Archive for the ‘Helen Rappaport’ Category

With so many books (so many) waiting to be reviewed, it is overwhelming to know where to start.  But in honour of this week’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations for the Queen, I knew just what to review today: A Magnificent Obsession by Helen Rappaport (apparently the article was deemed necessary for the North American edition – in the UK it is simply Magnificent Obsession).  As we celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s sixty years on the throne, what could be more appropriate than to consider a book about the only other British monarch to have reached that milestone?  With the sad lack of street parties or public gatherings of any kind in my corner of the Commonwealth, this (and a celebratory fruit cake baked on Saturday) will be the extent of my celebrations.

After reading Harriet, Lyn, and especially Elaine’s glowing reviews of this last year, I was thrilled when my library copy of A Magnificent Obsession finally arrived.   I started reading immediately and did not put it down until I had turned the last page.  I have always enjoyed reading about Queen Victoria, even though I have never particularly warmed to her.  From all the biographies I’ve read and especially from her correspondence with her eldest daughter Vicky, she has always struck me as self-centred, demanding, unsympathetic, and rather irresponsible.  But I adore the intelligent, disciplined Prince Albert and am endlessly fascinated by the relationship between the Queen and her consort.

Rappaport’s subtitle is Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy and the book focuses on Prince Albert’s final illness and the following ten years, from 1861 to 1871, when the Queen retreated from public life and her official duties to wallow in her grief.  Full of detail, the book offers an absorbing and frequently disturbing chronicle of a woman who, having lost the husband she loved so passionately, throws herself entirely into the theatrical act of mourning him and protecting his memory, and of the consequences that obsession had on both her family and the way the monarchy was viewed in Britain.

The book begins by outlining the extent of the sober Albert’s influence over the frivolous Victoria and the overwhelming volume of work and intense responsibility she happily passed on to him.  After a difficult beginning to their marriage, when Albert found himself frustrated by his lack of responsibilities, he slowly and steadily assumed more vital duties.  By the 1850s, having become Victoria’s chief adviser, “Albert believed that his wife, and more importantly the monarchy, could not function smoothly without his own now-essential input.”  And the Queen believed it too, cheerfully indulging in the fantasy of herself as the dear little wife reliant on her husband’s support.  But Victoria’s reliance on Albert was too complete and her demands too exhausting:

His constant sublimation of his own needs to his wife’s far more volatile emotional ones had worn him down: always putting her first, advising, reassuring, consoling, shielding her from trouble and anxiety at every turn and being the crucial stabilising force that had enabled Victoria to fulfil her duties as Queen.

These details appear in other biographies but what really struck me about Rappaport’s description of his final years, plagued by illness, fatigue and constant stress, was his loneliness.  Albert was Victoria’s all, the focus of all her passionate worship.  But for Albert, so much more intelligent and thoughtful than his wife, so much more moderate in his emotions, his wife could never been the equal companion with whom he could share his true self.  She exhausted him.  He did have a few close male friends and his dear, brilliant daughter Vicky who could provide the kind of intellectual companionship he needed but slowly he lost them too, as the friends died and his daughter married and moved to Prussia:

By the late 1850s, with the departure of his adored daughter Vicky, who married the Crown Prince of Prussia in 1858, much of Albert’s vital spark had irretrievably faded; he became increasingly stern and humourless, retreating into himself more and more.  Without real friends or close intellectual peers, or his own entourage at court, or a supportive political faction in Parliament, his only consolation was his work.  And much as he loved his wife, Albert’s attachment to her was increasingly driven by the principles of reason and duty and doing the right thing.  Victoria was fundamentally his ‘gutes Wiebchen’ – the good and loyal little wife – and mother of his children.  She gave him her all, but for a man as restless as Albert it was never enough; she was not, and never could be, his soul’s mistress.  And for Victoria it was agony; there was nothing she could do to hold back the tide of melancholy and pessimism that was engulfing her husband.

The details of Albert’s final illness (the cause of which Rappaport proposes was Crohn’s disease, not the contemporary diagnosis of typhoid fever) are fascinating – everything in this book is fascinating – but it is Rappaport’s chronicle of Victoria’s first, bizarre decade as a widow that makes this book unique.  The woman turned mourning and grief into an obsession, making it difficult for her children to lead normal, healthy lives with her demands for their companionship, the strict pageantry she demanded of mourners, and her fixation on the saintliness of her dead husband.  She isolated herself away from the public – and her government – primarily at Balmoral and devoted herself to widowhood.  She was determined to memorialise Albert so that the people of Britain would never forget his significance and – of no less importance – his moral perfection.

But while the public outpouring of grief at his death had been impressive, the public memory is short and as the years of Victoria’s self-imposed isolation dragged on, sympathy waned for the “widow of Windsor”.  By 1871, with republican sentiment on the rise as the reclusive queen continued to demand large sums for private use and the scandalous Prince of Wales ran up debts, the situation seemed dire.  The sense of tension in these chapters is a testament to Rappaport’s skill; we know that the monarchy is not going to be abolished in the 1870s, we know that Victoria still has thirty years left in her reign, we know it and yet you can’t help but feel anxious, desperate for her to take up the reigns of responsibility once more or else who knows…

This is getting repetitive but it cannot be said enough: the level of detail here is wonderful.  Rappaport’s liberal quoting of Victoria’s letters and diaries is nicely balanced with the perspectives of those affected by her grief – her children, the government, and the public.  You get a wonderful sense of both the private world of Victoria’s grief and of the ever-changing world beyond her, at first sympathetic to her loss and then, as the years went on, frustrated by her absence.  From the first page to the last (the very last, since I had a wonderful time reading the bibliography) I was delighted by this book.  It is a wonderful history that reads with the intensity of a well-plotted novel and it more than lived up to my high expectations for it.

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