'The Times was confident: 'we have on the throne a Sovereign whose nerves have been braced rather than paralysed by the chill of adversity'. But the newspapermen did not know the Queen as Lady Lyttelton did. Albert's death was, she had no doubt, a ' heart wound' that had torn her world apart.'
I have been unashamedly looking forward to Magnificent Obsession (published today) having followed Helen Rappaport's Facebook updates as she wrote the book... reading of her disappointments when travelling miles to a dusty archive full of anticipation only to find letters which yielded little.. or the excitement when something unexpected gave up its long-held secrets. The trials and tribulations of a writer's life coupled with the certainty that I always enjoy Helen's writing style, books grounded in meticulously accredited scholarly research but all presented in an accessible and informative way; the same style that instantly drew me into No Place for Ladies, Ekaterinburg and Beautiful For Ever.
So I settled into post-London recovery mode...
The book opens with a scene that may well enter my pantheon of Extracts to Read Every Christmas, as Helen describes Christmas 1860 for Victoria, Albert and their children. It creates a wonderful and cleverly contrasting setting for what it is to follow as the Royal family settle down to their traditional Christmas holiday at Windsor Castle, and the coldest for some fifty years.
The ice on the Serpentine is thirteen inches thick and on December 20th the snow started to fall. Windsor is decorated to the hilt with countless Christmas trees whilst the 360lb baron of beef along with fifty turkeys are being roasted in the kitchens. By now Victoria and Albert have been married over twenty years and have nine children ranging in age from three to twenty and the atmosphere is one of spirited happiness as the corridors of Windsor echo to the noise of playful children interspersed with outings for sledging and skating...
And so the scene is set for the dawn of 1861 and Victoria little knew of the annus horribilis that was to follow as she noted in her diary...
'Dearest Albert and I took leave of the old year and wished each other the joy of the new...'
A great deal of fascinating, and to me unknown, detail is revealed as the burdens upon Albert become more apparent. His responsibilities as Prince Consort have become increasingly onerous as he assumes a greater role in the running of the country, whilst Victoria has spent much of the last twenty years mired in pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood; a role which, by her own admission she enjoyed much less than I had realised. Health issues prevail for Albert and with little sympathy from his wife who dismissed many of his problems as being of the 'man flu' variety...and the really-if-men-had-to-give-birth-where-would-we-be genre. So poor Albert, suffering with increasingly worrying gastro-intestinal problems weakens before our eyes, yet largely unnoticed by his devoted wife and eventually the seriousness hidden from her by her closest family and advisors. Albert is on his death bed before the panic sets in and Victoria, still in denial, is prepared for the worst.
Gathering momentum alongside has been Victoria's own grief reaction at the death of her mother, the first such serious loss she has suffered in her life, and as a portent of things to come a clear indicator that the Queen's emotional coping strategies are limited and there may be trouble ahead. Even the excesses (as we may now view them) of 19th century mourning practices cannot contain Victoria's emotions, whilst the evidence of sanctification of the deceased holds worrying predictors. If Victoria is this distraught over the mother she steadfastly maligned then how on earth will she react to the death of the man she loves with all her heart. It is only a stern rebuke from Albert that pulls the Queen to her senses, but when the Prince Consort's time comes there will be no one to do likewise, and the Queen's grief will know no bounds.
Whilst I was aware of the generalities, I had little idea of the fine detail of Victoria's mourning, and as Helen Rappaport burrowed down into the diaries and letters in order to add substance to it all I slowly developed a fascinating picture of an emotionally labile woman, seemingly selfish and woefully oblivious to the needs and feelings of those around her, as any resilience she may have is severely tested to its limits. Helen Rappaport's account steers a steady course through both the personal and the political as the Queen's increasingly alarming retreat from public life leaves the country wide open to talk of revolution and republicanism. Interestingly it is illness that twice saves the Monarchy, firstly when a seemingly hale and hearty Victoria, whose fragility is constantly given credence and fiercely protected by her personal physician William Jenner, does fall prey to a serious illness. This included the miserable spectre of an excruciatingly painful abscess some six inches in diameter under her arm which Lister is called in to lance and drain ... unimaginable. The wayward and troublesome Prince of Wales's near brush with death during a bout of typhoid is all sufficient to arouse public sympathies further, conveniently bringing the populace neatly back on side.
What emerged for me was the pitiful vision of a very lonely, socially detached, unreachable woman, blind to the state of her nation and its people... present-day theraputic parlance might deem Victoria 'psychologically unavailable'. No one can physically touch Royalty... protocol dictates that you can't go and give them a hug (remember the scandal when the Australian premiere may have 'touched' the Royal back?) Royalty are thus effectively cut off from the emotional support that many of us may rely on in times of grief, sometimes the kindness of strangers, whilst Victoria, remote and bereft of that physical contact with others, and especially with Albert, had only the conversations with her grieving family and her courtiers to sustain her. And despite their best and strenuous efforts for many years, especially those of daughter Vicky in her letters, few seemed to came close to offering the comfort that might penetrate Victoria's wall of sadness and make any difference. Nowadays I'd want to give Victoria the Cruse helpline number for a start ...send her along to Kate Boydell's Merry Widow website... make sure she knew about The Way Foundation, whilst all Victoria can do is retreat alone to her beloved Balmoral wearing her widow's weeds and planning yet another national memorial in her dearest Albert's name.
Further latter-day theories could also usefully be employed, especially that of 'secondary gain' where the perpetuation of symptoms can become, for the sufferer, a conscious or sub-conscious means of avoidance. Victoria seemed bereft of confidence and terrified of public exposure in the absence of Albert which, for all that their love seemed deeply genuine, gave me serious pause for thought about the dependency and control he may have exerted over her during their marriage. His death certainly left her seriously disempowered and it became perhaps easier for Victoria to unwittingly sustain her grief as an excuse rather than have to face up to the rigours of her public duties as a monarch, issues which Helen Rappaport explores to the full ...and of course a stance increasingly difficult for Victoria to sustain credibly when Scottish ghillie John Brown comes into her life, bringing with him his down-to-earth no-nonsense philosophies and not a little joy and mirth at his Balmoral hoe-downs.
Utimately good things, if they can be called that, did emerge as Victoria's sensibilities became so carefully attuned to the impact of loss and bereavement, it became her specialist subject and to the point where, with mounting personal bereavements as the years went by, 'her sacred monopoly on grief transcended all criticism'. The death of daughter Princess Alice on the same day as her father some seventeen years later, sealing the deal. Always the first to sympathise with others in times of loss, and something of an expert on the etiquette of mourning practice, yet from somewhere, through it all Victoria did ultimately find the courage and steely determination to endure.
Helen has added an appendix that really did interest me. As I read the book it was hard not to speculate about the possible differential diagnoses for Albert's final illness. Long thought to be typhoid though with very little investigation and no post-mortem results this was questionable, and Helen has extracted some compelling evidence, along with symptoms of an ongoing and chronic gastro-intestinal condition, that may now suggest a possible diagnosis of Crohn's Disease.
So a remarkable book. A brilliant read, great illustrations including one of Albert on his deathbed, and now I really am looking forward to hearing Helen Rappaport's November 15th talk on Magnificent Obsession at the V&A more than ever.
And you still have time to listen to Helen talking about the book on Monday's edition of Woman's Hour here.