced girl, in love with the idea of being in love? The picture Rappaport paints is of a woman who protests her love so loudly and frequently that I began to wonder whether Victoria was simply trying to fool herself, or to create the persona she thought people wanted and expected.

In the hours and days immediately after Albert’s death she is calm, numb almost – everyone who knew her well commented on her behaviour, for they expected a hysterical outpouring of grief. No-one, however, could have anticipated just how extreme her reaction would become, and it seems as if during the initial period she was gearing herself up for a prolonged period of over-the-top mourning. And then it’s almost as if her grief can only be experienced through all those outer appearances of mourning: that’s what makes it real for her.

It’s impossible to even begin to describe what was involved, and Rappaport writes about it so well that my efforts would pale into significance, but I must say that the fashion and jewellery industries did exceedingly well out of Victoria’s mourning!

One of the last official photographs
taken of Prince Albert.
There are unexpected glimpses of the rich and famous of the day, alongside tales of the less of the less well known, like the reporter who broke the news of Albert’s death, which must have been the scoop not just of  his career, but of the entire century. And the details about political situations are sometimes quite extraordinary.  I was unaware that immediately before Albert’s death Britain came perilously close to being dragged into the American Civil War – to defend the cotton producing South, which kept British cotton mills in business!

The book ends with a discussion on the possible reasons for Albert’s death. As a rule typhoid is blamed, but Rappaport is not convinced, and amasses evidence which leads her to a different conclusion. There is so much information in the book that it’s very difficult to convey it’s flavour, or to give a précis which really does it justice. All I can say is go and read it for yourself, because it is a jolly good read!


  1. I keep meaning to get my hands on this and read it. At the beginning of the year I read Serving Victoria by Kate Hubbard which gives a real insight into what went on at court and the people Queen Victoria kept - obsessively really - close to her. It was fascinating and like you I became very ambivilent, not only about Victoria, but also Albert and what he was really all about. I need to read Magnificent Obsession I think.

    1. Cath, I would recommend it - it was a really good read, but I felt I learned a lot and, as you found with Serving Victoria (which I must try and find at the library) it gives a real insight into the lives, not just of Victoria and Albert, but of their family, people at court, politicians, journalists... And Victoria certainly seems to have had an obsessive personality, but Albert was very obsessive as well, and a total control freak... the pair of them must have been very, very difficult to live with.

  2. I am keen to read this, though I worry I might not like Victoria again after I do (and that's a problem, what with my being named after her!).

    1. How nice to be named after her! I'm sure you would still like her. She's like a child that suddenly finds she can have whatever she wants, whenever she wants, and I think she likes to keep people and possessions close to her because she's scared everything will disappear, so when Albert dies this perfect world she's created around herself - like something from a fairy tale - just falls apart.

  3. Wonderful review. This is going on my "to read" list! Thanks for sharing it.