Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Few visitors to London include the Albert Memorial in their itinerary, unless by chance if they find themselves wandering in Kensington Gardens. There they will encounter what has been called the ugliest monument in Britain, a Gothic Revival monstrosity commissioned by Queen Victoria to immortalize her beloved husband Albert who died unexpectedly in 1861 after 21 years of marriage. I’ve just finished reading A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the death that changed the British monarchy by Helen Rappaport which details the next forty years of Victoria’s life. Her crippling grief for her husband became an obsession, her only interest in life creating memorials to the sainted Albert, and she sparked a boom in the mourning industry by remaining in widow’s weeds for the rest of her life. Rappaport shows that by elevating grief to an art form, Victoria was the main inspiration and shaper of the morbid, overly sentimental Victorian culture of death and mourning.
We are so used to that image of Victoria as a shrunken old woman in widow’s weeds that it is hard to see her as the pretty, flighty girl she once was. A portrait by Winterhalter shows a sexy young woman, bare shouldered, her long hair enticingly draped across her breast. As far from the “Victorian” image as you can imagine. In We Two: Victoria and Albert: rulers, partners, rivals Gillian Gill takes us back to those happy years of Victoria’s youth and marriage. She was quite a party girl, staying up late dancing and gossiping with her entourage, habits which the sober, serious Albert soon ended. She gave in to him on everything because she was madly in love, keeping footmen busy running back and forth with love notes all day. She would have been a natural for instant messaging and twitter. Her breathless notes and letters are full of bold capital letters, under linings, and exclamation points. She was poorly educated and unenthusiastic about the tedious paperwork involved in governing. Albert took her in hand and taught her how to be Queen, doing much of the work himself. It was said that he overworked himself into an early grave.
Another unexpected view of the Queen is found in Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the rebirth of the British monarchy by Paul Thomas Murphy. This reveals a plucky Victoria surviving eight assassination attempts, impressing her subjects with her bravery. It dampened the republican enthusiasm that was growing as the Queen persisted in mourning for decades. Victoria was also mother to nine children, all of whom survived infancy, unusual for the times. Albert was the more hands-on parent, firmly in charge of the domestic life of the household as of everything else. On his death the children, some still very young, didn’t get any support or attention from their mother who was too involved in her own grief. But she did rouse herself to make sure her daughters made good marriages to European royalty and soon her family members controlled most of Europe. Born to Rule: five reigning consorts, granddaughters of Queen Victoria by Julia Gelardi tells the story of the next generation. The most famous of Victoria’s granddaughters was the doomed Tsarina Alexandra of Russia, wife of Nicholas II. Her grandsons, too, were destined for historic roles. George V and Kaiser Wilhelm were cousins who ended up fighting as bitter enemies in World War I. Albert would have been appalled. He was a German Prince who loved his native land as much as his adopted country.
The unpopular Albert Memorial was once threatened with demolition and there is a rumor that during the Blitz Londoners prayed that it would take a direct hit. But it was restored during the 1990’s and remains as a grand testament to the extravagance of Victoria’s adulation of her husband.