PRINCE ALBERT: A Biography by Robert Rhodes James
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PRINCE ALBERT: A Biography

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Here was a man of remarkable capacities""--who was not, moreover, the solemn, dreary German bore his detractors alleged. Queen Victoria's beloved Albert (1819-1861) has found a vigorous yet judicious champion in British political historian and biographer Rhodes James (The British Revolution 1880-1939, etc.), who is also, strategically, Conservative M.P. for Cambridge. Thus, this is not only a reevaluation of Albert, from new documentary sources, and a sympathetic personal portrait (at variance with some of Victoria's noted biographers too); it is preeminent as a political biography. In Rhodes James' estimation: if Albert raised the monarchy above politics, as is often said, by identifying it with the people (making it a ""popular monarchy""), he accomplished that by being deeply and actively political. (Inherently, Rhodes James' kind of progressive conservative.) Without thematic underlining, certain motifs emerge: Albert's abiding attachment to the Germany of his youth, and his gaiety and charm (despite mother-desertion, a wayward father and brother); his fine classical education, his self-discipline, his intellectual curiosity and interest in the arts (all nurtured by the redoubtable Stockmar); his mix of emotionalism, seriousness, and moral rigor (from that mixed family heritage). Certainly, his complexity--put to severe test when, at 21, he became the husband of volatile, inexperienced 21-year-old Victoria, a suspect German prince in a strange land and an anomalous role. The story is then how they came to work together as a team--after Alfred ousted the malicious Lehzen (from the household, and political influence); how Alfred found roles for himself--in creating domestic sanctuaries at Osborne and Balmoral, as Chancellor of Cambridge (introducing history and science curriculums, rousing Oxford also ""from the lethargy of centuries""), in fostering art and technology, free trade and internationalism--climactically, at the 1851 Cyrstal Palace exhibition. And it's the story of how his popularity waxed and waned. Throughout, he was politically involved: from his single, ill-starred attendance at a Parliamentary debate, to hear Peel come out for Free Trade (not a chance appearance, Rhodes James stresses), to his stirring prescriptive address to the Society for Improving the Conditions of the Working Classes (""in total defiance. . . of the Queen's ministers""), to his near-death defusing of the Trent affair during the US Civil War. (If the book has a defect, it's that R-J doesn't really explain the reversal in Albert's hostile relations with Palmerston, critical to his popular ups-and-downs; the account tends to thin out toward the close.) And, meanwhile, he was husband and father: Rhodes James goes into particular detail about Prince Edward's unfortunate upbringing, faulting Victoria for caring too little more than Albert for caring too much. If R-J sometimes seems to protest excessively, his reproaches to previous biographers add zest to the narrative; the book is historically important, and consuming to read.

Pub Date: Nov. 5th, 1984
Publisher: Knopf