Monday, June 1, 2015

Magnificent Obsession : Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed theBritish Monarchy by Helen Rappaport (2011)

I have read so many books about Queen Victoria and her family at this point, that it's become difficult over the years to find any new information.  For example, this book about Prince Albert's death read as so familiar that I thought I'd read the book before.  I hadn't; but I'd read about Albert's death so often that I thought I had.  I still like reading biographies and histories about Queen Victoria and her family; I like seeing what different takes different authors make, their writing style and so on.  I will say they have to be quite good in order to catch my attention now and make me want to continue reading.

I just finished reading a small section on Queen Victoria's dressers - Marianne Skerrett and Annie MacDonald - and thought that information about Victortia's servants, other than John Brown, was few and far between.  That would make an interesting book, perhaps, although certainly not written by me. Rappaport implied that Skerrett, and then MacDonald, had power in Victoria's life, particularly in keeping her in perpetual mourning.  They were part of the walls against the world that Victoria built in the early parts of her mourning. " They formed a human barrier, used by Victoria to protect herself from what she saw as the unkind onslaughts of demanding ministers, and carried messages back and forth to male members of her entourage when she did not feel up to dealing with them."   I'm not anywhere close to being finished with this book; it will be interesting to see if servants continue to make appearances and what their roles were.

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Later.  I'm an idiot.   I have read a book about her servants - and recently too.  I'm a maroon. Or really, just becoming more and more forgetful.  I suppose after a certain age, your brain is compeltely full.

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"It's my business," Rappaport quotes Prince Albert to Dr Clark.  "to watch that mind every hour and minute - to watch as a cat watches at a mousehole."   This was how Albert handled Victoria's "mental irritation."  We shouldn't lay aside the fact that giving birth to eight children in about 17 years, and being inclined to postnatal depression of the severest kind, probably contributed greatly to Victoria's mental irritation.  She was also somewhat spoiled, self absorbed, petulant.  She was also the kind of intellect that used the power of her mind as manipulative tool - she always, always knew exactly how to get her way.  The effect of having to try to control this, and also lead the country to the liberal Germanic philisophical ideal weakened Albert's health considerably over the years; he was stressed and deeply depressed the last years of his life; in modern parlance, he was probably going through a midlife crisis.  Nothing had quite turned out like he had planned as an idealized scholar prince.  His son was a sexual miscreant and buffoon; his wife petulant and incredibly needy; the people of England openly mistrustful.  

And then he died.  Although it wasn't just like that, and Rappaport's premise is that it took Albert a long time to die; it was something he'd been worried about for quite some time; he knew something was dreadfully wrong.  

Rappaport's title says everything about Queen Victoria both before and after Albert's death.  She was obssessively in love with him, and only him; slavish devotion.  He was her idol.  After his death, for a while he became even more of the object of her obsession; then that switched into obsession over grief itself, and finally the stage were grief was used as a buffer, a weapon, a shield and protector, and also, always, a chance to turn the attention to herself.  She had always been and would always be completely and stubbornly self absorbed.  This manifested itself even more after the few people who could tell her no passed from the scene, Albert himself being the one would could do this the most.

I think if this was Rappaport's theme, her point of the book, then she succeeded greatly.  She goes into great detail showing these different aspects of Victoria's obsessions, how they manifested themselves and changed over the years.  She quotes from many reputable sources, both primary and secondary, to back this up.  She also does so in a sympathetic way; Victoria could have emerged from Rappaport's book some sort of crazy, wild eyed harridan - which I imagine very occasionally she was.  But she also has created a tender portrait of a woman deeply in love and then deeply wounded by a profound grief.  There isn't one way to mourn; the stages of grief aren't the same for us all; death and dying weren't a neat little package back then and still aren't today; Rappaport tells of one woman, albeit a very, very famous woman's, struggle with coming back from dilapidating grief.  

I think if the book has a failure, it may be in the subtitle:  "the death that changed the British monarchy."  I do think Albert's death and Victoria's shutting herself away for so long had an affect on the monarchy;  it probably weakened the power of the monarch considerably.  Rappaport, though, doesn't really go there in any great detail.  There is lots of hemming and hawing and grasping of hands and exasperation by Gladstone and ministers about the Queen spending so much time in Balmoral and Osborne and not enough time in London; there were calls for her abdication and the doing away with of the monarchy itself.  But I've read elsewhere that this constitutionally eroded the power of the monarchy; and I think that's the path Rappaport could have explored, at least somewhat.  She did elude to the current monarch's sense of duty bearing the hallmarks of "a tradition set by Prince Albert" and also a snide aside about whether this tradition would survive beyond her reign (wait and see).  Rappaport did a tremendous job on showing how the death changed a monarch without delving too deeply in how the monarchy was changed for the better or for the worse.

A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British MonarchyA Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy by Helen Rappaport
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The meat of this book is in the title:  Queen Victoria was obsessed with her husband Prince Albert when he was alive, and then became obsessed by and with his death.  The subtitle though - "the death that changed the British monarchy" - that's where this book gets tricky (or I suppose if I'm following idiom here, vegetarian).  I have no doubt that the queen's longest of mournings changed the British monarchy, but I'm not sure Rappaport proved that anywhere in her book.   I do think the prince consort's death and Victoria's shutting herself away for so long had an affect on the monarchy;  it probably weakened the power of the monarch considerably.  Rappaport, though, doesn't really go there in any great detail.  There is lots of hemming and hawing and grasping of hands and exasperation by Gladstone and ministers about the Queen spending so much time in Balmoral and Osborne and not enough time in London; there were calls for her abdication and the doing away with of the monarchy itself.  I've read elsewhere that her behavior constitutionally eroded the power of the monarchy; and I think that's the path Rappaport could have explored.    She did elude to the current monarch's sense of duty bearing the hallmarks of "a tradition set by Prince Albert" and also a snide aside about whether this tradition would survive beyond her reign (wait and see).  Rappaport did a tremendous job on showing how the death changed a monarch without delving too deeply in how the monarchy was changed for the better or for the worse. I don't think this is a mere quibble, but I also don't think this should stop you from reading what is still a very good, well written book.


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