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The greatest grief of Queen Victoria's life came when Prince Albert died in her presence on 14 December 1861 at the age of 42. Victoria's grief was overwhelming. She took to wearing the deepest black and refused to live any more in London, shutting herself up at Windsor and her other country homes.

For almost a decade she remained in strict mourning. She rarely set foot in London, and she avoided most public occasions, including the state opening of Parliament. She made an exception, however, for the unveiling of statues dedicated to Prince Albert and, after a few years, for attendance at army reviews. Behind the scenes, she continued to correspond with and talk to her ministers, and she took comfort in the company of her favorite servant, a Scottish Highlander named John Brown, a rugged, blunt speaking man who died in 1883. However, by the late 1860s, the queen’s absence from the public stage caused her popularity to decline, and there was talk of replacing the monarchy with a republic.

In 1874, when Benjamin Disraeli became prime minister, the queen's life became much happier. Disraeli was a Conservative, and although Victoria as a young woman had preferred the Whigs (who were the opposite party), she became very enthusiastic about Disraeli's policy of expanding the British empire. In particular, she was delighted when he proclaimed her empress of India in 1876. More important, Disraeli pleased her by his courtly manners, wit, and flattery. In the course of the later 1870s and the 1880s, she gradually returned to the public arena, and her popularity rose once more.