A. N. WILSON has long admired Prince Albert. The cover of his book Eminent Victorians, published in 1989, shows us miniatures of sundry 19th-century luminaries circling like satellites around a central and much larger depiction of Albert. Thirty years later, Wilson’s esteem of Albert is undiminished. “In British history,” he writes, “no other public figure of comparable ability, breadth or benign influence even touches him.”
Early chapters in this magnificent biography provide an expert account of how this younger son of the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (“the stud-farm of Europe”), compliant with the scheming of those who arranged such matters, married his cousin, the diminutive and intermittently furious Victoria. Subsequent chapters, although much else besides, are a portrait of a roller-coaster marriage.
Albert and Victoria, Wilson reminds us, were “two very different, very complicated and very fallible people”. Their marriage was a battlefield. Often Albert had to write to his wife to tell her to pull herself together. But they remained lovers to the end.
Wilson sees the Prince Consort as a man in pursuit of two great objectives. The first proved an impossible dream: that of a peaceful and prosperous Europe, a federation of benign constitutional monarchies. He imagined that he could promote this noble end by marrying off his nine children among the royal houses of Europe. The catastrophic consequences of this idea were the conflicts whose legacy is with us still.
Albert’s second goal, the cultural enrichment of the nation, was amply realised. Wilson invites us to look more closely at the Albert Memorial and its prolific statuary. Here are the scientists and artists, the poets and musicians, the engineers and architects whose importance the Prince understood, whose company he enjoyed, and whose creativity he encouraged. Having inspected the Albert Memorial, we can cross the road to the Royal Albert Hall. Then a short walk will take us to the “Albertopolis”, the complex of magnificent museums and galleries in Kensington whose very stones speak to his praise.
courtesy of royal collection trust/© HM the Queen Elizabeth 2019Roger Fenton’s photo of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, taken close to Victoria’s 35th birthday in 1854. From the book
Albert was prodigiously talented, exceptionally well-educated, and hugely energetic. This triple endowment — not, to be sure, endearing him to gormless courtiers — was deployed to the full in the creation of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Paxton’s “Crystal Palace”, the home of the Exhibition, overawed everyone. Wilson invites the reader to marvel with him, not so much at the 100,000 exhibits assembled beneath its glass roof — including the penknife with 80 blades — but at the tenacity of the one man who saw this staggeringly complicated project through to completion.
Wilson’s great gift as a biographer has always been to reveal the springs that make his subjects who they are. So we understand Albert better as we recognise how, in many respects, he remained burdened by his unhappy Coburg childhood, and how his relentless rectitude was rooted in his dread that any in his own household should ever be as dissolute as his own father and brother.
And what drove him to work so hard, though he was rarely altogether well? Again, it all goes back to early days. Albert internalised and maintained the regime imposed on him as a student — to be hard at it by five every morning. Perhaps, too, he knew deep down that the night was coming when no man can work.
I noticed one howler. Surely it was William Tyndale, not Martin Luther, who dreamed that his translation of the Bible would enable every ploughboy to read the scriptures for himself.
The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.
Prince Albert: The man who saved the monarchy
A. N. Wilson
Atlantic Books £25
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