A.N. Wilson’s ‘definitive biography’ of Prince Albert, balanced, nuanced and challenging

Michael Hall commends the definitive biography of the man who did so much for Victorian Britain and transformed the image of the monarchy.

At the outset of his absorbingly readable and impressively succinct biography, A. N. Wilson makes large claims for Prince Albert – as an administrator, a well-informed amateur of art and science, a musician and designer, a father and founder of a dynasty. The idea that he ‘saved the monarchy’, as the book’s subtitle has it, is based on these undeniable qualities, whereby the crown in the mid 19th century gained a public-spirited image of bourgeois rectitude that it has, with only a few slips, managed to maintain to the present day.

There are two important caveats to this argument, both of which Mr Wilson acknowledges. The first is that the Prince did not work alone; the reform of the monarchy’s reputation depended equally, if not more, on his wife and a biography of Albert must, to some degree, also be one of Victoria. Here, Mr Wilson is helped by the fact that, in 2014, he published a substantial life of the Queen. The second caveat follows on from the first: admirable as the Prince was, he is seen at his worst in his relationship with his wife.

The great strength of this biography is that it so carefully balances generous appreciation of Albert’s public achievements with a nuanced assessment of his private failings. Although Victoria felt that ‘her angel’ outshone her in every way, to the modern reader, his virtues are eclipsed by the energy and warmth of her personality.

‘a civil servant in a coronet’

In comparison with the way she laid her heart bare in her letters and vivid, lively journal, Albert’s inner life is largely closed to us – he kept a diary, but it has been destroyed and the surviving snippets do not suggest that it was a revealing document.

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Mr Wilson has, therefore, little evidence with which to challenge the perception of Albert as an aloof, emotionally repressed workaholic with almost no friends outside his family circle, who substituted a wry sense of the absurd for a sense of humour. Yet, although the epithet he chooses for Albert, ‘a civil servant in a coronet’, has a deadly ring to it, his analysis of the Prince’s public achievements – reforming the University of Cambridge (he was chancellor), reorganising the royal household, providing wise advice to his wife and her mini-sters and, above all, the triumph of the Great Exhibition and its legacy—makes it clear why someone as difficult to impress as the Duke of Wellington so greatly admired and liked him (the Duke hoped that the Prince would turn his reforming attentions to the army).

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children. Painted by Franz Xavier Winterhalter (died 1873), 1846. Oil on canvas.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children. Painted by Franz Xavier Winterhalter (died 1873), 1846. Oil on canvas.

However, behind the image of marital harmony that Albert and Victoria so successfully projected, their domestic life was often angry and troubled. The main problem was that they functioned at completely different emotional temperatures. After one row, Albert referred to their relationship as ‘our ordinary state of cordiality’, but, as Mr Wilson writes, Victoria ‘did not want cordiality. She wanted ecstasy. She wanted an opera’. Yet Albert shied away from passion.

That had its advantages. There was never any likelihood that the Prince would take a mistress and his lack of interest in women leads Mr Wilson to float the idea that he was homosexual – if so, it seems unlikely that he ever recognised the fact. However, as is so clearly, and movingly, set out here, the fundamental reason for Albert’s appearance of emotional frigidity was the disaster of his parents’ marriage.

‘The reforms that did so much to strengthen the monarchy were, to an underrated degree, a reaction to his own dysfunctional family’

When Albert was only five, his father, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a notorious womaniser, threw his wife out on the grounds that she was suspected of having affairs. Albert never saw his mother again because she died of cancer only a few years later. This was not the only scandal that afflicted the young Prince’s life: in 1823, his father’s mistress, Pauline Panam, published muck-raking memoirs that were eagerly devoured all over Europe.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Albert grew up so emotionally guarded and apprehensive of scandal: the reforms that did so much to strengthen the monarchy were, to an underrated degree, a reaction to his own dysfunctional family.

He is a figure who deserves great admiration for rising above his background to create a life of such value to so many, even if – despite the thoughtful sympathy that Mr Wilson brings to his biography – the Prince never quite wins the reader’s love.

Prince Albert by A. N. Wilson, Atlantic Books, £25