Shaving-Pot in Waiting

Rosemary Hill

  • Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death That Changed the Monarchy by Helen Rappaport
    Hutchinson, 336 pp, £20.00, November 2011, ISBN 978 0 09 193154 4
  • Albert by Jules Stewart
    I.B. Tauris, 276 pp, £19.99, October 2011, ISBN 978 1 84885 977 7

There were at least three Victorian ages, one of which, from around 1845 to 1861, might better be called Albertine. These were the years when the queen’s husband, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, was largely responsible for setting the tone, the pace and the scope of the monarchy and so to some extent of the reign. Despite which, as a personality, he remained obscure. Caricatured in his lifetime by an alternately sycophantic and satirical press, in death the immense shadow that Victoria’s mourning cast over him and the whole of the latter part of the century blotted out the prince consort again. The gilded figure enshrined in the Hyde Park memorial gradually congealed into Lytton Strachey’s ‘impeccable waxwork’ and Albert, as an individual, was for some time lost to history.

The younger son of a minor Bavarian duke of philandering habits, he had started at a disadvantage, which he never entirely lost. His parents’ marriage ended on such acrimonious terms that after the age of five he never saw his mother again. His grandmother and his uncle Leopold meanwhile had plans for him. He was to marry his first cousin, Victoria, a few months his senior, and as de facto king of England he would work for the creation of a united Germany under Prussia. Studious, intelligent and good-natured, Albert put his shoulder to the dynastic wheel. By the age of 16 he was writing an essay on German national character. Victoria meanwhile, having lost her father as a baby, was growing up as heir presumptive under the increasingly resented regime of her mother, the Duchess of Kent. These two childhoods equally rooted in an unusual combination of private insecurity and the imminence of public destiny must account to some extent for the personal success of a marriage planned so far in advance and with so little regard for the feelings of the parties involved.

Not that it was love at first sight. On Albert’s initial exploratory visit to meet his cousin before her accession, on a thinly contrived pretext which fooled nobody, he thought her ‘not beautiful by any means’. A youth of regular habits, he found the relentless ‘entertainments’ and late nights which Victoria so much enjoyed exhausting and pointless. After she had become queen he returned in 1839 with his brother at her somewhat peremptory invitation, the pair arriving at court haggard and underdressed having been violently seasick and lost their luggage en route. Victoria however was charmed. ‘It was with some emotion’, she wrote in her diary that night, that she beheld the bedraggled Albert who, despite it all, she could see was ‘beautiful’. Soon she was passionately in love and it was she who made most of the running. She was obliged by protocol, as queen, to put the proposal. Albert duly accepted and they married in 1840. If he had already tasted something of the potential humiliations of his situation he was soon fully aware of the fact that while her accession had set his wife free from her mother’s domination and brought her power and recognition, the fulfilment of his own long-foreseen destiny had merely ushered him into an elegantly appointed cul-de-sac.

As the queen’s husband he had no job and no authority. The title of prince consort was not granted until 1857 and he never received a peerage. He was known personally to hardly anyone in the country except Victoria and public opinion was initially wary of him, both as a German and as a consort in a nation that had had few happy experiences of royal husbands. They tended, it was felt, either to do too much or too little. Philip of Spain’s marriage to Mary Tudor had brought unwelcome foreign influence, while Queen Anne’s union with the ‘dull-brained, wine-bibing’ George of Denmark inspired little enthusiasm. Neither marriage was in living memory but Albert had arrived at a moment when the British were much preoccupied with reconsidering their past.

In particular, in the wake of Catholic emancipation and with the Oxford Movement gathering momentum, they enjoyed refighting the Reformation. Plays, paintings (famously Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey), new editions of John Lingard’s revisionist History of England, as well as Pugin’s architectural manifesto Contrasts, all treated it as the determining event in national history. The facts were fiercely argued and at a popular level there was much debate about whether or not it was a Good Thing. For Protestants, England’s saviour was Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen who had reigned alone and made her reluctance to marry an instrument of foreign policy. Hence, on top of everything else, the devoutly Lutheran Albert had to contend with persistent rumours that he was a Roman Catholic. He was still only in his early twenties, and it was understandable perhaps that when Benjamin Haydon saw him at a court ball he looked like a ‘kept pet, frightened to sit, frightened to stand’.

That he managed to make a success of his marriage and find a role in public life speaks powerfully of Albert’s sense of duty, his patience and his precociously sophisticated grasp of that relationship between the personal and the political which had been instilled in him from birth. He clearly came to love Victoria but she was always the more besotted and Albert used his hold over her, including the powerful sexual excitement which, as Victoria confided eagerly to her diary, had characterised the relationship from the beginning, to transform both the appearance and the reality of the monarchy. It was not easy. The early years of their marriage saw him not infrequently playing the stoical Petruchio to her bad-tempered Kate.

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