Saturday, 3 December 2011

Helen Rappaport: Magnificent Obsession

The Death that Changed the Monarchy

I'm not a Royalist, in fact I'm a rabid Republican (you can always get rid of a President, royalty's a bit more tricky)  and in 1792 I would probably have been out on the streets of Paris cheering the tumbrils - though I like to think I might have been a bit more humanitarian!  So, my reading of Helen Rappaport's beautifully written book on Victoria and Albert, 'Magnificent Obsession', has been a little biased.  

Victoria is revealed as a spoilt and self-obsessed young woman who retreated into hysterical grief on the death of her husband at the age of 42, completely neglecting her children and her role as head of state.  This, to me, is not magnificent - it's appalling that she was allowed to get away with it.  But, under the protocols of the time, only Albert had been in a position to put limits on her behaviour.  

He wrote Victoria a letter shortly before he died, when she was grieving hysterically for her mother (an ominous precursor of what was to follow),  exhorting her  to 'try to be less occupied with yourself and your own feelings'..... Pain was 'chiefly felt by dwelling on it and can thereby be heightened to an unbearable extent....   this is not hard philosophy, but common sense supported by common and general experience. If you will take increased interest in things unconnected with personal feelings, you will find the task much lightened of governing those feelings in general which you state to be your great difficulty in life.'

Her children, the youngest only 3, had their lives plunged into gloom by Victoria's obsessive mourning, forbidden to play with friends or go to parties or other social occasions.  Her eldest son, Bertie, was rejected for being the cause - in her eyes - of Albert's demise.   Victoria's children gave her no comfort.   She told a visitor that 'she had never taken pleasure in the society of her children as most mothers did.'  Albert had been her entire world.

The book focuses on what Victoria's retreat from public life did to the politics and economy of the country -  it is a fascinating study of how the private behaviour of a head of state can have far-reaching effects on the public health of the country.   Her obstinate refusal to 'do her job' did not make her, or her family, popular, especially when she expected Parliament to dig deep into its pockets to fund her growing brood.

I shared the country's outrage when Parliament was asked to vote £100,000 a year out of tax revenue to fund Bertie and his Danish wife Alex, in a life of luxury and idleness, at a time when a skilled labourer might earn 30s a week, a housemaid £12 a year, and even a bank clerk only around £90 per annum.  There were people starving in Lancashire at the time due to a shortage of cotton caused by war in America, but Victoria, locked into her grief, was oblivious to anything happening outside her darkened room.

She was, at the time, paying £200,000 for the mausoleum at Frogmore and complaining that English, instead of German, was being spoken too often at court.  Her insistence on finding all her children German wives and husbands, was to have lasting consequences for Britain.  Kaiser Fritz, her favourite, in particular, though Victoria never lived to see the result of her dynastic manouevres.

Helen Rappaport writes lucidly and impartially on Victoria's  great obsession, and brings the woman vividly alive, as well as making very clear just how much Albert did for Britain and how much we lost when he died.  It's a book I'm enjoying very much.

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