Wilson has produced in this biography what has hitherto been an oxymoron, a highly entertaining book about Albert, and he is characteristically idiosyncratic in his views about the real nature of the relationship between the prince and Victoria. There was clearly mutual sexual passion at the start, and on her part it continued until his death. But the marriage was never straightforward. Victoria wanted her husband’s attention. Wilson quotes her complaining that Albert is “a terrible man of business”, by which she means that he was what we could call today a workaholic.
Prince Albert developed an addiction for work ‘from which there was no escape’. Victoria complained that he was ‘overpowered by everything’, and stayed up late, ‘talking to too many people’. Never very strong, he suffered from sleeplessness, indigestion, rheumatism, finally Crohn’s disease, stomach cancer or both. At the end of this brilliant biography, it is hard not to weep for the death of the prince who had become ‘a leading light among the nations’, especially two nations that he had tried to make lasting friends, Britain and Germany.
For all its virtues, it is disappointingly devoid of revelation, surprise or originality, and nobody who has read Robert Rhodes James or Stanley Weintraub on the same subject will come away from Wilson’s version, published to coincide with the bicentenary of Albert’s birth, with a substantially different view. Yet this is still an enthralling read. Having written on all things Victorian in five other books, Wilson has ploughed the 19th-century field thoroughly, but he writes so exuberantly and perceptively that there is no sense of cynical rehash. What keeps his portrait so animated is not only the extensive use of primary sources – chiefly the correspondence lodged in the Royal Archives – but also a novelist’s ability to make character vivid and narrative swift. He doesn’t just describe, he imagines.
Wilson’s book is not overlong, which is a relief when so many biographers bloat their work with windy details. Wilson’s approach is admiring, argumentative and astute. He is a brisk, irreverent revisionist who likes to find other people’s ticklish points. He has no truck with the anti-Victorian orthodoxy of the past century, as represented by the historian Sir Llewellyn Woodward, who assessed the Prince Consort as “a man of second-rate ability and superficial education to whom England owes a great deal”. Wilson, by contrast, presents Albert as a man of prodigious mind and culture. He agrees with Woodward, though, in seeing the earnest Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha as having saved the monarchy of his adopted country by hoodwinking public opinion into believing that the Victorian royal household was cosy, bourgeois and gemütlich (comfortable).
One reaches the end of this incisive and entertaining study with an overwhelming feeling of sadness. Prince Albert was an intensely lonely man – ‘a Prince without an Horatio’ – who was never really liked or accepted in Britain. By the end of his life, his estrangement from a wife whom duty had taught him to love but from whom he increasingly longed for distance was profound. For, ultimately, all Victoria’s gushing love and neediness, initially so flattering, became an enormous emotional burden. Her love could never compensate Albert for his intense sense of separation from his beloved Heimat and the longing for a return to his German roots.