Book Reviews

Woman in Black Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death that changed the Monarchy

By Helen Rapperport

Hutchinson £20.00

Review by Anne Sebba, Literary Review, February 2012

From the moment Prince Albert died, aged 42, on December 14, 1861, Victoria wallowed in her grief and British manufacturing began mass production of every conceivable kind of commemorative item from tea sets to pot lids, handkerchiefs to bookmarks. At the same time grander projects were undertaken including plaques, stained glass windows as well as statues of the man himself, of which there were eventually twenty five in several British towns. For, as she rebuked her half-sister, Feodora, who tried to cheer her up following her mother’s death a few months before Albert by reminding her of all she had to be thankful for : “I do not wish to feel better.” Curating her grief was what she liked best to do.

The irony is that Albert himself had made clear in the wake of what he perceived as excessive memorialisation of the Duke of Wellington ten years previously that he did not want even a single marble image to his name. “It would disturb my quiet rides in Rotten Row to see my own face staring at me and if, as is very likely, it became an artistic monstrosity like most of our monuments,  it would upset my equanimity to be permanently ridiculed and laughed at in effigy. “

But that is not the only irony in this absorbing book, rich in social detail, which describes how over almost half a century Victoria made mourning into an art form.  Rapperport has done extensive research into what this meant for the rest of the country and includes lavish descriptions of which fabrics were acceptable, from the most expensive French black silks or merino wools and crape, to special baby mourning fabrics and cheap sack cloth for servants. Poor seamstresses often worked 14 hour days to fulfil orders for households in mourning.  There were strict rules on what jewellery was acceptable too with jet ornaments de rigeur, although onyx and black enamel were also acceptable.  During half mourning, diamonds, amethysts and pearls were allowed and courtiers could wear mauve, grey or lilac in addition to black. The requirement for jet dramatically transformed the fortunes of the small fishing village of Whitby, which, at its peak in the 1870’s, employed more than a thousand locals as jet finders, carvers and polishers.

Ten years after Albert’s death, with Victoria still refusing to play an active role in public life, her children worried that their mother’s invisibility was seriously jeopardising the future of the throne and playing into the hands of republicans.  There were even fears for her sanity. Victoria argued that she was working as hard as ever, simply that her activities were undertaken in private. Her insatiable appetite for perpetuating Albert’s memory often seemed the most important of these and when her wayward son Bertie, Prince of Wales, wrote to his then fiancée, Alix, in English rather than German, the native tongue of his sainted father, Victoria was horrified, believing this to be a betrayal of Albert.

Rapperport writes about her subject with zest and energy, retaining the narrative pace in a book crammed with interesting facts. She provides a convincing case that Albert may have died of Crohn’s disease, rather than typhoid, as previously maintained. And she shows great sympathy towards Victoria as a woman, not merely seeing her as a monarch or empress. While recognising the Queen’s stubbornness, she also explains the depth of the problem. Victoria felt overwhelmed by all the duties, responsibilities and workload of being Queen. Albert had been not only her adored companion but unofficial private secretary to whom she deferred for advice on almost everything.

Where this book most movingly succeeds is in understanding why her former ghillie, John Brown, and later her Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, the arch flatterer, in different ways offered Victoria a lifeline out of her depression. Brown was not merely a reassuring presence.  She revered his “feral masculinity” and valued his honesty and loyalty. In addition to providing a link to her beloved Scotland, reliance on Brown drew her closer to her dead husband as Albert too had admired him.  She liked to have a man look after her.

Rapperport believes that although Victoria continued to see herself as a poor, weak, broken hearted widow, in fact Albert’s death was in some ways the making of her – however impossible it was for her to see it that way. The final irony is that had Albert survived, Victoria would have sheltered increasingly behind him, becoming more the mother or grandmother figure which came naturally to. Her good points were deep compassion, a genuine ability through experience to commiserate with others, stoical endurance and an indomitable personality, all of which enabled her in 1878 to face the tragedy of her second daughter, Alice, dying shortly after her granddaughter, May, events which might have shattered her a decade earlier.


Anne Sebba is the author of That Woman – The life of Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor Weidenfeld and Nicolson £20.00