Queen Victoria's marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was unusual in one remarkable respect - she genuinely loved him. In an age when royal marriages still played an important role in forging links between nations finding your intended husband was intelligent, handsome, diligent and genuinely devoted to you was something of an unexpected bonus. No wonder then that after twenty years of blissful married life and the birth of several healthy children Queen Victoria was plunged into a sort of perpetual winter when her beloved Albert died just before Christmas in 1861. Except, of course, things were not quite that simple....
Helen Rappaport's Magnificent Obsession is one of the finest history books I have read in recent years. On one level it acts as a beautifully researched account of the events leading up to Albert's death and an elegant exploration of how his death shaped the monarchy, and the country, for the remainder of Queen Victoria's long reign; on another level it serves as a dramatic account of a very personal grand passion, a passion that plunged a still young woman into a spiral of despair when it came to an untimely end. History on a national scale and the emotions of one family are beautifully balanced and the narrative, as a result, works well on many different levels. Rappaport also has a gift for portraying characters - I had a new respect for Prince Albert having learnt of his unwavering devotion to Britain, his desire to shield his wife from some of the less appealing pressures of being a monarch, his interest in the arts and the sciences and his devotion as a father to his children. Other players in the drama - the sychophantic Dr Jenner for example, still bumbling and uttering soothing words to the Queen long after all hope for Albert's recovery had vanished and the loyal, down to earth, but genuinely concerned and well-meaning John Brown - all come across as individuals rather than as mere names on the periphery of somebody else's drama. The book also hits a good balance between Albert's sudden decline and death and the legacy he left behind. Victoria's protracted mourning caused a constitutional crisis with questions being asked as to whether the country any longer needed a monarchy, but her passion to preserve Albert's memory also brought about Albertopolis - the buildings and institutions such as the Royal Albert Hall, The Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum that many of us know and love today.
In addition to the bigger picture though, and for all of the excellent character sketches - dutiful, long suffering daughter Alice, bearing the brunt of her mother's grief; or affable Bertie - well-meaning but rather hopeless and a worry to his parents - what really put the book into the top flight for me was the surrounding detail: the descriptions of mourning wear, the details of the royal ceremonies; the manner in which the press approached the tragedy and the response to the Queen's protracted grief by the general public. The tragic events are put into a wider context which gives them an added depth and relevance.
It's probably apparent from the above that I absolutely loved this book. I have a fondness for anything Victorian but, even in a crowded field, this stands out as an excellent work: beautifully written; well-researched and beautifully referenced (no claims are made without being backed up by contemporary evidence) the book should keep the serious historians and the general readers equally happy. Definitely one of my books of the year.