"A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy" (St. Martin's Press), by Helen Rappaport: The year 1862 was a very good one for merchants of grief. Prince Albert, beloved consort of Queen Victoria, had died the previous December, and his bereft widow declared that the period of public mourning should be "the longest term in modern times."
Members of the royal household would not appear in public without their all-black clothes for a year, while she intended to wear her widow weeds for the rest of her life. And except for occasionally donning white lace, ermine, diamonds and pearls for official functions, that is exactly what she did until her own death in 1901.
Helen Rappaport, a historian whose previous works include "The Last Days of the Romanovs," has written a splendid new book that focuses on the roughly 10-year period just before and after Albert's untimely death at age 42.
Relying on forgotten letters, memoirs and diaries, she explores Victoria's obsessive love for Albert, her pathological reaction to his death and the 40 years she spent commemorating him, sparking a craze for mourning-related memorabilia including fashionable jet jewelry. She also argues that Albert may have died of Crohn's disease, not typhoid fever, listed as the official cause of death.
Eventually, Rappaport explains, Victoria did emerge from her decade of seclusion to resume some of her public duties. Rappaport believes this was due in no small measure to the ministrations of her devoted Scottish servant John Brown.
Two other events also helped jolt Victoria back to reality — her eldest son's near fatal illness in 1871 and a half-baked attempt to assassinate her a few months later. Both prompted an outpouring of public support, making the self-centered queen realize that she owed it to her loyal subjects to engage in the royal spectacle they craved. It was just in time, too. Republican sentiment was building as the British public increasingly questioned their huge expenditures for the royals.
Ironically, strait-laced Albert likely would have disapproved of the orgy of grief after his death. Although he, too, shared the era's taste for death rituals, he had tried to teach his ruling partner how to be a just and sober-minded queen.
Following the outpouring of memorials in 1852 for the Duke of Wellington, the namesake of Royal Albert Hall and countless other monuments, buildings and statues told his wife, "If I should die before you, do not, I beg, raise even a single marble image to my name."
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