A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy
by Helen Rappaport
I have tried for years to like Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, my extreme annoyance and contempt for her usually gets in the way of this. I devoured A Magnificent Obsession in two days, and though it did not give me any new respect for Victoria it did make me love Helen Rappaport even more than I already did, and remind me how fascinating and pivotal this period in British history is. Despite my disgust for Queen Victoria (and perhaps because of it), I was absolutely enthralled by this book.
Rappaport takes an interesting and unique approach to this history, one that has not been studied much before (to my knowledge). The focal point of the book is Victoria's relationship with her husband, Albert, primarily after his death in 1861. How Victoria dealt with Albert's death both threatened and immortalized the rest of her reign, very nearly dismantling the British monarchy along the way. Rappaport's writing is, as always, fascinating and engaging while demonstrating her impressive scholarship and historical eloquence. I cannot imagine a better guide through Victoria's troubled mind and behavior than Helen Rappaport.
Victoria with Albert, 1854.
Victoria's extreme grief at Albert's premature death should be evidence of a deeply loving relationship and met with sympathy, except I'm not really convinced that her love for Albert (ok, let's use Rappaport's more fitting term, "obsession") was reciprocated. Albert was a guy with a lot of issues, his outlook on life being that "Man is a beast of burden, and he is only happy if he has to drag his burden and if he has little free will." And drag her he did, for 20 years, yet he was never happy and even wanted to die (though I can't entirely blame him for that). Rappaport does a thorough job documenting Victoria's "never-ending emotional hunger" and how much it depleted and exhausted Albert throughout their marriage.
A Magnificent Obsession describes Albert's illnesses and death in minute detail, mesmerizing because it is based entirely on first-hand accounts and documents, and is a snapshot into the minds and feelings of people living (and dying) over 150 years ago. I couldn't help feeling sorry for Victoria in her grief, even if her love for him didn't seem very healthy, but Rappaport's discussion of the following decade dispelled most of those kindly feelings toward the unhappy Queen. Victoria plunged all of England into public mourning for Albert, and decided there and then that she would never be happy again or resume her life. She wore mourning clothes for the rest of her life, engaged on a shocking spree of memorializing Albert (Albertopolis...need I say more?), and basically retired from Queenship without actually retiring. She secluded and isolated herself, trying every excuse to get out of public appearances and duties. She actually had her personal physician write doctor's notes that any kid in gym class might envy in order to skip events. What I never realized was how dangerously close this came to ending the monarchy in England, as people lost sympathy for her and realized how well they could do without a monarch at all. There were rallies and movements for creating a Republic in place of the monarchy, and these were only quieted with the near death of Victoria's son, Bertie, and an assassination attempt on old V herself.
You know, growing up we only learn how impressive and amazing Queen Victoria was, how iconic and important her reign was. What we never learn in school is how unstable she was and how unlikeable on a human scale. She was unbelievably selfish and self-absorbed, emotionally volatile, and stubborn to the point of stupidity. She basically hated her children and was very cruel to them when they were young, only wanting to be with Albert and have as little as possible to do with her offspring. She came increasingly to believe that "we women are not meant for governing", and pawned off most of her responsibilities on the unpopular and unrecognized Albert. After his death she chose grief and mourning as her entire identity, even when she started feeling better, and became obsessed with death. She pestered recently bereaved families for every detail of how the deceased had died, and often requested that they send her photographs of them lying dead in their coffins. She shirked her duties because she didn't want to do them and only wanted to be taken care of by a man (and was for years by John Brown, her Scottish servant and the cause of much scandalous gossip), but she refused to abdicate and name her son and heir as King because she couldn't let go of being the center of attention.
Ultimately, A Magnificent Obsession is a fantastic and enlightening study about the state of the British monarchy in the late 19th century and how it was drastically affected and redesigned by certain eccentric individuals. Rappaport brings her considerable skill and intelligence to the discussion of Victoria and Albert, to the death that nearly brought down the monarchy while simultaneously creating the Victoria we all know and...well, remember. This book, and Rappaport's beautiful writing, will be a treat for anyone remotely interested in this history and in the larger-than-life figures who created it.