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On Reading a Five-Volume Biography of Prince Albert

By (January 1, 2012) No Comment

Naturally, I found them at the Brattle Bookshop, Boston’s venerable used book haven. In the small lot next door to the shop itself, there are shelves and carts of bargain books – a set-up similar in concept to the carts outside New York’s famous Strand Bookstore, only much larger in scale and much less scornful in selection. It’s a routine occurrence to find shattered and moldy old electrician’s manuals out on the Strand carts, priced at one dollar even though most municipal land-fills would turn them away. The Brattle bargain-carts are infinitely more fruitful, abounding in the kind of variety only found in shops with very liberal intake policies. Bestsellers past and present mingle with classics, reference works, art catalogs, bound collections of National Geographic, and oddities of every description to tempt the imagination.

It was on the Brattle carts a while back that I found an ex-library set of the five-volume biography of Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert written by the Tory journalist and translator Theodore Martin from 1874 to 1880. There they were, a little row of squat hardcovers with green spines and gold lettering, the kind of old books that have thin sheets of tissue over their black-and-white illustrations.

It would be insouciant to say that the books and their subject had in common the state of being pretty oddities available on the cheap, but only a little so. Prince Francis Charles Augustus Albert Emmanuel of Saxe-Coburg Gotha was the second son of Duke Ernest of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, the fat little spendthrift rake who ruled one of the forty-something independent principalities that made up the crazy-quilt of early 19th century Germany. In due time Prince Albert’s older brother, also called Ernest, would inherit the duchy, which would leave Albert an idle hanger-on, a ‘serene’ but not a ‘royal’ highness with little prospect of anything beyond endless rounds of frigid hunting parties and pokey ballroom dances at which the men were all morosely drunk before sunset. Albert had a delicate nature and greater intellectual potential than anybody else in his family (he also looked a bit different from both his father and his brother, which gave rise to the occasional rumor that his dearly departed mama had taken a Jewish lover to her bed in a moment of weakness)(even though most of us have yielded to such temptations, there was in fact no truth to the rumor), and he had the gigantic advantage of shrewd, patient teachers. His family advisor Baron Christian Stockmar and his private tutor Christoph Florschutz fed his mind, honed his practicality, and did all that could be done to temper the maudlin streak to which all good-looking young men are prone.

And oh, was Prince Albert good-looking! The puffy paterfamilias in later photographs (not to mention the statue at the Frogmore Mausoleum) gives little hint of the dreamy Byronic reality of the early 1800s. Albert was only a few months older than Victoria, England’s young new queen, and his designing family shipped him and his brother across a choppy Channel to pay their respects in 1839 – and Victoria’s reaction was instantaneous: “It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert – who is beautiful.” (He’d developed considerably since the first time they met, three years previous, and Ernest, already a heavy drinker, had grown a bit shabbier) She elaborated in her journal: “such beautiful blue eyes, an exquisite nose, & such a pretty mouth – with delicate moustachios & slight but very slight whiskers: a beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders & fine waist.” In her youth, Victoria was always refreshingly frank about her admiration for male beauty; there was no question of it forming an important test for any prospective husband – and Albert passed.

His selection was lampooned in the penny press of the day. He was characterized as a stud bought for breeding purposes, a penniless international adventurer come for “England’s fat queen and England’s fatter purse.” There was dispute in gentleman’s clubs all across the country about what was due this German interloper, and that dispute echoed in the most powerful gentleman’s club of the day: Parliament debated how much money to allot to the Prince’s establishment – and what to call him. England was no adherent to the famed Salic law; Victoria was Queen in her own right, as no husband of hers could ever be King. She wanted Albert designated “King Consort,” but her xenophobic advisors balked. Albert was “His Serene Highness” of Saxe-Coburg, which prompted Victoria to disdain his elevation to any necessarily lesser English princedom, and the whole matter bristled until as late as 1857, when Albert was formally ranked as “Prince Consort.”

What he encountered once he removed to England, married the Queen, and took up residence at Windsor Castle, appalled his orderly German mind on every level. Personally, he was expected to service the Queen’s bedroom, walk behind her (in public and private), and occasionally take her little dog out to pee on the lawn. Politically, he stood aghast at the openly partisan favorings of his Whiggish wife. And professionally, he found he had no existence at all. The England of 1840, the year of Albert’s marriage to Victoria, was in many ways far closer to 1040 than it was to 1940; the Industrial Revolution was only fitfully starting, poverty and class stratification were rampant, and the dead momentum of barbarism was everywhere (only a month before the wedding, three men in Wales had been sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered – after public outcry, their sentences were commuted, but still).

Confronted with all this – the personal, the political, the professional – Prince Albert lowered his broad forehead, fixed what Charles Francis Adams referred to as his “oddly unblinking” eyes on the array of problems before him, and immediately set about trying to solve them all. We can momentarily set aside our estimate of how wise his solutions were, we can set aside the hindsight that comes naturally, and we can at the very least admire the man for that simple fact: instead of accepting or sulking or drinking or complaining, he immediately set about trying to fix everything around him.

“I have had no panegyric to write,” Theodore Martin insists in the Introduction to his first volume, presented to the Queen in 1874, a little over a decade after the Prince Consort’s death. Writers often make their most outrageous claims in their Introductions (“I couldn’t have written this book without the loving support of my wife,” and similar balderdash), as if daring the reader to keep going, but even so: surely no writer in the history of the world has opened his proceedings with such a big piece of nonsense as protesting to Queen Victoria that he has written no panegyric to the memory of the dead husband she copiously venerates, whose life story she specifically commissioned that writer to produce for her. Even in 1874, Theodore Martin might have had a sneaking suspicion that he’d never become Sir Theodore Martin of Bryntysilio if he’d written about a Prince Albert who was an effete, priggish busybody ministers had to endure because he was the husband of their boss. The Queen opened all her vast archives to Martin’s use – huge, over-bursting boxes of memoranda, notes, minutes, and endless letters, a trove no writer had ever seen before (a previous attempt, General Charles Grey’s The Early Years of the Prince Consort, had utilized only a fraction of the horde), and Martin swore that empty praise would have disappointed everybody: “This would have been distasteful to Your Majesty, as it would be unworthy of the Prince,” he wrote. “My aim has been to let his words and his deeds speak to others as they have spoken to myself. In doing this I have had to speak much and often of Your Majesty; with whom his life was so inseparably interwoven that, without the reflected light thus cast upon the Prince, the picture would lose many of its tenderest and most penetrating touches.”

All this and the Queen too – no, The Life of the Prince Consort is most certainly a panegyric, in that no actual fault or flaw is ever discovered in its subject. But the strangest realization that comes from reading these pages is just how good a good panegyric can be. Even when the Victorians were laying it on with a trowel, they could still write rings around the inhabitants of virtually every other era.

Martin originally intended to produce only a concluding volume to General Grey’s effort. The more he dug through that vast archive, however, the more he felt the need to write his own account of the Prince’s childhood in Saxe-Coburg, his early tutoring, his love for his mother (who left his life when he was only four) and his spendthrift father, his early travels and friendships. The two-volume work he first envisioned soon expanded to three, then four, then five – partly because when you’re writing for the Queen’s favor, it behooves you to keep writing, but also for a reason that becomes increasingly evident as you read these volumes: Martin was clearly enjoying himself. True, an account as detailed as his will inevitably fall into thickets of minutiae forbidding to any modern reader:

It had long been the desire of the Queen to visit King Louis Philippe, to make the personal acquaintance of his admirable Queen, and to see them and their family in their own home. The most cordial relations had for many years subsisted between their respective Houses,and it was conceived that a friendly visit, made without any political object, might have a good effect in removing the lingering asperity which had been occasioned in France by the action of the English Government on the Eastern Question.

But on the whole, it’s amazing how seldom this happens in Martin’s enormous work. He’s aided by the times: the Prince lived in an age that was accelerating daily on many fronts, and the Prince was deeply, vitally involved in almost everything. He inquired into the living conditions of the poorest people in what he insistently thought of as his realm; he fought for the abolition of duelling and slavery; he had pioneering ideas on architecture, agriculture, animal husbandry, astronomy, and the arts – and those were just the A’s. Cecil Rhodes James, the Prince’s best modern biographer (who, in his 1983 book, doffs his cap early and often to Martin’s pioneering work), calls his subject the Thomas Jefferson of England, a titan among men:

No assessment of this remarkable individual, perhaps the most astute and ambitious politician of his age, can ignore the simple but vital facts that he was a highly intelligent and acutely sensitive man whose fate was that he had to deal with men of power whose knowledge, experience, and intelligence were often inferior to his, and who were, moreover, aliens.

He was initially disliked by those aliens, this Prince Consort who had no small talk, who preferred The Woman in White to The Mill on the Floss, and who quickly developed a detailed opinion on just about everything the governments of his time – assembled in his wife’s name – were up to. He learned not to back down when confronting those governments, and another thing you realize when reading the day-by-day details of Martin’s volumes is just how often he had such confrontations. It makes sense: the Queen soon came to rely on Albert’s insight and judgement in all the state matters she’d previously handled alone (she told him she was his kleines Frauchen, his own little wife), and the Queen herself was prone to extended bouts of both melancholy and pregnancy. Some of her biographers make much of the fact that after Albert’s death in 1861 she almost completely retired from her public life, but this overlooks the fact that she was retired for a good deal of that life before his death too. And when she was in confinement or in a mood, he was front and center, talking with councilors of state, inspecting schools and shipyards, and drafting long notes ministers learned to consider as having come from Victoria herself.

Martin’s books are full of those notes and letters and memoranda, and it’s a lucky thing, too; after Victoria’s death, her youngest daughter Princess Beatrice conducted a veritable bonfire of the vanities on her dear mama’s diaries, letters, and personal files – including an enormous amount of Albertiana she deemed of no historical importance. Since everything is of historical importance, this makes Princess Beatrice quite wicked – and it should make every student of history grateful that Martin kept going to five over-stuffed volumes quoting material Albert’s daughter might not have let us see.

And what an Albert stands revealed by those quotes: in his letters and personal journals, in his extracts and minutes, we unfailingly see a mind at work, a vigorous, inquiring mind quite different in kind from the sometimes shallow, flighty mind we see in Victoria’s own journals. The greatest advantage of Martin’s broad scope is that it forces us to live with his subject, to watch him grow through the brief-seeming twenty years he stood behind England’s throne. Yes, there’s minutiae here, but there are also uprisings in India and Ireland, great political upheavals at home, and the Crimean War from 1853 to 1855. All of it concerned the Prince. “Prince Albert’s conviction,” writes Queen Victoria’s biographer Cecil Woodham-Smith in 1972, “ultimately shared by the Queen, that the Crown should be non-party is the fact to which the British Royal Family largely owes the present stability of its position in Europe and its place in the affections and loyalty of its subjects of differing political opinions.” Woodham-Smith calls this conviction Albert’s great legacy to the British monarchy, and although this is certainly true, readers of Martin’s books will quickly see that ‘non-party’ certainly doesn’t mean non-interested. When Germany and Denmark (egged on by Prussia) enter a dispute about the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein in 1855, the Prince writes with a passion and a knowledge that Martin wouldn’t have had to work hard to eulogize:

Were I at the head of the Prussian Government I would go to work with all the energy I could command; I would do so, however, from pure patriotism, prompted by sincere enthusiasm for popular rights, for a Constitutional system, freedom, and German unity, and not actuated by hypocritical feelings, like those of the Prussian Government, which makes an immoral “convenience” of the Holstein question, lays stress in Denmark upon the maintenance of the rights of the States to control their own Budget, and at home raise money for the augmentation of the army without the knowledge of the Chambers, and in the face of all its promises to them, and which in its heart will not listen to a word on the subject of popular rights. Standing in such a position as this, Prussia ought to hold her peace, and nothing but mischief can happen to her from dealing with it, just as happened in 1848, 1849, and 1850.

“This German prince,” wrote Disraeli, “has governed England for twenty-one years with a wisdom and energy such as none of our kings has ever shown” — and certainly he was right as far as the House of Hanover was concerned. Hard to imagine a monarch after the ill-fated James II who could have dashed off a cri de coeur like this, typical of many the Prince wrote:

Nowhere does the Constitution demand an indifference on the part of the sovereign to the march of political events, and nowhere would such an indifference be more condemned and justly despised than in England. … Why are Princes alone to be denied the credit of having political opinions based upon an anxiety for the national interests and honour of their country and the welfare of mankind? Are they not more independently placed than any other politician of the State? Are their interests not most intimately bound up with those of their country? Is the sovereign not the natural guardian of the honour of his country, is he not necessarily a politician?

That concept of modern monarchy – a curious mixture of passion and restraint – was Albert’s creation, an odd hybrid of bloodless Anglicanism and blameless landed aristocracy, model rulers as a model family. Of all the concepts of monarchy going in the 1840’s, it was the most problematic and the mildest … and it’s the only one still with us today. It guides Albert’s great-great-great granddaughter the Queen as surely as if he were still walking briskly between Windsor and Whitehall, sheaf of memos in hand.

He had plenty of short-term impacts as well, and in Martin’s volumes we get them all. The slow, ineluctable way Victoria came to depend on him is mirrored by her other advisors – they start off disliking and disregarding him, and then one by one they come around. Even Lord Palmerston, once an inveterate enemy who’d orchestrated several attacks on the Prince in the press, eventually admired the man’s engagement and staggering work ethic. Martin is conducting no panegyric to show us that work ethic in all its inexhaustible glory, even if along the way he makes many a Victorian aside that will leave his modern readers (every man-jack of whom is monolingual and what the average Victorian would consider uneducated) scratching their heads, as when he comments on the passionate speech Lord Landsdowne gave the House of Lords about the great loss of Russian life in Crimea:

‘The loss of a single life in a popular tumult excites individual tenderness and pity. No tears are shed for nations.’ So wrote Sir Philip Francis in a letter to Burke. It is a pitiful truth. And yet a thrill of horror went through the House at this startling announcement, and it awoke the profoundest feeling of sympathy throughout the kingdom for the brave men so ruthlessly sacrificed to one man’s ambition. ‘Heu, cadit in quemquam tantum scelus?’ was the thought which rose in many a mind.

It was not, in the end, inexhaustible – of course it could not be. Victoria’s most eloquent biographer, the great 20th-century man of letters Giles St. Aubyn, wrote in 1991 about the changes everybody but her could see:

The Queen still regarded him as the incomparably handsome youth with whom she had fallen in love, but less partial observers remarked on his shallow complexion, his stooping gait, his portly figure, and his receding hair: intimations of mortality which he himself put down to worry and overwork.

That overwork continued right up to the end, as was Albert’s ethic. In her wonderfully perceptive 1964 biography of Victoria, Elizabeth Longford charts how patiently he tried to teach that ethic to the Queen:

In Prince Albert’s day duty was duty, whatever the weather: she had launched the Marlborough at Spithead in a gale, for ‘rain or no rain, it must take place’. Above all, he had been slowly teaching her to ‘take things as God sent them.’ Before the lesson was fully learned the teacher himself was sent for.

Even at the end, the Prince was still making his presence felt, still being useful in that unassuming way of his. When in 1861 the USS San Jacinto (commanded by the mad Captain Wilkes) stopped the RMS Trent and removed two so-called Confederate ‘diplomats’ (for internment at Boston’s Fort Warren), the British Parliament – very much encouraged by their outraged Queen – rose to a furor that could very easily have meant war with the embattled Union. Albert saw the written resolutions of his wife’s ministers and – so sick at this point he could scarcely hold his pen steady – he re-wrote them, softening the tone and obfuscating the language just enough to give the embarrassed American government room to apologize without abasement. It was calmly, masterfully done, as Rhodes James – himself a Member of Parliament – appreciates just as fully as Martin:

It was an extraordinary example of the extent to which the reality of his influence and power had expanded since the Crimean War, to the point when he could now overturn the policy of Ministers, the attitude of the Queen, and the surge of Press opinion. It was to be his last, and one of his greatest, services to his adopted country.

In James’ account – and Martin’s, and all others – the death scene swiftly follows. The precise cause is sometimes debated – typhus, pneumonia, perhaps cancer (I believe Oliver Stone suggests an unseen assassin firing a silenced bullet composed of arsenic) – but just as with all his kingly descendants (Edward VII, George V, George VI, and even poor Prince Albert Victor), he didn’t dawdle: he was sick one week and dead the next. The effect on his little wife was psychologically seismic, as Longford so compassionately sees:

When the Prince Consort died, a despairing cry broke from the Queen that a whole reign was finished an a new one begun. In a sense she was right. Hitherto the routine business of the Crown had been shared by a man; a conscientious, analytical man whose religion was work and who held that every human being, including his wife, was capable of unlimited improvement if only they tried hard enough. A man of stiff reserve, lacking in flair and deficient in humour, though equipped with self-critical irony and Germanic playfulness; an idealist who believed in all the great mid-nineteenth century syntheses: science and religion, art and industry, capital and labour, self-help and social service.

The death-bed scene was hardly something Martin was going to avoid: such scenes drew Victorians like carrion draws vultures. The knowledge that the famed Widow at Windsor would be reading with an extra-critical eye keyed Martin to his most lachrymose pitch:

In the solemn hush of that mournful chamber there was such grief as has rarely hallowed any deathbed. A great light, which had blessed the world, and which the mourners had but yesterday hoped might long bless it, was waning fast away. A husband, a father, a friend, a master, endeared by every quality by which a man in such relations can win the love of his fellow-man, was passing into the Silent Land, and his loving glance, his wise counsels, his firm manly thought should be known among them no more. The Castle clock chimed the third quarter after ten. Calm and peaceful grew the beloved form; the features settled into the beauty of a perfectly serene repose; two or three long, but gentle, breaths were drawn; and that great soul had fled, to seek a nobler scope for its aspirations in the world within the veil, for which it had often yearned, where there is rest for the weary, and where ‘the spirits of the just are made perfect.’

By this point, on page 366 of Volume V, readers will be feeling a bit weary themselves. I certainly was, and I’m no stranger to bloated biographies. Wading through Martin’s nearly endless successions of ‘affairs’ and ‘incidents’ highlights the sad realization of just how quickly the noise and light of a life – even as busy and prominent a life as Albert’s – can fade to a confusion of names and dates, preparatory to fading entirely. What biographer of Albert will ever go into this kind of detail again? Jules Stewart’s new life of Albert manages to do the thing in 300 pages, less than one volume of Martin (Philip Eade takes 360 on the current Prince Consort). The Life of the Prince Consort was written for the readers of a different era, and that era gave it full – if somewhat intimidated – acclaim. The London Spectator‘s hack wrote: “Sir Theodore Martin has completed his work, and completed it in a manner which has fairly entitled him to the honor conferred upon him by the Queen on its conclusion. It is well done from beginning to end.” Reaching a bit (but perhaps being more honest), the man at The Atheneum wrote:

In foreign affairs nothing was foreign to him. In domestic concerns, whether of the nation at large or of his own household, he was always and altogether at home. It is not strange, therefore, that while yet in the prime of life he should have worked himself to death. Most of Mr. Theodore Martin’s readers will probably regret far more than he himself can do that his work is at last completed.

The Boston Post‘s omnivorous book-critic praised Martin for his wherewithal and said of his subject, a trifle derivatively, “He was a man! Take him for all in all, we shall not see his like again.” In fact the House of Windsor would see his like again – thanks to him, all the monarchs of his descent would try to approximate his balancing act of non-partisan patriotism, with varying degrees of success. And thanks to Theodore Martin (and the Brattle), I now feel like I’ve seen him too, this curiously shy, over-achieving German prince who managed to find a duty big enough to suit him – and the love of a little woman he more than anybody helped turn into a legend. By the end of his huge labor, Martin knew something of the true significance of his subject (when the Queen visited his house, the first thing he showed her was his writing desk) – he knew that the Victorian era had a co-author. He might even have suspected that this co-author would forever lack the billing he deserves, even with a five-volume biography to his credit. Even in our own era, this stubbornly remains true. Your average man on the Clapham omnibus today would need to consult Wikipedia on his iPhone to tell you with certainty the name of Queen Victoria’s husband. No doubt Albert himself would have taken that as God sent it – but I’m glad Theodore Martin never lived to see it.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.