I am always delighted to have much-anticipated books lurking on the literary horizon, and one of several I have been waiting for is Helen Rappaport's Magnificent Obsession - Victoria Albert and the Death That Changed the Monarchy, and reading the pre-amble it's not hard to see why...
"When Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died in December 1861 the nation was paralysed with grief. He was only forty-two and official bulletins had, until the day before he died, given no cause for alarm.
But in fact Albert had been in a progressive physical decline for years – worn out by overwork, stress and the exacting standards he set himself. His death was a catastrophe for the queen, who not only adored her husband but had, through twenty-one years of marriage, utterly relied on him: as companion, father of their children, friend, confidant, wise counsellor and unofficial private secretary. There was not a single aspect of public business on which she had not deferred to his advice and greater wisdom. She would even consult him on what bonnet to wear.
Britain had lost its king. For that is the role that Albert had performed in all but name. Politicians and the press agreed that his death was a national calamity. The public, totally unprepared, responded with a massive outpouring of grief.
This royal death had a profound impact on Britain. Cast adrift and alone, the Queen donned the widow’s weeds that she would wear for 40 years, till her own death in 1901. Her grieving was relentless. Without Albert to guide and support her, with a feckless heir who had caused her nothing but anxiety, and a family of nine children to parent alone, she retreated into a state of pathological grief which nobody could penetrate and few understood. Her stubborn refusal to return to public life rapidly began to alienate even her closest family and friends and to bring a resurgence of republicanism. There was even talk of abdication.
For the 150th anniversary of Albert’s death, this book examines the circumstances leading up to it, the ritual of his funeral and obsequies, and offers new theories on what killed him. It will describe the overwhelming despondency of a country plunged into mourning: bells tolling, shops shuttered up, everyone – no matter how poor – clad in black. Albert’s death and the Queen’s demand for the most rigorous observance of mourning, while precipitating months of anxiety about its effect on business, also fostered an explosion in the funeral trade and mourning ephemera. The Whitby jet trade went into overdrive to cope with the demand for black jewellery. Over the next ten years, the Queen’s single-handed mission to memorialise and commemorate her husband in perpetuity set in train plans for a range of artistic and cultural monuments that would transform the British landscape and set their visual stamp on the second half of her reign."
I have kept in touch with Helen since writing about her really excellent book No Place for Ladies The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War. It was a book that offered me well-researched history in an entertaining and readable way whilst making no sacrifices to quality, and as a result I have read Helen's subsequent books, Dark Hearts of Chicago, Ekaterinburg, and Beautiful Forever.
It can be interesting when you semi-know the authors too, because you follow and hear snippets about the progress of the book. The highs and lows, the disappointments shared on Facebook after a hope-filled day spent poring over old letters or documents only to find nothing of relevance, or the joyous news of hitting the information mother lode. I still quote Helen's presentation on Ekaterinburg and the demise of the Romanovs all delivered with passion and emotion on the anniversary of the massacre, as one of the most moving literary events I have ever attended. As well as being a Russianist Helen was for many years an actress and so brings something very unique to her live events, they are not to be missed (and I would say the same about Carol Drinkwater) so I am equally excited to be meeting up with Helen again this November when she will be talking about Magnificent Obsession at the V&A Museum, London on Tuesday November 15th at 7pm.
With all this revisiting of all things Victorian in mind I was therefore delighted when a copy of Letters To Vicky arrived from the Folio Society. This is the correspondence between Queen Victoria and her daughter Victoria, Empress of Germany, 1858 -1901.
The book is going to be sumptuous before I even open it in that case isn't it. The slipcase and the beautifully decorated and embossed spine and cover, fine paper, soft and silky to the touch, and nice bundles of glossy photographs plus an informative introduction from Andrew Roberts.
But the letters, oh my the letters.
What a prolific and wonderful letter-writer Queen Victoria was and how revealing this selection made from six available volumes are; the letters from a woman about whom so little was known by her subjects, and I will write more when I have read them in depth.
But it all leads me to think how, for all that we live in the media age wherein we expect to know every last detail, yet how little we know of the details of our own Queen's life.
I wonder whether our own Queen is a letter-writer and might a volume like this appear 150 years from now with news of Philip's snoring or the rage over the corgis frozen dinner.
Did you hear about it?
Terrible kerfuffle, apparently the palace chefs are under strict instructions that the corgis must o-n-l-y e-v-e-r be fed freshly cooked meat and the Queen draws up special menus for Linnet, Monty, Willow, Holly, Cider, Candy and Vulcan each week. Imagine the chefs leaning on the worktops chatting on the day that Her Maj walks unexpectedly into the Balmoral kitchen and says she'll serve it up herself only to find ...oh heck this is awful... you'd better sit down... the meat was still partially frozen in the middle.
The truth slowly dawned, the corgis were eating re-heated meals... re-heated meals for god's sake. Royal tempers fugit big style etc and apparently no one has seen Her Maj quite so cross in a very long time.
A bit of me wants to laugh like a drain... but I won't because another bit of me admires the Queen's fortitude and commitment to public service so I can make allowances for foibles, and the last bit of me doesn't really fancy the Tower with autumn coming on.