Contributed by Gerald Clarkson, ex-Reuters, Financial Times of Canada and other publications.

Jules Stewart, an Anglophile American, has become an astonishingly prolific author in later life. He's produced six books in just six years, mostly focusing on British India and Afghanistan in the 19th century, and now a luminous take on the life of Prince Albert. He also reports that a history of the city of Madrid, where he lived for a long time, is under way. Before he started writing books in his 60s Stewart was best known as a banking journalist. Based in London, he files coverage and analysis in both English and Spanish.

His 'Albert' is a tour de force full of compelling detail. Although most of the events have already been massively described he adds a unique flavour to the stories as he tells them. We learn lots of things we half knew or never knew.

Commenting on the hostility facing Albert on his marriage to Victoria in 1840, he writes: "The landed aristocracy, a powerful force in the 19th century, were mistrustful of this cerebral German. Yes, it had to be admitted, the Prince gave a good account of himself as a horseman and there was no denying his ability as a marksman....but he made himself thoroughly unclubbable by refusing to partake in their habits of swearing, wenching and drunkenness.....Albert may have felt hurt at having been spurned by the patricians of British society, but to his credit he showed little interest in appeasing their xenophobic intolerance."

Stewart sees Albert's early death at 43 as a critical loss to 19th century progress. He clearly agrees with Lytton Strachey, quoted here: "...the whole development of English polity would have changed if Albert had lived a further 30 years...If in his youth he (Albert) had been able to pit the Crown against the mighty Palmerston and come off with equal honours from the contest, of what might he not have been capable in old age?"

The Prince's profound humanity and grand initiatives were the more remarkable because he was only in his 20s when his influence was coming to the fore. Stewart lists all his projects. Perhaps Albert's aspiration to see Germany united could be counted as a ghastly mistake, though his crystal ball can hardly be blamed for nightmares far beyond his time.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was his most majestic achievement, remarkable for its efficiency. Interestingly Stewart compares the speedy Crystal Palace timetable, completed in just nine months, with the disastrous modern Dome project on the Thames and the huge lead time enjoyed by the 2012 London Olympics facilities.

Albert's rational mind took him in many other directions. Apparently he tried and failed to obtain a knighthood for Darwin. Stewart cites objections lodged with the Queen by Soapy Wilberforce, the bishop of Oxford who had denounced Evolution. Albert was also tireless in efforts to improve working class housing and combat poverty and sweat shops. On a loftier plane his chancellorship of Cambridge University enabled him to promote overdue modernisation. He himself had attended higher education courses in Brussels and Bonn and was shocked to find that Cambridge, still run by clergy, was lacking professors in key subjects such as modern languages, economics and physics.

In summary Stewart concludes neatly that Albert's world was one of Schubert and Byron and Victoria's that of Gilbert and Sullivan.





©Jules Stewart 2008