It is not so much a truism as a cliché that the Victorian era has been the target of popular denigration ever since Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) demolished a few of its icons of moral excellence: Florence Nightingale and General Gordon of Khartoum, among others. Strachey was a sort of Christopher Hitchens of his time, ensuring that the very word “Victorian” would henceforth carry connotations of mustiness, and a certain prudish sanctimony. That, of course, ignores the obvious: Under the queen-empress (she was given the title “empress of India” in 1877 by the government of Benjamin Disraeli), Great Britain reached the apogee of its global power, became a firmly constitutional monarchy, and was an exemplar of many of the good things brought into the world by European civilization in the modern age.
The image of Victoria as a dowdy, strait-laced widow has come down to us from her wearing the black of mourning between Albert’s death in 1861 and her own death in 1901. As Jules Stewart makes clear in this finely written biography of Victoria’s husband, Victoria as a young woman (and then queen) was anything but dowdy in her tastes and personality. In fact, it may come as a surprise to some to learn that Victoria was passionately and physically in love with her husband almost from their first meeting, that the passion was mutual, and that much of the good in Queen Victoria’s reign sprang from Prince Albert’s perceptive, insightful mind, and his ability to cope with the sometimes petulant bouts of anger or melancholy of his wife. The grief that Victoria expressed after Albert’s death in 1861 at the age of 42 was genuine and unrelieved until her own death. In a sense, it was a tribute to her sense of loss not only of a beloved husband, but also of a wise counselor to the monarch.
By comparison with today’s preferred custom to marry late—or to not even bother to get married at all—Albert and Victoria’s marriage in 1840 took place when both were merely 20. They were first cousins, but Albert faced a challenge in his initial years as the queen’s consort from crusty British aristocratic anti-German prejudice. It did not help that the duchy of Saxe-Coburg, Albert’s princely place of origin in what is now Bavaria, was actually smaller than some English counties. Parliament at first reflected this prejudice in reducing the royal allowance it authorized for the prince. Albert, and even Victoria, were the target of a vicious press campaign in the mid-1850s that portrayed him as meddling in British politics and plotting damage to the country through conspiracies with foreign powers. Only after two authoritative members of the House of Lords publicly condemned the press campaign did it come to an end.
Albert’s real contribution to the success of Victoria’s reign, as Stewart makes clear, derived largely from his quiet, yet persistent pursuit of educational and philanthropic goals that he probably acquired from his exposure as a young man to the teachings of Lutheran pietism. England had formally abolished the slave trade in 1807 (and slavery itself in 1833), but Albert was the patron of a national campaign to abolish slavery everywhere. In the face of extensive opposition, he was elected chancellor of Cambridge in 1847, and soon set about attempting to modernize the university’s then-obsolete (and generally antiscience) curriculum. He even required, heaven forbid, the vice-chancellor to list all the subjects that the university planned to teach during the following academic year. It alarmed Albert, and baffled many observers of the British educational system, that Cambridge, at the time, lacked any professors of physics, economics, or
modern languages. His enthusiasm for science even led him to propose a knighthood for Charles Darwin, an idea only scotched by opposition from
bishops of the Church of England.
Albert’s most significant achievement in a lifetime of encouraging science and modernity probably lay in his energetic championship of the Great Exhibition of 1851, a brilliant effort to display the achievements of science and commerce from all over the world in a giant glass hall in Hyde Park. The exhibition in the Crystal Palace (as the building was immediately dubbed) was both a popular and a financial success, even though editorials in the Times of London had darkly thundered before the exhibition opened about the dangers of foreigners infecting the British either with malevolent physical plagues or the scourge of revolutionary politics.
Albert, to use a term that was certainly not in use in his day, was very much the compassionate conservative—a man who felt that the privileged classes of society should do far more than they were doing to improve the living and working conditions of the laboring masses. A sense that the working class had responded with uncynical enthusiasm to Albert’s championship of economic and social reform helped finally to overcome the earlier legacy of suspicion of the imported foreigner. When Albert died, despite his clearly expressed view that no “monuments” should be erected in his memory, city streets, squares, and even lakes, from Africa to Canada and Australia, were named after him.
Albert was a sensible and sensitive father to his and Victoria’s nine children, even maintaining good relations with Bertie, the future Edward VII, after it was widely gossiped that he had been having an affair with an Irish actress whom fellow army officers had introduced at night into his tent. In many ways, Albert’s basic decency and his idealism for making conditions better for everyone finally triumphed over the unhappiness that some Britons had felt over their monarch’s marriage to a minor German prince. Albert’s reforming instincts led to major overhaul of the British Army and a long tussle with the interventionist-minded prime minister Lord Palmerston over the wisdom of British meddling in Europe’s convoluted, and sometimes revolutionary, politics.
Ultimately, however, Albert’s greatest contribution to his adoptive country may have been, according to the author, “to make of Victoria an admirable and successful monarch.” This was by no means an inevitable achievement. Stewart notes that Victoria, as a young woman and monarch, was “an egotistical, hot-tempered and somewhat bewildered woman.” Albert’s steady hand, quiet philanthropy, and educational diligence at her side helped render her not only the longest-serving British monarch ever, but also, at the time of her diamond jubilee in 1897, the most beloved.
David Aikman is the author, most recently, of The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Never-Ending Conflict in the Middle East.