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.
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In this intriguing study, Helen Rappaport sets out to tell the story of the royal anguish that followed Albert's death in December 1861 . . . she excels in her portrayal of a cult of mourning over which the queen presided with all the imperious intensity of a high priestess. Fair-minded, thoughtful and rich in social detail. - Sunday Times
Rappaport uses new sources to give a vivid account of Albert's death . . . a valuable and insightful book which will change our view of Queen Victoria. - Spectator
Rappaport draws on a wide range of sources, including unpublished royal letters, contemporary diaries and newspapers to create an insightful, absorbing and highly readable account of these events, but Magnificent Obsession is also a fascinating exposition of the art of mourning which Victoria made peculiarly her own . . . Magnificent Obsession is that rare creature; a scholarly book that wears its learning lightly and is written with clarity and insight. It is a fascinating subject and an even better read: a model of its kind. - Sunday Express
To mark the 150th anniversary of Albert's death, Helen Rappaport looks at the circumstances leading up to it, the ritual of his funeral and obsequies, and offers new theories on what killed him. - Majesty magazine
A brilliant new book . . . Helen Rappaport is especially good on the incompetence of the gang of medics who presided over Albert's illness. - Daily Mail
A remarkable book . . . a brilliant read. - Dovegrey Reader
Rappaport’s book is full of fascinating detail, and makes an engrossing read. - Victorian Web (www.victorianweb.org)
An absorbing study of the extraordinary feat of mourning on which Victoria embarked after her husband’s early death in 1861 at the age of 42 (which the author attributes in a post facto diagnosis to Crohn’s disease rather than typhoid). - Oldie
A perceptive study of the marriage and its aftermath which gives an account of both Victoria’s and Albert’s significance in the interstices between them and the reaction to his death. - London Review of Books
Helen Rappaport is an historian and Russianist with a specialism in the Victorians and revolutionary Russia. Her books include Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs and NoPlace for Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War. She lives in Oxford. For more information, you can visit her website at www.helenrappaport.com