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Magnificent Obsession

Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy


Helen Rappaport


London: Hutchinson, 2011

Hardback. xvi+336 p. ISBN 978-0091931544. £20.00


Reviewed by Monika Wienfort

Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg



Queen Victoria is certainly one of the most studied personalities in Modern History, so it does not seem easy at all to come up with any original and new insight about the monarch and her influence on “Victorianism”. In her elegantly written volume which aims more at a wider audience than at experts in Victorian Studies, Helen Rappaport links two of the main themes of 19th-century British cultural history. First, she discusses the relationship between the Queen, her spouse, and British society in general. Focusing on the years between 1861, the death of Prince Albert, and the 1880s, when the Queen—in old age—had finally emancipated herself from the cult of grief over the death of her husband, Rappaport dives into the well-known story of the Queen’s seclusion and her refusal to fulfill the obligations of office. The author deepens this familiar picture with her second main theme, the topic of death and mourning as a main cultural feature of and in Victorian Britain. It is evident from the bibliography that scholarly discourse on Victorian mourning is already well established.

The book is composed of two parts. The first part deals with the Queen’s decision to marry Albert, the happy marriage, ideal family life, Albert’s illness and death. During the second part of the book, Victoria’s life as a widow mainly in the 1860s and 1870s is presented. In the appendix, Rappaport presents her new findings on the cause of death of Prince Albert. Since the 19th century, Albert is supposed to have died of typhoid fever, a disease which is linked to poor living conditions and unhealthy water. Rappaport checks again the statements of medical doctors who attended to the Prince consort. It seems convincing that the diagnosis of typhoid fever—in itself a difficult notion given the limited medical knowledge of the 1860s—does not satisfactorily explain the early death of the seemingly chronically ill prince. Instead of a disease which should have affected other members of the Queen’s family and household, the author suggests Crohn’s disease or even cancer. It seems likely that the Prince in the end died of pneumonia and utter exhaustion, established during constant overwork as the working partner of the ruling couple.

Be it as it may, in the absence of new sources on the last illness of the prince consort, we will probably never know. So we should return to the topic of Victoria and her very intense relationship with death and mourning. Whereas in the late 20th century and 21st century Europeans tend to deal with death as a big taboo, Victoria obviously took personal strength out of her elaborate performances of grief and sorrow. As an emotional personality par excellence, she obviously succeeded in inflicting her style and cult of grief on her people, or more precisely, on the female part of the middle classes. Rappaport gives interesting details about the cult of death in Victoria’s England, for example on the thriving of the jet industry in Whitby, a village which became well known as the centre of this industry. Necklaces and earrings made of black jet were for years the only jewellery allowed for Victoria’s daughters and her court.

The fashion of the widow’s cap, the rising of the commemorative industry, the never-ending erections of new memorials to Albert and the often successful attempts to hide herself from the public and thereby missing her monarchical duty structured Victoria’s life during the 1860s and 1870s. The mausoleum at Frogmore, which does not play a substantial role in the display of the monarchy until this day, can perhaps claim to be a perfect witness for the successes and failures of Victoria’s politics of memory. Despite all her efforts, the prince consort and his monuments were never popular in Britain. That holds to be true for the living prince as well as the dead. Without doubt, after the death of the prince the British people shared the grief of the monarch to a certain extent. But Albert’s public image was ambivalent: the public role of a prince consort had come into conflict with the assumed superiority of a middle-class husband and father. Paradoxically, the happy, bourgeois-style family life of the royal couple made it even more difficult to define the proper place of a male consort within the British Constitution. And as much as the Queen stylised herself as a “little wife” and middle-class mother who submitted to her wise and thoughtful husband, for the British public, she always represented the sovereign in the first place.

After the First World War, the unpopularity of Prince Albert was associated primarily with his German origin. But this assumption tends to forget that the role of a male consort as such had had its problems. The “Virgin Queen”, Elizabeth, had avoided to give an example, and Victoria’s uncle, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha did not get a chance while married to Princess Charlotte. While Victoria’s politics of memory for the Prince consort proved to be unsuccessful in the end, her way of displaying grief as an art form became widely popular in Victorian Britain. Victoria’s commemorative architecture in “Albertopolis” (the museums at Kensington, foremost the Victoria and Albert Museum) displayed the grandeur of the metropolis, but seemed to be only loosely linked to Prince Albert. The withdrawal of the Queen from the public in the 1860s and the current rise of republicanism never really endangered the monarchy. With the recovery of the Prince of Wales after a severe illness in 1872, the Thanksgiving procession revealed itself as a festival of the nation, a triumph of a monarchy as an emanation of the people. During her later life, Victoria got ample opportunities to display her cultivation of personal grief and her art of mourning. Her children Alice, Arthur and Leopold died years before her.

Rappaport’s account of the death of Prince Albert seems convincing, although not open for a decisive discussion. I would have liked to know more about the different parts of Britain and the Empire. Did the Scots or Welsh, or India’s masses with different grief cultures of their own, react to the Queen’s efforts for the commemoration of the Prince Consort? Rappaport certainly shows some interesting starting points in the discussion of Victorian culture of mourning and its evolution during the 20th century. 


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