Were Victoria and Albert happy?

This week I spoke to Helen Rappaport about the relationship between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – perhaps one of the most iconic marriages in British history.

Holly: Hello, and welcome to the next episode of Past Loves – the weekly history podcast that explores affection, infatuation and attachment across time to bring you the lighter side of history and perhaps a touch of romance to daily life. Thank you so much to everyone who listened to the first ever episode last week. I really found the feedback lovely. It was great to know that you enjoyed listening to it just as much as I enjoyed that conversation with Rebecca Burton from Harewood House. Today, we are exploring yet another member of the British royal family and this is perhaps the most iconic relationship of all time, I think this is the relationship that if you were asked to talk about a couple that really defined an era and left a lasting legacy as being a true love match, these would definitely be in your top three. I am of course talking about Victoria and Albert. They really were quite the extraordinary couple. They lived through a period, and influenced a period, that was extremely influential in the way in which we live today. We all know that some of the traditions that they set out are the pervasive norm nowadays, we all have Christmas trees, we all get married in white, just like Victoria did with her wedding to Albert. And so this really is such an incredible relationship to discuss. Of course, it will always be considered one of the greatest love stories of all time – that was a given before we even started this episode – so to me this episode, it’s important to be looking at the realities behind this, how they got together, and really what their relationship was like with each other.

I am talking today with an incredibly exciting guest. I mean, I was blown away that she wanted to come and talk to me. It is Sunday Times and New York Times bestselling author and historian Helen Rappaport. So Helen specialises in the period of 1837 to 1918 in late Imperial and revolutionary Russia, which of course, one of my favourites and Victorian Britain, which has led to some like quite incredibly extensive work in TV and radio including working as the historical consultant for the first two series of the ITV drama Victoria, which I really enjoy as a period drama. I really like Jenna Louise Coleman in the role. I think she’s really good. And obviously, with their being in a relationship in real life, her interactions with Tom Hughes who plays Prince Albert feel really authentic and I think do a good justice to the pair as historical figures, and as people. I received one of Helen’s books, the Victoria letters, which is the official companion to the series for Christmas years ago, I think, maybe four years ago now. And it’s been sitting on my shelf for years, which meant that talking to Helen was just a little surreal because, you know, I’d had a book for years that had been part of my life and and I remembered getting it on Christmas Day. So to have her and to have her discussing, this topic was quite remarkable, just for me personally. She’s actually written 14 books in total, including a really interesting book called Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the death that changed the monarchy. And really, this book explores Albert’s sudden death, and then Victoria’s mission to commemorate her husband in perpetuity. And this was obviously incredibly significant in their relationship. We know that he died very young, it’s well within our public consciousness that she mourned him for years to an extent that I mean, I think many of us understand it’s quite remarkable. And so Helen really does a very impressive feat here of tracing their relationship, and then exploring how their love for each other and the way in which they loved each other, which was very important, in the end became this level of obsession of commemoration for Albert in Victoria’s eyes and how we all understand that. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. I really hope that you gain insight into this relationship that we all think we know. And yet, I think there’s always something that taking a fresh angle, looking at primary evidence can give us and really, I think it’s quite wonderful to be able to see how Victoria’s love endured for the rest of her life. So I think we should probably start off – we start with when Victoria comes to the throne because I think this is the real turning point where love and relationships become a real possibility for the new queen.

When she became queen when she was 18, and she didn’t really fancy giving up her newfound freedom for marriage did she?

Helen Rappaport: Oh no, she was very resistant to tying herself to somebody else, immediately after having liberated herself from her mother because remember, she lived a very, very quiet, protected life at Kensington Palace and had had very little freedom really. And so suddenly here she is queen, and she can kick over the traces and do what she wants, and the last thing she wanted was to be pinned down again. And I think she really enjoyed that sense of freedom. It was quite euphoric for her in those first few months of her reign, because first thing she did, of course, when she moved into Buckingham Palace was move mother quite a distance away from herself.

Holly: which is quite easy when you’re in Buckingham Palace, thankfully.

Helen: Oh yes, she shunted her mother well away. I think in fact, her mother got moved even further away once Albert arrived, you know, and they were married, but certainly she did not want her mother breathing down her neck all the time. She wants to do things her own way. And also, she was a teenager, she was just discovering the opposite sex. She wanted to have fun and meet a few people, I think and stay up late dancing and you know, enjoying herself.

Holly: In your book that you wrote to accompany the Victoria series, The Victoria letters, there’s a lovely story about how she was telling Lord M (Lord Melbourne who was a Prime Minister) that the only way she was going to get away from her mother was marriage. And he said, Well, there’s something you can do about that. And she was appalled by this idea that that was the only other option. 

Helen: Yeah, well in those days a young woman had only one prospect really. If she was of aristocratic status, it was to marry well, and if she was poorer, but well educated there about two options, you know, be a governess or be a governess.

Holly: This didn’t stop them talking about eligible candidates to marry.

Helen: Well, the situation for a young woman in Victoria’s position was unique and very different. Here you have a young woman who’s going to be queen, which immediately dramatically narrows the market. In terms of an eligible husband. Her husband had to be top drawer like her, she couldn’t marry beneath her. So you know, the number of candidates for any potential Queen were pretty few and far between and of the few that were presented to her, she didn’t like most of them. So it’s a very tricky thing in that kind of dynastic scheme of things. She pretty much had to marry who you were told to marry, you didn’t really have much choice in the matter. In fact, in the case of Victoria and Albert is an incredibly fortuitous thing that actually although they were kind of predestined for each other, they did actually fall in love. And we’re very compatible.

prince albert credit: national portrait gallery
Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha by James Posselwhite, after George Howard, stipple engraving, published 1840
NPG D33738 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Holly: So they first met, didn’t they, when Victoria’s mother and uncle started to organise some visits from a selection of bridegrooms who they approved of?

Helen: Well, actually, it was much simpler and much more strategically targeted than that virtually from the moment, Victoria and Albert were in their cradles, having been born three months apart, Victoria, the daughter of Victoire Saxe-Coburg Gotha, who was widowed not long after Victoria’s birth, and Albert was born only three months after her in Saxe-Coburg, and he was the son of Victoire’s brothers. So there was a very, very close family connection. And the master plan always was from day one. And this was hatched by Victoire, and another brother Leopold, who later became king of the Belgians, and the plan was to marry Victoria and Albert off and really establish a very powerful Saxe-Coburg influence in Europe through such a dynastic union. In fact, Leopold had a huge master plan to marry off as many of the family as he could, you know, to ensure that there were Saxe-Coburgs on the thrones of Europe. And you know, it was a very successful plan because several of that family married very well. But of course, the big triumph was Victoria and Albert, but they were destined for each other from the moment they were pretty much born. And although other suggestions were made along the way, it was made pretty clear to Victoria and to Albert when they were quite young that this was likely to be their future partner.

Holly: And so they first actually saw each other just before Victoria turned 17 didn’t they?

Helen: Albert and his brother Ernst came or visited in 1836 when Victoria was still very young and immature, but it was to kind of give her a first sighting of her potential future husband and interestingly at the time, she was not very impressed with Albert. He was very pudgy and self conscious and had this terrible habit of getting very tired quickly and falling asleep at the table and wanting to go to bed early and she really wasn’t that intimate of him. She much preferred his rather dashing brother Ernst who turned out of course to be a real Lady Killer.

Holly: Yeah.

Helen: And at the time, she was rather taken with the much more flashy Ernst, than the boring Albert. Although she thought Albert was rather sensitive looking and he had pretty eyes, you know. So really she wasn’t that impressed with Albert, and in the interim before she met him again in 1839 a lot of other candidates were sort of paraded or suggested. Her uncle William the fourth, the king, wanted her to marry one of the Princes of Orange, one of the Dutch princes, but when she met them, she really was unimpressed. You found them quite ugly. And then suggestions were made for Duke d’Orlean while he was a Catholic that wouldn’t do. Various other candidates came and went and of course later, she had a complete pash on Alexander the Russian Tsarevich again and another inappropriate candidate. Really fundamentally the master plan didn’t change. They were just waiting for her to grow up and to knuckle under and get married. So in 1839, a revisit was arranged and when the revisit happened of course we had that classic moment which almost has gone down in legend of when poor Albert and Ernst arrived, fresh from the boat at Dover, Albert having been seasick all the way looking pale and interesting. When they arrived, Victoria just was at the top of the staircase, took one look at him and then pronounced Albert beautiful. And it was un coup de foudre for her anyway, not necessarily for him, but she was absolutely smitten from the moment she saw him again. And with great clarity within days knew that that was the man she wanted to marry.

Holly: And so she proposed, what was the proposal like?

Helen: Well, there’s a coy little scene described in the journal where they’re having a tete a tete in one of her private rooms and she basically as Queen had to propose to him, he could not do it the other way around. And so she basically told Albert you know what my feelings are and how happy I would be if you were to marry me. So that was that really. It kind of put him out of his misery because he’d been led to expect this for so long. And there had been a period between 1836 and 39 before the final engagement, where Victoria had gone very off the boil about marrying and had dug her heels in and said that she would not be pushed. And really what did push her into getting married was the whole kerfuffle of the bedchamber crisis and the Lady Flora Hastings scandal where it brought a certain degree of criticism on Victoria – damaged her reputation as Queen. So it was again Melbourne who stepped in and said the best thing you can do to salvage your reputation is get married because being married stops her doing anything controversial because, yeah, classic male assumption that she’d knuckle under, if she was married if she had a husband. So she accepted the idea of getting married, which is why Albert was brought back in 39. And of course, they were married in the following February.

Holly: I quite liked the little story about Albert’s reaction to the proposal. I think it was to his stepmother that he was writing where he was quite surprised by Victoria’s show of love the extent to which she was outpouring?

Helen: Yes, I think you see, Albert had been drilled to expect this to be a dynastic union and marriage of partners who would be monarchs that it was as much as anything a political act of joining them together. He didn’t expect love and passion and adoration and all deluge the torrent of affection that was then immediately launched on him by Victoria. So he was completely taken aback. He was Germanic. He was teutonic. He was reserved, he was extremely shy. He’d had no women in his life at all until he met Victoria and this is a very important thing. His mother had been ostracized and sent away and divorced when he was only five. He grew up with his brother with male tutors, his father – he really did not have any female presence in his young life. He didn’t know how to relate to women. And so you can imagine he’s brought out rather stern, rather serious, very, very academic i.e. living the life in the head and not with the heart. He was very cerebral, but suddenly there’s this gushing fountain of teenage love hurling itself at him. He was very taken aback by her complete and utter adoration because there was a sense that he felt he didn’t have much self worth at that early stage and he felt completely overwhelmed. I think it found it quite hard to take because she was so passionate, so volatile, so expressive, and he was the exact opposite of all that he was very reserved, very, very private. He expected probably a very formal arranged marriage. Basically this was it but instead of course what he got was a mad love affair. Well, from Victoria’s side of the blanket, it was a mad love affair. One gets a sense of her absolutely throwing herself at him almost, certainly emotionally.

Holly: 18 year old girl, kind of.

Helen: Oh she’s just a classic teenager. I mean all the mooning and swooning especially when she had that little pash with Alexander Tsarevich who visited a few months just before Albert came and she went completely head over heels for him because there he was a tall handsome Russian Prince who was a divine dancer and she was madly in love with him for five minutes and could have been madly in love with any number of other young men. It just so happened that Albert was steered in her direction quite soon afterwards thankfully. She could quite easily have gone and wanted to marry someone else.

queen victoria and albert carte-de-visite credit: national portrait gallery
Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; Queen Victoria by John Jabez Edwin Mayall, albumen carte-de-visite, May 1860, NPG Ax47001
© National Portrait Gallery, London
queen victoria and albert reading book credit: national portrait gallery
Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; Queen Victoria by John Jabez Edwin Mayall, hand-coloured albumen carte-de-visite, May 1860, NPG Ax46703 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Holly: Do you think that the very different ways in which they loved was part of the reason why they had quite a turbulent love affair over the years?

Helen: Yes, definitely. Because you see you’ve got Victoria who is all heart on sleeve demonstrative demanding of attention demanding love demanding passion, demanding sex too I’m sure Albert’s the polar opposite of that. He’s very reserved. And that doesn’t mean you didn’t love her. He was very loving, but not in that very demonstrative, uncontrolled way. His love: he loved her as a wife as the mother of his children. But he was never passionate. He was not the passionate one. She was the passionate. So in a way, it’s a passive active relationship. She’s the active partner. He is the one just soaking up the love, the adoration, and it wore him down actually. He got fed up with it. It was like this constant tap that he couldn’t turn off. Albert was a man’s man and he wanted downtime. He wanted private time, he wanted to go and sit with other intellectual men and discuss politics and history and you know what. I mean he didn’t want to go off having mistresses and going and sitting in a club smoking cigars and drinking heavily as many of the aristocracy did. He didn’t want that life, but he did want an intellectual life. And he could only really find that with other intellectuals and Victoria, sorry, was not an intellectual. She was not. She was a highly intelligent woman but in terms of having real social intelligence, social awareness, being a great judge of people, she wasn’t academically intelligent like Albert. Although she constantly aspired to being his equal, if he liked painting, she liked it. If he liked a piece of music, she liked it. Everything Albert liked and adopted and patronized. She tagged along behind and supported it as well. But she was very much in his shadow in terms of the life of the mind. She never got inside his head.

Holly: Interesting because you always think of them as this iconic couple who ran a country and to think of them with the different ways in which they interacted with each other, but it’s so much more complicated. I just find it fascinating.

Helen: The trouble with Victoria and Albert, this is so much kind of schmaltz attached, the twittering lovebirds and the perfect marriage and they adored each other and she never smiled again when he died, and it’s just riddled with cliché. And there’s so many layers of this cliché and folk history about their relationship that isn’t really true, not when you look at them close up. They had a very turbulent relationship. And there definitely are times towards the end as Albert got more and more ill and he was physically very compromised. There were times he just longed to get away from her, and he wanted space from her. He was tired, worn down by her constant emotional demands. So I don’t think in any way at all, it was the perfect relationship. They made it work but they made it work in a way. I mean, one of the revisionists arguments I suppose about Albert, is that he deliberately kept getting her pregnant to sideline her because of course, every time she was pregnant, she went through all the discomforts of pregnancy then giving birth and recovering from birth, suffering postnatal depression. And with every one of those nine pregnancies, she had to take time out, and as she took more more time out, Albert, of course, got a stronger foothold. But you see, you can see both sides. You can see it from the man’s point of view that he felt completely overwhelmed and oppressed. He wanted space from her. And from her point of view, Albert was absolutely her entire world because she was the opposite of Albert. He’d never had a woman in his young life. She hadn’t really had a father figure in her young life till Melbourne. And so once she met Albert transferred that deep attachment to a father figure, advisor, wise counsellor, friend – all that yeah that she’s had with Melbourne, she transferred it to Albert. 

Holly: And they managed to create both with nine children but also in terms of myth, the idea of this kind of domestic bliss didn’t they?

Helen: Well, I wouldn’t call it domestic bliss, what they cleverly constructed, or rather pretty much Albert because he was very aware of the good PR of a monogamous, devoted family life and lots of pretty children, you know, and it was all part of his campaign to restore the British monarchy to respectability, because the extraordinary thing about Victoria and Albert was probably one of the first, the first royal couple to be totally monogamous. And it was absolutely an exception to the rule amongst the aristocracy in general. Worldwide kings and queens had lovers and mistresses and it was quite extraordinary that the aristocracy could not believe the fact that Albert did not have another establishment somewhere with a mistress, but they were entirely monogamous. So that was the image they projected of a respectable monogamous bourgeois church-going God-fearing family. And it was hugely successful because it was a very bourgeois image that the middle class is associated with that they can recognise that, whereas aristocracy before had always been up on a pedestal rarified in robes and gowns. And with Victoria and Albert they saw something much more approaching their own family life and the fact that they did things for their child. They got this holiday home at Balmoral and another one at Osborne and they took the kids on the beach and they played with them and Victoria wrote this very cozy journal about their life in the highlands. And it all made them so much more accessible as monarchs – well he wasn’t the monarch of course, as she wished he could be. 

Holly: Yes, because she is only able to confer the title of Prince Consort on to him, isn’t she? 

Helen: She wanted him to be king right from the start, but there was no way the government would agree to that anymore than they’d allow (I don’t know if Camilla might be queen, maybe they will allow it) but they certainly were adamant they did not want – well there was a lot of antipathy to the fact that he was a German, and people felt the Saxe-Coburgs were taking over Europe. They didn’t want a German having the status of King; they just got rid of 200 years of Hanoverians. So basically, there was no chance that he could be elevated to King alongside her. So Prince Consort was the next best thing. But you see, unlike other husbands to monarchs, like Philip, who are for all the difficulties he found in his role, he did conduct himself generally very well, in this kind of job of two paces behind. There’s never any question that Queen Elizabeth was a monarch and he was the consort. Albert found that difficult because he wanted power. And he gained power bit by bit, with Victoria becoming more and more sidelined by childbearing and stuff and that although they believed in constitutional monarchy and supported all that, the actual sovereign power of the throne was something they clung to. They wanted to hang on to that look after their own money and have their own independence, income and everything like that.

Holly: And understanding that Albert gained more and more by her being pregnant, do you also think that Victoria relied quite heavily on Albert when it came to the work?

Helen: Well, see, this is what I find sad about Victoria that more and more she relinquished responsibility of things to Albert. You see things in her diary which talks about, oh, I’m not up, she questions her ability to do the job, and that we women are too frail and we shouldn’t be queens and you know, it’s a man’s world, blah, blah, blah. Basically, I think she convinced herself that he was so much better than her so much more accomplished, so much more insightful than she could ever be as monarch that she underplayed her own abilities that she lost confidence in her own really innate skills as a monarch. She was a very good queen in the sense of she was a very skillful monarch in terms of dealing with her ministers and going through all the documents and papers and as she got older, she got better in fact, after Albert death, and she just completely lost confidence in her own gifts as a woman. And I find that sad. And of course, he allowed her to believe that she really was secondary to him. He became really quite controlling. And she grew to rely on him and to defer to him in decision making. I mean, she really wouldn’t sign any documents or make any decisions without discussing things with him first.

Holly: I think it’s quite interesting that when they actually got married, she said, I want to be married as a wife, not a queen, and she included that she would obey Albert. I think it probably set the tone for what was going to happen.

victoria albert wedding
The wedding of Victoria and Albert by George Hayter. Credit: History Today

Helen: Yeah except she didn’t always obey him. They had terrible rows. She shouts at him and stomped out and slammed doors and things, but she certainly didn’t obey him always. She was very, very highly strung and quite an individualist in her own way. But it was a nice gesture. I think it was a nice gesture at a time, giving Albert a little bit of confidence when he’d just arrived in Britain having left Coburg and everything behind his family, his friends, his life.

Holly: So do you think it was a marriage of equals?

Helen: No, first of all, she was queen. So that is a fundamental inequality. She was queen, he wasn’t King. Intellectually, he was way above her. And yet, I mean, within the marriage, most of the time there was equality. They argued about things. They shared things. They discuss things in that sense, but if you separate the elements of equality – status, intellect, finances. I mean he arrived totally her unequal from an impoverished German duchy. And everyone was satirizing in the press. So you know, he was this pauper German coming to marry the queen and take all our money. So financially, he had nothing either when he first arrived. He did have his good looks and he had his brain and he kind of rose up because of those things but as such, they couldn’t ever really be equals except maybe in the bedroom they were I don’t know.

Holly: Yes, well, they have quite a physical relationship.

Helen: Well we don’t really know what went on.

Holly: Is it a lot of redacted letters?

Helen: Well, no it’s the journals which were redacted and then destroyed by her daughter Beatrice we don’t know how much she said in our journals. I can’t imagine she went into great detail about her sex life. But I don’t know my instinct has always been that she again was the one demanding the sex more than Albert initiating it. That she discovered sex was lovely except for having babies which she hated. But obviously they had a successful sex life, they had those children and she enjoyed sex. And when the doctors told him she should maybe stop having it after the ninth baby, she was quite upset about the thought of not having a sex life anymore. But we do know we can only infer; we can infer from the very little bit of a suggestion there is because Albert never talked about anything personal like that at all, and his diaries don’t survive. Unfortunately, they disappeared. Whether he would have been frank in them. I don’t know. You see, if Albert had been the kind of man to have male friends and slink off to the club, he would have talked about his sex life over, you know, brandy and cigars, but he wasn’t like that. He didn’t really have any friends. It’s sad. He had intellectual associates, conferred with people, he wrote to committees he sat on, but he was a very, very lonely man, his closest friend really was his secretary George Anson, who tragically died and, the only other person who was very close to him would have been was Peale, the Prime Minister who he liked very much so the Queen was his sounding board for everything

Holly: That made the relationship even more intense.

Helen: Yeah, because everything was invested in her, or rather what that he chose to tell her. I don’t think he told her everything was going on in his head. I don’t think he told that to anyone. And what one lady at court said very poignantly that the only time she saw Albert really communing with his true self was when he was playing, playing the organ or playing the piano, that he lost himself in music. I don’t think he ever truly lost himself in Victoria.

Holly: And so her reaction once he died, we kind of get that very much one-sided, only her torrent of love again, we kind of see that more openly.

Helen: I mean, it was devastating for her because he had been all things to her. Absolutely father, friend, advisor, a minister, lover there wasn’t anything she didn’t do, that she did not get his advice about so to have that it was like the rug pulled from under her. And also, of course, you’re gonna realize being monarch’s actually a very lonely thing. And he was the only one to go back to that thing about was he her equal in one interesting way she commented on that after Albert died. She said, there’s nobody left to call me Du you know, the informal in German as opposed to Sie, it’s like tu in French. So Albert was one of the few people who could use that informal Du with her. So in that sense  they were on the same level, virtually no one could use it apart from him. And that was very telling because he kind of summed up her sense of desolation and isolation.

Holly: I really loved the story that you told about the portrait that she put in his coffin with him.

Helen: Oh, that’s very significant. That painting by Winterhalter of Victoria with her hair let loose down her shoulder and bare shoulders, of course, décolleté. It was a very telling image. It’s not of a monarch, it’s of a lover. It’s certainly got a sexual element to it. And I think for me, the fact that she had that put in the coffin with him signified all that she was gonna miss her private sexual life without the physical contact of Albert, and he loved that picture and it was a very private painting. She gave it to him as a birthday gift and it was never ever exhibited until Queen Elizabeth’s anniversary. I think it was the Silver Jubilee in 70 something, 77 was it? And anyway that was the first time it was exhibited because it was kept private all that time.

portrait of victoria credit: royal collection
Queen Victoria (1819-1901) Signed and dated 1843, FRANZ XAVER WINTERHALTER (1805-73), Oil on canvas | 64.8 x 53.3 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 406010

Holly: That’s quite incredible to have created that.

Helen: It was in their private room so it was never shown, never loaned, never not even published until quite late.

Holly: Yeah, that idea that that was the part that was going that personal and that touch and didn’t she have a plaster cast of his hand made?

Helen: Oh, she had plaster casts of his hand. That was a bit of a Victorian fetish because they have plaster casts of the children’s hands and feet Yeah, that was a kind of weirdly fashionable but she had a cast of Albert’s hand made that she took to bed with her along with his dressing gown, but there was also a death mask taken as well. But she didn’t like the death mask. It’s somewhere in the Royal collections never ever been shown or photographed, although I did manage to get the deathbed photograph wangled permission to have that in my book Magnificent Obsession. But yes, she had her mementos.

Holly: So your book is about how significant Albert’s death was, isn’t it?

Helen: Yeah, because it really was a turning point for the monarchy. The monarchy could have been quite different. I think if he’d survived the monarchy would have become much more powerful and several people within the court at the time warned that Albert was getting too powerful, and that sooner or later, there might have been a challenge to him. And of course, that was all overturned with his death. And in fact, what we got was this developing constitutional monarchy, with Victoria as the great figurehead in the late great days of Empire, you know, the great game and the colonies in Africa all around the world when Britain really did rule the waves, and she was at the head of those great glory days of Empire, and it took Britain into a different kind of monarchy which carried on and has endured to the reign of our present queen.

Holly: Do you think his early death is one of the reasons why they have such a legacy as this idealized couple?

Helen: Yeah, because he died so tragically at the age 42 everyone rushed retrospectively to paint him as a sort of plaster saint as the angelic Albert – Albert the good. He was referred to and of course, the Queen would never hear a word said against him. So she was the kind of Chief Architect of the posthumous reputation of Albert is this perfect being. And lots of judgments about him and their relationship were made respectively because the Queen controlled the posthumous reputation of Albert as far as she was concerned, Albert was a saint – everywhere must remember him. Every city in Britain must have a statue or a bust or a street or an institution named after Albert and she wanted him to be immortal in that way.

Holly: What was private family life like once Albert had died?

Helen: Incredibly difficult for the children. First of all, because she was very selfish in her grief and people don’t realize – they go: Oh, wasn’t it tragic Victoria grieving and weeping and wailing and all this, but she didn’t console her children who had lost their father. The grief was all me, me, me. Look at me, I’m suffering. Be sorry for me. You’ve got to take care of me. And she became very difficult for many, many, many years until another man came into her life and that of course was John Brown who took care of her, and who was the strong arm of the man who would protect her. That’s all she wanted. She wanted to be protected and guided and looked after. And so, the children had a very difficult time with their mother and became quite alienated from her. And of course, then along comes John Brown, and they stand in hate, because he was so controlling. He wouldn’t even let them in the room to see their mother sometimes. He guarded the door, and they resented that and she of course had a very difficult relationship with Bertie, the son and heir, because he was everything his father wasn’t. Bertie was a womanizer and he liked clubbing and drinking and eating and staying out late and doing risqué things, getting involved in scandals and divorces and gambling, horse racing, you name it, and it was a nightmare for Victoria because he was just out of control for most of the time. She could not control him and of course if Albert had lived, things might be very different.

Holly: Because that’s something about the legacy of Victoria and Albert, was that Victoria managed to marry off her children very well around Europe?

Helen: Well she again started planning their marriages, all these things it was like a knee jerk thing with the royals you have a child you start wondering who they were going to marry. And you start eyeing up the potential candidates. So the first daughter married the future crowned prince of Prussia. Tragically who was actually only emperor for a very short time because he died of throat cancer quite young. But they all married well. Alice married into the Hesse royals – another German ducal family. They all married reasonably well in one way or another. Alfred actually won a very prized match with the only daughter of the Tsar, Alexander II and that was a real top draw match. And then Victoria lived long enough to start interfering in marrying off her grandchildren.

Holly: She really felt him in her life for the rest of her life?

Helen: Well Victoria fetishcised Albert to such an extent that this cult of mourning for him was so protracted that it really did depress her family. She just wouldn’t let go of all of this constant trailing around, all of the rooms preserved as Albert had had them – everything in exactly the right position, it had it be dusted and put back. It became rather oppressive, can you imagine, for the family. Everywhere they went in all the royal residences, all of these endless morbid reminders of their dead father or dead Albert in general and it reached the point that people just wanted her to let go and move on. And though she never really did let go of it, she did slacken in the intensity of her grieving with the calming of the great jubilees you know the gold jubilee and the diamond jubilee and those last great days of empire. Because she did actually begin to come out of her shell a little bit – she enjoyed Gilbert & Sullivan and had theatrical performances at Windsor. She began to enjoy her grandchildren, even great grandchildren. She always enjoyed being involved in the matchmaking side of things. She went on holiday regularly to the south of France and to Italy. So she did come out of her shell a bit but basically, I think that the British people accepted that the mourning, the black – although now she was adding silver, and white to it – that that would never be left off. She would never go back into being in normal coloured clothes. She had become, through her longevity, this enormous and much respected figurehead. And the great thing about Victoria and it’s so similar of course with our Queen was that she represented stability, continuity and nationhood. For people she represented a wonderful sense of stability and when she died there was a terrible void with people thinking it’s not going to be the same. The world’s going to change.

john brown and victoria credit: national portrait gallery
John Brown; Queen Victoria by W. & D. Downey
albumen print, 1868, NPG P22(4)
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Alexandra; Queen Victoria; King Edward VII by John Jabez Edwin Mayall, carbon print, April 1863, NPG x36269
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Holly: Well I think that’s a really good place to end it so thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.

Helen: You’re very welcome.

Holly: And thank you for listening as well. I think the fact that it was quite normal for Victoria to have a plaster cast of Albert’s hand was perhaps my favourite part of this podcast – it’s a new one on me. I find it very interesting, I’m not sure I would ever do anything like that, it doesn’t really bear thinking about! Nor does the idea that she slept holding his hand for the rest of her life. I mean that’s quite the testament to how much she loved him. I think Helen is so well placed to discuss just how they kind of functioned as a couple which I think was so interesting when we all think we know the story of Victoria and Albert. And to be able to dissect their relationship, the power in their relationship and the way in which they communicated with each other was really very interesting and I thoroughly enjoyed speaking to Helen. Helen’s book Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death That Changed the Monarchy, published by Cornerstone, is now available on Amazon and at your favourite book shop. I would highly recommend reading it, it’s a very very interesting look into a death that really did transform the monarchy in so many ways. You can also catch Helen on the most recent Lucy Worsely documentary which is very good because obviously, well, it’s Lucy Worsley and I love everything that she does. But it is particularly interesting because it looks at how royals have used the medium of photography which they have used to communicate who they are, who the royal family is. It’s called Lucy Worsley’s Royal Photo Album. It was on BBC4 on Wednesday 13th so if you’re in the UK you should be able to get it on iPlayer this month and I would really recommend watching it. Helen talks about the family photos that were released when Albert was alive with Victoria and their family. And you can also follow the journey that we talk a little about in this podcast, following Victoria from being the wife, to the widow and then really she comes into her own as the head of the British empire and there are images that relate to these transitions throughout her life. In fact, you even learn about old techniques of photoshopping which I found absolutely fascinating. It’s just a really good documentary and you can see Helen talking about Victoria and Albert there as well. If you have enjoyed this podcast make sure that you subscribe so that you receive the next episode next Tuesday as soon as possible. And if you have really, really enjoyed this podcast why not tell a friend who shares your love of history about the podcast because I think we’re all looking for new things to do at the moment and I would be very grateful. Thank you again for listening, if Past Loves has become your current love be sure to follow me on Instagram @pastlovespodcast – until soon!

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