By AN Wilson Atlantic, 430pp, £30/$35
Publishers love subtitles as a means of catching prospective buyers. So AN Wilson’s delightful biography of the Prince Consort has to have one: The Man Who Saved The Monarchy. It’s valid, because Wilson himself makes the claim, but it’s tiresome too, inviting the question “Really?”
The monarchy might have survived without him. Queen Victoria might have had a husband who was more popular than Albert, if admirable in different ways. Moreover, since Wilson rightly insists on the frustration Albert felt at being excluded from politics and being unable to play the part of an enlightened not-quite-despot – for which his mentor Baron Stockmar had prepared him – one might argue that it was the politicians, notably Palmerston, who denied him that role, thus ensuring the constitutional monarchy would survive in Britain because of its gradual exclusion from day-to-day politics.
A Crown that is identified with political positions is a Crown that becomes controversial and is therefore endangered.
Being denied what he wanted, and what he believed he had been prepared for, compelled Albert to find a different outlet for his talent, energy and ability. The two politicians he admired and was close to, Sir Robert Peel and Lord Aberdeen, recognised this. It was Peel who encouraged him to assume responsibility for the organisation of the Great Exhibition of 1851, a huge success which led to the creation of what Wilson calls the “Albertopolis”, the museums in Kensington which are his most obvious legacy – though, happily, he was prevented from moving the National Gallery there.
Albert’s public life did indeed point to the way the monarchy must go if it was to flourish in an age of democratic politics.
It would avoid aristocratic excess and identify itself with middle-class respectability. GM Young, that fine historian of the Victorian Age, recognised the concept of “respectability” as its characteristic feature, and Victoria and Albert’s family monarchy was far removed from the extravagant and licentious habits of her royal uncles with their debts, mistresses and illegitimate children.
In contrast Albert took a keen interest not only in art but also in science, industry, education, urban development, hygiene and philanthropy. Henceforth, the Crown and the royal family would be patrons of good causes, often active ones. It was necessary to associate the monarchy with whatever was good and forward-looking in the life of the nation.
The marriage of Victoria and Albert was fruitful, passionate (on her side, anyway) and often stormy. Though she had a great deal of common sense, Victoria was also highly strung and emotional, repeatedly suffering from post-natal depression. She made scenes that Albert found embarrassing and distasteful. He would retreat offended and at a loss. Instead of taking her in his arms and giving her the cuddle that she surely longed for, he would write chilly letters of reproof. The more emotional she was, the colder he became and she responded by being still more demanding. Wilson’s treatment of this intense, fascinating and often difficult marriage is exemplary – sympathetic, understanding, and fair to both.
Neither was an ideal parent. Albert frequently reproved Victoria for her harshness to the children but, though he was undoubtedly close to their oldest child, Vicky, he had no more understanding of their son Bertie (much later Edward VII) than Victoria had. Both were blind to his good qualities; both afraid that he would grow up like Victoria’s uncles or indeed Albert’s own dissolute father, whose marriage had ended in divorce. So when they learned that Bertie had been involved with Nellie Clifden, who had already enjoyed the favours of officers in his regiment, both parents were horrified, Albert telling his 20-year-old son that he had known him to be weak but “had not thought him depraved”.
By this time Albert’s health was deteriorating. Though only 40 he was ageing rapidly. He was tired and lonely, finding Victoria’s emotional demands exhausting. He had no real friends and was aware that, for all his commitment to duty, he was still regarded as a foreigner, still prevented from the engagement in politics (especially in foreign policy) which he desired. He had served England but never felt himself English and he was homesick for Germany. He had “never”, Wilson writes, “learned to play the English courtly, or upper-class game, of wearing talent lightly”.
Yet he may not have been as unpopular as he thought he was. Years later when Henry Ponsonby, the Queen’s private secretary, remarked to Gladstone that Albert had been unpopular with the English, Gladstone denied it: “He was unpopular with smart society but the people liked him.”
Like all of AN Wilson’s books, this reads easily, even enchantingly, showing that all this ease is the result of deep reading and a sympathetic intelligence.