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Dec 6/19

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Parasite (Movie); The Marriage of Figaro (Opera); Girl (Novel); Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy (Biography)

Parasite (Movie) written by Bong Joon Ho and Jin Won Han; directed by Bong Joon Ho; starring Kang-ho Song, Sun-Kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo, Woo-sik Choi, So-dam Park, Jeong-eun Lee, Hye-jin Jang.

A father and mother live with their teenage son and daughter in a cramped semi-basement apartment in a slummy urban setting somewhere in Korea (presumably Seoul). They’re not exactly destitute but their financial situation is precarious, to put it mildly. A change of fortune comes through the son’s friend who is giving English lessons to the daughter of some rich people. The tutor is going on holiday, so he persuades the other guy to take on the tutoring. With some faking of his credentials, the other guy is hired. Soon he manages to get his sister taken on as "art therapist" – some deceit here too – for the rich people’s nine-year-old son. Next thing you know, the dad of the poor family is hired as chauffeur for the rich people and the mom is hired as their housekeeper. The rich people, living in a fabulous house built by a famous architect, don’t know that these employees are all one family.

There’s a canny practicality to the scheming of these members of the poor family. You have to admire their smarts. And yet I couldn’t like them. All well and good to employ a little subterfuge to get the jobs as tutor and art therapist, but getting the dad and mom hired as driver and housekeeper required some major injustice to the people who were holding those jobs. So what was there to like in this situation? Well, it was interesting to see what life would be like in one of those glass-and-concrete villas like the ones that are sprouting all over North America: wandering about in vast, empty spaces like a museum in the after hours. Oh, and if you wanted to pick up a bit of Korean, the movie would help you to get familiar with swearwords pretty quickly if you could match the subtitles with the sounds of the dialogue.

After a while, the movie takes a turn that gives it quite a different dimension. Rather than give away the major plot point, let’s just say that there are things about this house that the new employees – even the owners – don’t know.What evolves is something like a bedroom farce: people skulking around and trying to avoid detection. The resulting chaos involves smart phone videos, torrential rain, floods, little dogs, a severe allergy to peach fuzz, Morse Code, feathered Indian headdresses and a tee-pee. Some mockery of the Supreme Leader of North Korea is squeezed in. The antics are heightened by the blaring effect of some highly stimulating music (thanks to Jaeil Jung), some of it in a baroque mode that would seem incongruous in theory but it makes a nice counterpoint to the shenanigans on screen. (I was bothered by an inconsistent quality of the lighting, a sort of pulsation from darker to lighter in some scenes, but maybe that was a defect of the theatre’s projector.)

In the course of all the slapstick, a few ideas emerge. Somebody mentions that the employers are nice even though they’re rich. Somebody else corrects that: the employers are nice because they’re rich. The point is made that money is like an iron: it smooths out all the wrinkles. Later the dad of the poor family says that the best plan is no plan; that means that nothing can go wrong. Fair enough. But towards the end of the movie, his son comes up with a significant plan. Is that meant as a rebuttal to the dad’s theory?

But don’t bother trying to find answers to any such questions. In the end, the movie makes no sense. It comes to a climax so horrible that I had to look away from the screen for much of it. I have no idea what the director/writer Bong Joon Ho is trying to say. It’s not so much a case of my refusing to go where he wants to take me; it’s a question of not knowing where he wants to take me. Can a movie turn from comedy to horror? Yes, of course, if that’s what the director wants. But doesn’t he have any thought for the expectations of his audience? Why set us up for one thing and give us the opposite?

One thing I can say for sure, this movie forced me to think about my expectations of movies in general. Somehow, I expect a movie, no matter how edgy, to fit into a certain mode, to follow a certain convention about conveying a message or a moral, giving us some insight into human life. This movie’s refusal to do so makes it a kind of movie that I’ve never seen. I suppose that’s an accomplishment of some sort.

 

The Marriage of Figaro (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte; conducted by Sandra Horst; directed by Michael Albano; production design by Fred Perruzza; constume design by Lisa Magill; starring Nicholas Higgs, Saige Carlson, Maeve Palmer, Korin Thomas-Smith; Lindsay Connolly, Parker Clements, Renee Fajardo, Elias Theocharidis, Arieh Sacke, Mlissa Danis, Danlie Acebuque, Olivia LaPointe, Khadija Mbowe. (Nov 21st); and Adam Kuiack, Sacha Smith, Midori Marsh, Alex Halliday, Alexandra Fee, Parker Clements, Juliana Krajčovič, River Guard, David Walsh, Mlissa Danis, Wesley Hui, Olivia LaPointe, Khadija Mbowe (Nov 24th); with U of T Undergraduate Artists and Orchestra; U of T Opera at the Faculty of Music; Nov 21st and 24th, 2019

This, being my favourite opera, is probably the one that I’ve seen most often. It’s surprising, then, that there’s still so much of it that I don’t understand – even after seeing two performances of this production in quick succession. Study of the libretto makes me realize that part of the reason for my bafflement is that surtitles and synopses can’t give enough detail and nuance; you always miss a bit of the rationale for what’s happening, particularly in an opera like this where there’s so much skulduggery: notes and messages passing back and forth, documents of one kind or another, disguises and impersonations, missing pins and all that. Still, there’s a lot of glorious music and theatre to enjoy in such a beautiful production.

The casts of the two performances were completely different except for a few smaller roles which were sung by the same people on both occasions. One of the purposes of attending both shows was, of course, to see which singers performed best in certain roles. Given that this is a student production, however, I’ll try to avoid the kind of comparisons that show any of the young artists at a disadvantage.

If I had to award a "best singer" designation, it would go to Midori Marsh, in the role of Susanna. Her voice was perfect for the role: high, bright and sweet, with just a slight vibrato to add excitement. Korin Thomas-Smith was, personality-wise, one of the best Figaros I’ve seen. He had a relaxed, happy go-lucky-manner that oozed considerable charm – except, of course, when his marital rights were threatened by the Count. Alex Halliday was a more traditional Figaro in a somewhat buttoned-up way, but he perhaps had the stronger voice. Nicholas Higgs doesn’t have the voice for the Count; it’s too light and a bit on the high side. But when you could hear him, he was singing beautifully. I admired him for carrying on with aplomb and dignity in spite of the casting issue. Adam Kulack’s voice was closer to what’s required for the Count although it still lacked some of the depth of a really mature baritone. Of the two Countesses, Sacha Smith put more flair into her acting, although she did get a bit hammy in the scene where the Count was raising a ruckus about the locked closet door. I preferred Juliana Krajčovič in the role of Marcellina, the former governess, simply because she did manage to look a bit matronly. Parker Clemens, who sang Bartolo in both performances, doesn’t yet have the fullness of voice that’s required for the role but it sounds like he may get there. He, like some of the other male performers, had difficulty making some of the broad, theatrical gestures look natural.

The musical highlight for me was the letter-writing duet between Susanna and the Countess; it put me in a trance. In some arias, singers added a little bit of ornamentation or filigree – a few extra notes thrown in – when returning to the main melody. I don’t like it when singers take the melody too far off track but it was done here with finesse and restraint that added a little thrill to the hearing. The choral singing was gorgeous, although I could have wished that the chorus sang more softly now and then so that I could appreciate the harmonies better. The orchestra, under Sandra Horst, delivered Mozart’s music with a full, rich sound. The only thing lacking, perhaps, was a bit more vigour and snap in the sections that required a crisp attack.

The staging of the show, in a traditional set, was conventional for the most part but one touch was stunning: at the end of the first act, when Figaro was singing about Cherubino’s being sent off to join the army, the chorus members entered and began transforming the room into the Countess’ boudoir. Their perfectly executed and choreographed movements complemented the peppy, military bounce of Figaro’s song. I also loved the way each subsequent act ended in a frozen tableau.

 

Girl (Novel) by Edna O’Brien, 2019

Oh dear, the trouble you can find yourself in if you don’t read the blurbs on a book jacket!

You pick up the latest Edna O’Brien with the title "Girl" and you think you’re in for one of those sensitive accounts of an Irish woman’s growing up, or perhaps her looking back, in later years, on some of her past loves.

Instead, you find yourself embroiled in the nightmare of a young African woman who is kidnapped, terrorized and abused by a militant Islamist group.

This is Edna O’Brien?

The question of appropriation of voice comes to the fore immediately. What right has a white woman – one from a relatively comfortable life and a prestigious position in the literary world – to tell the story of this person? Well, nothing other than two qualifications: 1) the writer is an intelligent, sensitive human being with lots of compassion; 2) she’s an excellent writer. Maybe we should add a third qualification: from the author’s notes at the back of the book, it’s evident that Ms. O’Brien’s extensive research for this book included lots of travel and interviewing of many people who were involved in this kind of horrific story in real life.

Not that the book comes with a research-heavy feel. Ms. O’Brien has chosen to present the story in the first-person narrative of a young woman experiencing all these horrors. We get the full impact of her impressions as they come to her. This means that, what we gain in immediacy, we lose in terms of narrative overview. At times, it’s not clear where we are or what’s happening. We’re experiencing the bewildering events as they affect the narrator. (Sometimes this involves erratic mixes of past and present tenses.) Like any teenager without a lot of knowledge of world events and societal trends, she herself doesn’t always know quite what’s going on. Abrupt shifts in location and setting can take some getting used to. The narrator never gives a coherent accounting of her background, but we gradually intuit that she was raised Christian, in an English-speaking community. There are mentions of reading Charles Dickens and praying to well-known Christian saints. Occasional lapses into surrealism can be confusing to a reader until you realize that the narrator’s mind is raving. Still, this personal, private and somewhat inchoate response makes the story far more compelling than a lot of third-person explaining from a more knowledgeable point of view.

This is one of those books that’s difficult to say much about without revealing more of the story than we like to do here at Dilettante’s Diary. That’s because the book is all story – one awful thing after another – without a lot of reflection or analysis. (Take this as a spoiler alert if you so choose.) We have to read through cringe-making scenes of multiple raping and sexual abuse. A woman soldier who had been kidnapped tells the recent arrivals in the camp "how enamoured they would become by their new life and how transformed by true enlightenment." We shudder when we hear that and yet a quiet voice somewhere inside us whispers: but it can and does happen! What I found to be the most gruesome scene is the stoning of a woman for adultery. Another passage that couldn’t bear close reading described the ministrations of a sort of witch doctor who was performing something like an exorcism on the narrator.

But there are unexpected moments of grace and kindness. The man who becomes the narrator’s husband – he has chosen her as his reward for valour in battle – isn’t too bad a guy. He treats her with some gentleness and even confesses to her his own failure to live up to the ideology of his cohorts. When she gives birth to a baby, we can’t help feeling disappointed by the community’s dismay at the child’s being female.

One of the most unexpected things about the book is the quality of the narrator’s return to her former life after she escapes (following a government bombardment of the camp where she was being kept). First there’s a triumphal celebration in the national capital where the narrator feels like she’s being used as a kind of symbol by officials who don’t know much about her. Her reunion with her mother is, to say the least, awkward. And when she returns to her village, people are wary of her; there’s contempt in the air, given that her child is the offspring of one of the dreaded militants.

The world of this book feels so brutally primitive that it can, at times, be startling to see references to things like cell phones, social media, ghetto blasters and HIV infection. This reminds us that the kind of tragedy the narrator is suffering through is something that is happening on our own planet right now. No matter how ghastly the events being described, small touches of literary taste here and there show us that we’re seeing all this through the eyes of a genuine artist. For instance, the selection of telling details. One of the first that struck me was the reference to the dust motes in the air of her mother’s home when the narrator is imagining it while in captivity. Another striking detail: someone rushes back to a home that is being abandoned to retrieve a treasured wooden spoon. There isn’t much room for humour in a book like this, but Ms. O’Brien gets in one sly dig when she has a grand woman address the crowd at the public celebration of the narrator’s escape. This smiling woman in blue robes tells the people that "she prayed for them morning and night and apart from a fondness for a particular football team, they were her family, as were all the stranded mothers in remote villages, not having the means or the privilege to be in these rarefied surroundings."

My one reservation about the writing would be that there are two or three instances where characters indulge in long stories about the past, stories invoking myth and folklore. Perhaps these are meant to colour in the local ambiance but, since they don’t move the story forward in any way, I found them somewhat intrusive in a book that is so very much focussed on the forward momentum of one incident after another in pell-mell fashion.

However, the book ends with the narrator in bed, looking up where the tarpaulin on the roof of the bedroom has been rolled back:

The stars had all gone in and the sky was gold, a dome of gold from end to end, its lustre so bright that it seemed as if the world was on the edge of a new creation.

To some readers, a poetic touch like that might seem inconsistent with the depravity of the story. However, I think it shows that we’re hearing it from a writer who still believes in the beauty of this life and still hopes that certain kinds of evil will be eradicated.

 

Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy (Biography) by A.N. Wilson, 2019

The woman who reigned over the British Empire for most of the 19th century – the woman who was, in fact, the great-great grandmother of our present Queen – proves to be an endless source of interest for biographers, not least because she left voluminous written records attesting to her complex and multi-faceted character. It almost follows, then, that the person who was allied in the most intimate and passionate way to such a formidable woman would also be worthy of considerable attention.

Which is not to say that Prince Albert was not a remarkable person, well worthy of notice in his own right.

He came from Coburg, the small town in Thuringia where his father was Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Three days after Albert’s fifth birthday, in August 1824, his mother left Coburg. He would never see her again. As a result, says, A.N. Wilson, "Albert cherished the memory of his lost mother and retained an abiding dread of family discord, sexual scandal and emotional chaos." However, he had a cordial relationship with his stepmother who was also his first cousin, as his father had chosen a niece as his second wife.

Albert’s aunt, Victoire, had come to London in 1818 as the bride of the Duke of Kent. Their daughter, Victoria, would become Queen of England in 1837. Her cousin, Albert, being the second son of a duke, was raised from an early age with the expectation that he would probably be married to Victoria. Her elders more or less assumed the same thing. It strikes a reader who has today’s mindset about marriage as quite extraordinary – almost incredible – that two young people could be told from the get-go that they were meant to marry each other and that they could, all the same, when the time came, fall in love with each other, just as expected, and form a spectacularly successful marriage.

But that is exactly what happened with Victoria and Albert – eventually. For the first few years of her reign, though, Victoria kept putting off the inevitable. She felt that they were both too young for marriage. But then Albert happened to make a visit to England and she found him unexpectedly mature and gorgeous. Suddenly, she couldn’t make the marriage happen fast enough to suit her.

Contented as they were, however, it soon became apparent that it was going to be difficult for Albert to know what his role would be. His upbringing had prepared him to have more influence in government than the British parliament was willing to grant him. To a friend in Bonn he wrote: "In my home life I am very happy and contented; but the difficulty in filling my place with the proper dignity is that I am only the husband, and not the master in the house." As far as the governing classes were concerned, the Queen’s husband had no constitutional role; he had performed his function: siring an heir. In fact, the government was so wary of giving him too much leeway that he wasn’t granted the official title of Prince Consort until many years into his marriage. Prior to that, his son Bertie, the heir to the throne, had higher ranking in protocol than Albert did.

Given that the monarch’s role was still evolving in times of great change, perhaps it’s no wonder that the role of the monarch’s husband was uncertain. But Albert kept trying, tirelessly, right from the start, to have an impact on national affairs. He chose well in his first public stance on controversial issues: on June 1, 1840, he presided over a public meeting to promote the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Throughout his marriage, he was always busy, working hard. In his support of the arts he was a declared "anti-Philistine." As for the many arts institutions he promoted: "Albert was their midwife, not their creator," says Mr. Wilson. As chancellor of Cambridge, Albert promoted academic reforms and encouraged scholarships for students who needed financial aid. He was interested in reforms in mining conditions and in child labour. Model houses for the poor were created under a scheme devised by him. He planned the Albertopolis – a complex of concert hall, museums and colleges. (It wasn’t finished when he died.)

Among the many other causes that Albert became involved in, the one that stands out and that remains as probably his most striking contribution to the nation, was his championing of the 1851 Great Exhibition with its famous "Crystal Palace." At first, Albert was skeptical about such an extravaganza. (There had been smaller such affairs scattered through Europe but nothing of this magnitude.) Gradually, though, he began to see that this was just what Britain needed and he took on the chairmanship of the planning committee. What Albert realized, as A.N. Wilson points out, was that the exhibition represented the new England that was emerging: an England that was thriving on invention and industry and newness. This meant that the Exhibition was all about the emergence of the middle class. In promoting the Exhibition, Albert was "harnessing the monarchy to the Victorian success story." He saw how important it was for the monarchy to be associated with this new mood in the country, rather than to be identified with the landed gentry who resented an uprising that threatened to shake their hold over the nation.

Albert had picked the right side and it is in this sense, Mr. Wilson feels, that he earned the accolade attributed to him in the book’s subtitle: "The Man Who Saved the Monarchy." I’m not sure Mr. Wilson proves that Albert "saved" the monarchy; after all, it could well have carried on without his particular effect on it (as did monarchies in other kingdoms). But I think it’s probably fair to say that he did help the monarchy adjust to and thrive in a new era. "In such a time, while politicians in the narrower parliamentary sense were unable to provide firm government, the part played in public life by royalty, political in the broader sense, was vital. Victoria and Albert had become something which was difficult to define, but which was much stronger than a term such as ‘figurehead’ would denote," says Mr. Wilson. Albert "undoubtedly played a vital role in the evolution of that strange hybrid: a monarchy held in check by a representative parliament; a democracy whose ultimate power wore a crown."

One thing about that era was the almost constant warfare. It seems that nations declared war on one another on the slightest pretext. You get the picture of humanity as a bellicose and bloody-minded species. Victoria and Albert were constantly struggling to understand what Britain’s position should be in these various conflicts. Not to mention the political turmoil at home. Governments kept falling, politicians kept scrambling to form coalitions, Victoria and Albert kept having to mourn the defeat of one beloved Prime Minister, then trying to befriend a new one (who had probably been an enemy previously). Victoria and Albert were often frustrated by politicians. "But they both helped, in their different ways, to further the benign purpose to which they felt called, helping Britain to be a better place to live than France, Germany or Italy."

The book’s account of those political squabbles I found difficult to follow. Mr. Wilson has a tendency to throw around names of politicians, statesmen and royals as if readers were as familiar as he is with the world scene at that time. Perhaps with an atlas and a list of characters close to hand, a person could keep track of all the strife, but I wasn’t able to. The problem with the plethora of names arose first in the early chapters where some twenty-five pages detailing the complicated lineage of the royal personages were almost unreadable.

The more enjoyable part of the book, possibly more than fifty percent of it, is the study of the relationship between Albert and Victoria. They truly were a happy couple, with their music-making, their sketching and painting. And anyone who thinks of Victoria as something of a prude doesn’t know anything about the real woman. She enjoyed a vibrant sexual life in her marriage; Mr. Wilson even quotes her on "fun in bed" (although I’m not sure where the quote comes from). She talks in her diaries about the rhapsody of waking up and finding her beautiful lover beside her. She refers to him constantly as her "angel." No male human, in her estimation, could ever live up to the level of perfection that her paragon of a husband has set. To her daughter, Vicki, she once wrote: "I cannot ever think or admit that anyone can be as blessed as I am with such a husband and such a perfection as a husband; for Papa has been and is everything to me."

Not every estimation of Albert is quite so generous. Reports say that he tended to be thin-skinned about press criticism (although he eventually received good press regarding the Great Exhibition). Not having the British "stiff upper lip," he made much of difficulties, such as an arduous trip, for example. He had virtually no friends, whereas Victoria had many; he tended to see friendship as business; she tended to see business as friendship. He wasn’t tireless; he worked too hard and got tetchy. Not a diplomat or an extrovert, he was awkward and tongue-tied with women, more successful socially with men

As for Albert’s attitude to his marriage, Mr. Wilson says he "conceived it his ‘duty’ to be a loving husband, but showed very few signs of being in love." He was so proper in his role as a husband that Mr. Wilson raises the question of whether Albert might have been a gay man who found contentment with his wife but was not tempted towards any other female. Citing (fairly or not?) Albert’s obsession with decoration, music, clothes and such, Mr. Wilson says that he "certainly seems, to the outward eye, to be gay in all but sexual preference." And what about the fact that Albert was more interested in the children’s upbringing, the specifics of their daily routines, than Victoria was? Whether these suspicions about Albert’s sexuality could be true, we can never know, but I suppose it’s a question that Mr. Wilson has a right to raise, considering that today’s readers have acquired a certain curiosity and shrewdness about such things.

Certainly, Albert’s character had much to do with establishing the monarchy as an example of bedrock domesticity. This, of course, was meant to erase the somewhat dissolute image of Victoria’s forebears. To this end, Albert and Victoria enthusiastically endorsed the new technology of photography. Actual photographs of the royal family helped to cement the impression of them in the public mind as real, flesh-and-blood people who behaved themselves decorously, not mythical figures who disported themselves scandalously.

The time did come though, when ruptures in the marital bliss occurred. Usually, they were occasioned by Victoria’s temperamental outburst about some trifle. It was difficult for Albert to be patient with her histrionics. The archives contain many instances of his writing to her, pleading with her to control herself. Especially in her treatment of their children. Finding her too harsh and exacting with them, he tried to make her see that it would be difficult for any children to love a person who was so strict and judgmental. No matter how severe Albert’s scolding of Victoria on these and other matters, she still expressed her absolute and undying love for him.

Which explains, of course, her falling into extreme grief over his death in 1861 at the age of forty-two. For some time before that, he had been appearing unwell. He worked too hard and relentlessly on his various projects. He and Victoria both fretted over their son Bertie, the heir apparent. To his parents, Bertie seemed a gadfly, a light-weight and a dilettante who wasn’t capable of the serious dedication required of him. (They couldn’t see that his enormous gift for sociability and public relations would stand him in good stead when he acceded to the throne.)

In addition to these worries, there definitely was some ailment afflicting Albert. It was once thought that what killed him was a case of pneumonia brought on by a trip in cold, wet weather to remonstrate with Bertie about his philandering at university. Mr. Wilson refers to more recent speculation that Albert may have been suffering from stomach cancer. He complained of sleeplessness, indigestion and exhaustion. Typhoid fever is given as another possible cause of his death.

There’s no question that Victoria lost an irreplaceable partner and England lost a fine person. Among the several attributes of the man that come to light in this biography, there are – in addition to his devotion to family and nation – his common sense, his advocacy of the arts, his nobility, his kindness. Behind his back, people joked that he didn’t have a sense of humour, but he was known for not being pompous, for being cordial and for having a collegial manner in his interactions with business people and artists. He was "disliked at Court, and in the Royal Household, because he was a know-all, who really did know best," as Mr. Wilson puts it, but when he met ordinary people, they found him a "genial person who shared their interests and could talk to them without ‘side’ or frivolity." As Prime Minister Gladstone put it, Albert "was unpopular with smart society but the people liked him."

Surely, that’s an honourable legacy for any statesman.

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