A Magnificent Obsession

By Watt, Richard M | The Christian Science Monitor, April 19, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Magnificent Obsession


Watt, Richard M, The Christian Science Monitor


In the union of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert he played the leading role - and she was only too glad to have him do so.

The probability is that anyone who reads A Magnificent Obsession by Helen Rappaport already knows the story well. It is the latest account of how Victoria, in 1819, while the 20-year-old Queen of Great Britain, married the 20-year-old Prince Albert of Saxe-Coberg and Gotha, a small German duchy. And it carries the marriage up to Albert's early death at age 42 and Victoria's subsequent life as a grieving widow for forty years until her death in 1901.

It was an arranged marriage, promoted by their mutual uncle (Victoria and Albert were first cousins) and they had only met twice before Victoria decided that she like Albert well enough and proposed to him - which is what reigning queens do in Britain.

The British populace had not initially been warm to the union. They regarded Albert as being significantly beneath Victoria on the monarchial scale and they did not welcome a German princeling into their midst, particularly if, like Albert, he spoke English with a thick German accent. But what the public did not know at the first, was that Albert was an extraordinary person. Commencing from when he was only a boy, he had prepared himself for a life of Christian duty as a royal figure. Albert had studied international law, philosophy, music, and art. He had closely observed the rulers of various nations and prepared himself for a life as an important royal figure.

In his marriage to Victoria he made it quickly known that he was not content to be simply the Queen's lapdog, which was apparently the role she had in mind for him. From the very beginning he reached out for responsibility and public service. He took over all of Victoria's financial affairs, ran her household, and guided her in her relations with her government ministers. He directed the British Exhibition, a sort of world's fair of goods, and made it a spectacular success. He undertook great responsibilities in re- organizing the army, improving British education and promoting science. In all things he was successful and particularly so in his family life. Both Victoria and Albert had surely come into their marriage as virgins. But Albert was a quick learner and according to her diary, brought his wife delight and satisfaction.

Despite the fact that Victoria had been warned that infidelity by British royal figures was the norm - "Damn it, Madam," Lord Melboune had declared to her, "you don't expect that he'll always be faithful to you, do you?" - Albert certainly was faithful. Not for nothing was he called "Albert the Good." In their first 20 years of marriage Victoria and Albert produced nine children. Their domestic life was greatly respected and admired by the British public who regarded the Royal family as an exemplar.

Victoria basked in Albert's devotion. He was clearly the more intelligent and better educated. He played the leading role in their marriage and she was glad to have him do it. "We women are not for governing," she said.

But there was one aspect of Albert which was less than perfect. His health was problematic. From early youth he had experienced intestinal difficulties. He was frequently ill and as he grew older his health problems diversified into headaches, severe colds, insomnia, fevers, and diarrhea. They became more severe as Albert entered into his forties. But Victoria did not know this, or else she chose to ignore it. The thought that he might predecease her was too much even to contemplate.

Then, in December,1861, Albert became ill but insisted on carrying out his duties. These involved spending days outside in cold rain. Having almost literally worked himself to death, he died on December 14, 1861. …

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