Monday, June 1, 2020

The Life and Times of Prince Albert, by Patrick Allit (author, narrator)

Audible Originals & The Great Courses, February 2020

Prince Albert was the younger son of a fairly minor German prince, and he married the queen of one of the great powers of Europe. They were each among a very short list of eligible marriage partners for each other. That it was a love match was a bonus extra for them.

This isn't a biography of Victoria, or even of Victoria and Albert. This is specifically about Albert, his lie and times, and his unexpected and significant influence on British politics and culture.

Victoria and Albert were both twenty when they married, intelligent, and energetic. However, Albert had received a much better education. This was partly because young men were deemed to be more suited for education than young women, but also because Victoria's mother, the Duchess of Kent, and the Duchess's lover, Sir John Conroy, were trying to mold Victoria into someone they could easily control. They weren't successful, but that didn't change Victoria's lack of education.
This is a lively and fascinating account of how Albert mastered the arts of politics, and built the ability to influence both Victoria, and the major political and social leaders of the time, while avoiding a prominent political role that would have been greatly resented. Albert successfully influenced the modernization of the army and the navy, and Britain's defense policy. He pushed Cambridge University to put more emphasis on the sciences, not just on theology and the humanities. He  promoted the arts, creating new museums that made the arts  more accessible--while moving works of art into better housing that better protected and reserved those works of art. The Crystal Palace exhibition promoted the usefulness and excellence of British technological advances.

While being in no sense a democrat, he did favor a broader franchise (mainly for the wealthy merchant class), and placed great importance on improving housing and living conditions for the working class. He said and did things that would be unsettling or even shocking now--but if they were unsettling in his time, it was because of his liberalism in contrast to much of the British upper class.

In his relationship with Victoria, and with her ministers, he encouraged each in a direction of less reactivity and impulsivity, moderating policy while teaching Victoria to be more effective in pursuit of her own goals. The Queen didn't have the power of past kings and reigning queens, but she did have influence, and Albert taught her how to use it.

None of which is to say he was without fault, or never made mistakes, but when they married, the government expected him to stay out of the way and exercise no influence at all. He was a very minor prince, after all, and a German one at that. He had to earn the respect of successive prime ministers and members of their cabinets.

This is really interesting and enjoyable, and not very long. Recommended.

I believe I got this free in Audible's May COVID-19 giveaway of Audible Originals. I am reviewing it voluntarily.

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