From the time they were children, England’s Queen Victoria and Prince
Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha were targeted as a potential marriage match. Although born and raised in different countries, Victoria and Albert were first cousins who shared a strong sense of public duty.
Some courtiers believed a marriage alliance would strengthen ties between England and Germany and increase the political might of both countries. Significantly, Albert was a stand-out candidate for Victoria’s hand; those close to the young Queen appreciated that his hard-working, disciplined nature and devout Christian beliefs would benefit her reign and help secure the British monarchy.
But even their Cupid, Belgium’s King Leopold, could not have predicted the success of the 21-year marriage of Victoria and Albert, cut short when Albert died in 1861, aged 42.
The couple had nine children in 17 years and became a model mid-19th century family. Albert immersed himself in English political and cultural life and became Victoria’s key adviser.
December last year was the 150th anniversary of Albert’s death. This prompted the arrival of two new books – biographer Jules Stewart’s Albert: A Life and British historian Helen Rappaport’s Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death That Changed the Monarchy. Both examine the relationship between England’s longest-reigning monarch and her prince consort and conclude that this partnership redefined British royalty and guaranteed its future.
Stewart concludes that the prince’s “sense of duty, personal humbleness and respect for the institution of parliamentary government served to buttress the country’s political stability”. He looks beyond the romance and highlights Albert’s many contributions as a co-sovereign in all but name.
He says Albert’s greatest contribution was “the advent of a new concept of royalty, with unprecedented close ties to the common people, with a determination to raise the standards of education, the public awareness of science and the arts, a compassion for the poorest, in a way that no monarch in the past had ever imagined should be part of the sovereign’s role”.
Rappaport’s book focuses on the impact of Albert’s death on a queen who retired from public life for nearly a decade, and who wore black mourning clothes until she died in 1901.
Victoria’s grief was profound; so too her role in ensuring her husband’s contributions would never be forgotten. In the years following his death she oversaw hundreds of projects dedicated to his memory, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Royal Albert Hall.
Rappaport argues that the tragedy of Albert’s premature death actually enhanced the monarchy’s reputation among its people.
She concludes that “in a triumphant subversion of the traditional image of the monarch in splendid robes of state at the heart of great ceremonial set-pieces, by century’s end Queen Victoria dominated the national consciousness as its antithesis – in all her bourgeois ordinariness as revered widow and ‘Mother of the People’.”
ALBERT: A LIFE
by Jules Stewart
» $44.95 (Tauris)
by Helen Rappaport
» $55 (Hutchinson)
by Maria Duenas
» $32.95 (Picador)
A highlight beach read of summer 2012, Spaniard Maria Duenas’ first novel takes its readers to pre-civil war Madrid and the world of a seamstress’s salon. Young Sira Quiroga works alongside her mother at the dressmaker’s table. When a passionate love affair ends tragically in a Moroccan hotel, Sira is forced to return to sewing. Her new salon becomes the talk of Tangiers’ wealthy expat community – a community dominated by German Nazis, English businessmen and international spies. Loyalties are tested when war breaks out, and Sira finds she can no longer remain impartial. This is a big novel, but it romps along at a cracking pace and sits comfortably in the “easy read” category.
POOR MAN’S WEALTH
by Rod Usher
» $27.99 (Fourth Estate)
This quirky and tender novel by Spain-based writer and former Age journalist Rod Usher captures the lazy pace of village life in a no-name Spanish country under military rule. Like so many rural communities, the town of Higot is in decline. Tourism has bypassed its main street and many of the young people have moved away. Enough, says Higot’s mayor (known as el Gordo, the fat one) and his fellow councillors. At a secret meeting they devise a plan to save their town. Nothing like a cleverly executed hoax and a village of sleeping citizens to kick-start the tourism trade!
STEVE JOBS: THE EXCLUSIVE BIOGRAPHY
by Walter Isaacson
» $45 (Hachette)
In the days leading up to Christmas, bookshops around the country – ours included – ran out of copies of the new authorised biography of Apple chief Steve Jobs. Who would have thought that this not-inexpensive chunky hardback about a recently departed American business leader would have captured so assuredly the hearts of Australian gift-givers? But then we are talking about one of the world’s most gifted thinkers, a man who was loved and loathed (often by the same people) and who occasionally described himself as “an arsehole”. Jobs worked with Isaacson on this book, and as cancer ravaged his body, he became even more determined to tell the truth. This is an honest and riveting assessment of a remarkable life. The author has done Jobs proud.
MAHA: MIDDLE EASTERN HOME COOKING
by Shane Delia
» $49.95 (Lantern)
“There is a long history of cooking and eating in our family,” chef Shane Delia reveals in his introduction to Maha. His great-grandfather was a baker in Malta and Delia’s father kept the home-cooking tradition alive after he migrated to Melbourne in 1970. Young Shane became an apprentice chef at 16 and has worked in some of the city’s finest restaurants. In 2008 he opened Maha Bar and Grill. This book – one of the surprise culinary bestsellers at Christmas – celebrates the restaurant’s team, Delia’s family and the local Australian produce that inspires his cooking.