- - Friday, February 10, 2012

ALBERT: A LIFE
By Jules Stewart
I.B. Tauris/Palgrave Macmillan, $28, 276 pages, illustrated

Jules Stewart, a former Reuters journalist who has written several histories of Afghanistan, timed his short biography of Prince Albert (1819-1861) for release in December 2011 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the prince’s death. The book is a readable, enthusiastic appreciation based on secondary sources with an emphasis on Albert’s social and cultural contributions to Queen Victoria’s reign, particularly exemplified in the Great Exhibition of 1851. The author also credits Albert with “re-inventing the monarchy by establishing in his wife’s reign the image of guardian and benefactor of the people’s welfare.”

According to Mr. Stewart, Albert was physically frail from his youth and was “wasting away from another disease, possibly a cancer” when he succumbed to typhoid fever at age 43. Contributing causes, the author suggests, were his lingering sadness over the departure of his favorite child, Vicky, who had married the heir to the Prussian throne, and persistent worry over the inadequacies of his son Bertie, the heir to Victoria’s throne. The author does not, however, explore the fraught father-son relationship or blame Albert for the disastrous Prussian education he forced on his son.

Mr. Stewart credits Baron Stockmar, the German adviser to Leopold I, king of the Belgians and uncle of both Victoria and Albert (they were first cousins), with enormous influence: “In the decades that he served the British Crown, Stockmar moulded Albert to his own image, and through the Prince, and in his personal dealings with the Queen, his high moral values had a profound influence on Victoria’s character. Stockmar won over the great politicians of the day, Melbourne and Peel, to his views on social and political policy.” The royal children were brought up speaking both German and English.

Mr. Stewart chronicles the familiar story of how Albert wooed and won Victoria and, as the children rapidly arrived, persuaded her to share her official duties with him; to rid herself of her malignant “private secretary,” Baroness Lehzen; and eventually to rely on his judgment in virtually everything, familial and political. “Modernize or Perish,” says the author, could well have been Albert’s motto, “a warning of the fate awaiting a European monarchy that turns its back on the people.” The author even attributes the fact that Britain escaped the 1848 Continental revolutions to Albert because he “restored the British monarchy’s esteem after decades of discreditable Hanoverian rule.”

Mr. Stewart provides some interesting vignettes, including one of Victoria and Albert at home singing together and playing piano duets of Mozart and Beethoven symphonies. Prince Albert, the author says, was a talented organist and composer who worked to raise the public’s musical taste, inviting his friends Mendelssohn and Wagner to present their works at Buckingham and Windsor palaces. Victoria and Albert both sang some of Mendelssohn’s works, and Albert played one of his own chorales - he wrote more than 40 - for an appreciative Mendelssohn.

Mr. Stewart points out that in contrast to Victoria, Albert was well-educated and had wide-ranging interests, from art and architecture to economics. He designed an Italianate palace to replace Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and skillfully landscaped the estate, on which he encouraged the royal children to garden. “Each child was given a rectangular plot in which to grow fruit, vegetables and flowers. They would then sell their produce to their father. The Prince used this as a way to teach the basics of economics.”

Mr. Stewart acclaims the prince’s leadership in sponsoring the Great Exhibition of 1851, overcoming enormous opposition from the government and the press, as “a stroke of genius that assured the Prince’s prestige and took the British monarchy closer to the people than ever before in history.” Eventually, 6 million visitors passed through the Crystal Palace to marvel at the 100,000 exhibits of industry and the arts from all over the world.

Throughout his book, Mr. Stewart recounts the ups and downs of Albert’s dealings with political leaders, particularly his difficulties with Lord Palmerston over the years. “The Prince was a passionate believer in Europe and an ardent supporter, unsurprisingly, of German unity, along with the desirability of constitutional monarchy and other causes that clashed with Palmerston’s views, which were premised exclusively on what stood to benefit Britain.”

In 1854, the press accused Albert not only of meddling in foreign affairs but also of conspiring with foreign governments against British interests. The press charged that he favored neutral Austria and belligerent Russia while conniving to undermine France, Britain’s ally. The defamatory campaign eventually waned, the author writes, and Albert’s right to express his political opinions and give advice to the queen was upheld just as the Crimean War broke out and the press had much more serious matters to cover.

Just how important Albert’s advice was, Mr. Stewart points out, is well illustrated by his action in the diplomatic crisis of November 1861, when American officers boarded the British mail packet Trent on the high seas and seized two Confederate envoys bound for Europe to seek diplomatic recognition for the Confederacy from Britain and France. Rousing himself from his sickbed, Albert toned down a government memorandum that was to be sent to Washington, deleting inflammatory comments while making it clear that the U.S. Navy captain had acted too zealously, thereby enabling the Lincoln administration to release the two envoys and disavow the captain’s action without having to issue a formal apology. Albert was dead the next month.

• Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.

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