The first things that struck Princess Victoria favorably about her German cousin Albert on his visit to England in 1836 were his “beautiful nose” and his “very sweet mouth with fine teeth.” Victoria noticed such things. She was very fond of male beauty. Just before Albert’s visit, with his brother Ernst (“fine dark eyes and eyebrows, but the nose and mouth are not good”), to celebrate Victoria’s seventeenth birthday, she had dismissed two Dutch princes presented to her as potential suitors. “The [Netherlander] boys,” she wrote to her uncle, King Leopold of Belgium, “are very plain.” She thought their faces showed an unpleasing mixture of Dutch and “Kalmuck,” or Mongol, and “moreover they look heavy, dull and frightened and are not at all prepossessing. So much for the Oranges, dear Uncle.”
The stream of young men paraded before the princess, to have their physical charms appraised, brings to mind not so much a royal match as a well-appointed brothel, where pretty dances, fine clothes, and elegant small talk only serve to add some class to what is, after all, a sexual transaction. Albert was destined to be a high-class stud, a robust bedroom performer, guaranteed to produce plenty of blue-blooded offspring. That was his main duty; indeed, it was virtually his only duty. Parliament voted against his becoming King Consort or even getting a British peerage. And yet, by the end of his short life, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha had exerted a huge and lasting influence on British life. Most of the qualities we still regard as typically “Victorian,” the high-minded patronage of science, the museums, the charities, the sentimentality, the domestic monarchy, the Christmas tree, the industrious do-goodery, and even the prudery, were stamped with Albert’s mark.
Stanley Weintraub has written a dense, detailed, sympathetic account of Albert, who is not an easy subject for a biographer, since he was a worthy but not a glamorous figure. His achievements were extraordinary, yet he lacked color, or dash, or charisma, or whatever it is that quickens our imagination. Worthiness, even on a heroic scale, is not sexy. Albert is most interesting for what he represented, inspired, and sparked off in others. Albert, in a way, is history’s straight man—Victoria, of course, was a comedienne of the first order. One thing he inspired all his life was British or, more especially, English xenophobia. This is well recorded by Weintraub, who manages to write about the less pleasant aspects of the English without losing his sense of comedy. The other thing Albert inspired was Victoria’s ardor. It is astonishing to see how much a period associated with highmindedness and prudery was actually shaped by the Queen’s passion for the male sex. The prudery was surely more Albertine than Victorian.
Before marrying Victoria, Albert didn’t have much of a track record as a lover; in fact he had none. This was unusual for a young aristocrat. But girls seem to have put Albert …
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