Prince Albert has been the subject of numerous biographies, beginning with Sir Theodore Martin’s five-volume ‘Albertiad’ (as A N Wilson describes it) of 1875 to 1880. Martin was, however, hampered by having the ever-critical eye of Queen Victoria hovering over his work. The resulting exhaustive hagiography perpetuated the myth of Albert’s sainthood and drew a veil over the more difficult aspects of his personality. In this new biography Wilson wastes no time in putting us straight on any lingering illusions we might have. While admiring of Albert’s many gifts, he is uncompromising in laying bare the prince’s emotional shortcomings.
Duty and conscience were fundamental to Prince Albert’s make-up. A gifted polymath, he was nevertheless a dull and staid young man. At university in Bonn he was extremely socially gauche and eschewed all pleasures of the flesh. Albert needed always to be in control, to have a plan and clear objectives. Marriage, when it came in 1840, was but one of the many tasks that he set out dutifully to fulfil. However, within a very short time he realised that he had been misled into thinking that he would enjoy equal power with Victoria and have an official, political role to play. Such unrealistic aspirations, nurtured in him by his mentor Baron Stockmar, left him perpetually frustrated.
Albert dreamed of becoming a celebrated enlightened despot ‘in the mould of Frederick the Great’, Wilson tells us. In his marriage to Victoria he nursed heady political visions for Britain, for a united Germany and for a peaceful, federal Europe. He tried and failed to meddle in foreign policy in pursuit of these aspirations and had numerous run-ins with the independently minded foreign secretary and prime minister Lord Palmerston. His close friendship with Peel – one of the few politicians Albert admired and respected – was all too soon ended by Peel’s untimely death in 1850. Even more heartbreaking for this friendless man was the departure from Britain of his own reflection, his clever eldest daughter, Vicky, in whom he invested so many of his own unfulfilled hopes. ‘They were besottedly fond of one another’, Wilson tells us. Albert never got over the marriage of his kleine Mädchen and her departure for Berlin in 1858.
To compensate for the personal frustrations in his life as consort and never-king, Albert threw his energies into patronage of the arts, science, business and industry. Wilson gives a succinct and engaging account of how Albert took on a wide range of projects: reorganisation of the royal household; the design of model housing for workers; investigating working conditions of the labouring classes; reform of the university syllabus as chancellor of Cambridge University; cataloguing the Raphaels in the Royal Collection; building family homes to his own specifications at Balmoral and Osborne. But it was never really enough. As Wilson observes, Albert might have been ‘free to decree how to decorate the corridors of a seaside house, [but] as far as the Constitution of Great Britain was concerned, he had no official role’.
Albert’s one great project and consolation was of course the Great Exhibition. Wilson rightly sees this as Albert’s ‘definitive’ achievement: it ‘called forth all the virtues he brought to public life’ in Britain. The exhibition was a crystallisation of the prince consort’s messianic aspirations for what he called ‘the realisation of the unity of mankind’, a project demonstrative of the power of global, free-market capitalism that brought together the best that science, art and technology had to offer. The fact that he achieved the construction of the Crystal Palace in the face of enormous opposition and criticism is greatly to be admired. Wilson goes on to emphasise the importance of the legacy of that exhibition – Albertopolis, the complex of museums and institutions in South Kensington which was created from the profits and which we still enjoy today.
Wilson is particularly perceptive in his analysis of the complicated and often tormented relationship at the heart of the book: the ‘psychodrama’ of Albert’s marriage to Queen Victoria. The match between them had been made in the cradle by their ambitious Saxe-Coburg relatives. While marriage for Albert was a calculated political act, Victoria had the great good fortune to fall madly in love. It was a tragic imbalance, for Victoria ever after looked on her husband as a paragon of virtue, even when he was her harshest critic. While Wilson is uncompromising in his assessment of Victoria’s high-voltage, high-maintenance personality, he also shows how Albert’s admonitory, censorious letters to her about her ‘bad’ behaviour were cold and often extremely manipulative. Albert was a master of the wounding put-down: ‘He always knew, at just the right moment of a squabble’s cycle, how to play on Victoria’s vulnerability and to increase her sense of inadequacy and guilt.’ Yet still Victoria came back for more; she simply could not get enough of him. Albert was, as Wilson constantly reminds us, ‘her Angel’. ‘She did not want cordiality. She wanted ecstasy. She wanted an opera.’
Most of his children disappointed Albert in one way or another for failing to live up to his very high standards, none more so than his eldest son, Bertie. In his heir, Albert saw the spectres of his own dissolute father and brother. He also dreaded the potential consequences to the royal family and the monarchy in general that sexual scandals, such as Bertie’s affair with Nellie Clifden, might bring. Stubbornly blind, as was Victoria, to Bertie’s natural gifts and considerable interpersonal skills, and forever critical of his lack of academic achievement, Albert doomed himself to perpetual disappointment.
Wilson’s thesis is clear in the subtitle he gives to his book: ‘The Man Who Saved the Monarchy’. This, indeed, Albert did by vigorously ‘harnessing the monarchy to the Victorian success story’ through his many public activities and interests. But he achieved this, one might add, not without the help of an adoring wife, who endured the agonies of childbirth and postnatal depression to produce the nine children that made up their perfect, respectably bourgeois domestic unit. It was this highly visible royal family, projected to middle-class England via the new medium of photography, that Albert worked hard to sustain, for he well understood the power of ‘monarchy-as-theatre’.
One reaches the end of this incisive and entertaining study with an overwhelming feeling of sadness. Prince Albert was an intensely lonely man – ‘a Prince without an Horatio’ – who was never really liked or accepted in Britain. By the end of his life, his estrangement from a wife whom duty had taught him to love but from whom he increasingly longed for distance was profound. For, ultimately, all Victoria’s gushing love and neediness, initially so flattering, became an enormous emotional burden. Her love could never compensate Albert for his intense sense of separation from his beloved Heimat and the longing for a return to his German roots.