Book Review: Magnificent Obsession: Death That Changed the Monarchy

By Helen Rappaport

When one thinks of Queen Victoria, the stereotypical image which we might conjure up of her is in black; the short, slightly dumpy, sour looking old woman that can be seen in her photographs. Of course, anyone who has ever read anything about Victoria knows that, in her early life she was a vibrant, wilful and romantic woman with a less-than-Victorian sensuality about her. Her marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was, aside from personal issues, a highly successful union, which fostered the typical family-oriented and high moral values of the Victorian period, after the wild excesses of the Regency.

Price: £8.99
Publication Date: 2012
ISBN: 009953746X
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However, when Albert became increasingly ill and died in December 1861, Victoria became so paralysed by grief that, for the rest of her life, she wore black. For the first decade after his death, she refused almost completely to appear in public and caused significant ruptures in the nation’s belief in the monarchy by doing so. She went from being a talent wife and mother, the centre of a loving family, to the greying widow, entirely consumed by grief. How this pathological approach to grieving affected Victoria herself, the monarchy, those around her and the country as a whole are the subjects of Helen Rappaport’s fascinating book, ‘Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the death that changed the monarchy’.

Beginning with a touching Christmas scene showing the royal family as a happy, loving unit at Christmas at Windsor, Rappaport begins an excellent chronological overview, leading us through Albert’s final illness, his death, and forwards onto Victoria’s seclusion and mourning. Demonstrating an excellent eye for the often somewhat ghoulish detail while keeping the story in focus, we are able to hear interesting points regarding Victoria’s attitude towards Albert’s ever increasing frailty in those final months: “[Victoria] grumbled... about Albert’s lack of physical stamina and hypochondria. ‘dear Papa never allows he is any better or will try to get over it, but makes such a miserable face that people always think he’s very ill’”. We are also very present at the final deathbed scene, where she leans over him, desperate for him to recognise her, to call her his little wife and for a final kiss between them.

The narrative flow is informative and often moving, with Victoria as central character, with whom we can sympathise and equally feel entirely exasperated with. Her desperate, agonising grief is both the stuff of romance and a selfish avoidance of responsibility; her attitude towards the demands of her country and her ministers, as the narrative continues, become more difficult to pity. Rappaport is able to also give us some other interesting insights into the unexpected consequences of the death of Prince Albert – the marked royal preference for jet jewellery in the aftermath led to the massive expansion of the Whitby Jet industry, from around 25 people employed in the 1830s to a £50,000 turnover in the 1870s. She also has opinions about the long thought conclusion that Albert died of typhus and whether this can be taken as read from the evidence available.

Our modern understanding of the nature of grief and mourning can sometimes bulk at some of the more ghoulish practices of the period – Victoria’s decision to hang the post-mortem photo of her husband on his side of the bed seems to us rather a nightmarish idea – but Rappaport’s excellent book offers an informative and well-written insight into the development of the cult of mourning, led by the chief mourner herself. Definitely worth a look.

Reviewed By Martha Stoneham