THE QUEEN'S husband" seems hardly title enough for the spouse of a British sovereign, but it was sufficient for Prince George of Denmark, who found it easy to be self-effacing as companion to Queen Anne. At best an incompetent as lord high admiral, at worst a booby, he set no useful example for Queen Victoria, who a century later wanted to make her husband "king consort." Nearly 20 years into her reign she finally issued personal letters of patent dubbing Albert prince consort, a title he held informally almost since he had arrived in England to be wed. That she failed to prod Parliament to name her princeling anything whatever was one of the many frustrations of Victoria's formative years as queen.

Albrecht, second son of the dissolute Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, was only a Serene Highness from a minor south German principality, but he was born with certain advantages. He was Victoria's cousin, and -- as required -- a Protestant; and the family adviser she listened to most was their mutual uncle, King Leopold of Belgium. Even so, marriage prospects nearly foundered on Victoria's Hanoverian pride and obstinacy. She enjoyed her early fling at queening it over everyone, and had no desire to share the power and the pomp and the perquisites.

Then, in 1839, when they were both 20, a different kind of desire overwhelmed the volatile Victoria. She declared her love -- it had to be her initiative -- and proposed marriage. Albert agreed to become the queen's husband. Counseled by Count Stockmar, a Coburg physician with statesmanlike vision about the possibilities of monarchy in a world of swift change, he impatiently bided his time and waited for his opening. In the meantime he applied the blotting paper while Victoria affixed her signature to letters and legislation, and he sat, exasperated, in an ante- room while she met with her ministers. The outrage to his German manhood was painful. Yet it was his manhood which altered the situation. Victoria would bear nine children, and with each succeeding pregnancy, and each temporary incapacitation, Albert's informal powers burgeoned.

Robert Rhodes James, a historian and member of Parliament, is especially persuasive on how Albert's role metamorphosed from one even less prepossessing at the beginning than that of his unmentioned predecessor, the undistinguished Prince George of Denmark. Before the marriage, Uncle Leopold had written his willful niece, "You are too clever not to know that it is not the being called Queen or King, which can be of the least consequence, when to the title there is not also annexed the power indispensable for the exercise of those functions. All trades must be learned, and nowadays the trade of a constitutional Sovereign, to do it well, is a very difficult one."

Victoria learned how at Albert's side. Like their pillows, their desks adjoined, and, as much as a constitutional sovereign could, Albert covertly ruled while Victoria reigned. Still, his disappointments were piling up. To Stockmar he wrote in 1854, 14 years after he had come to England to be married, "A very considerable section of the nation had never given itself the trouble to consider what really is the position of the husband of a Queen Regnant. When I first came over here I was met by this want of knowledge and unwillingness to give a thought to the position of this luckless personage. Peel cut down my income, Wellington refused me my rank, the Royal family cried out against the Foreign interloper, the Whigs in office were only inclined to concede to me just as much space as I could stand upon."

Although the English -- the London pr most of all -- come off badly in their treatment of the prince consort, who deserved recognition in his lifetime rather than the memorials by which Victoria scolded her people after his early death, he earned a bit of the blame himself. Sensitive, and seemingly stiff and aloof, he would never be English enough to suit his wife's subjects. Perhaps he could not become the caricature of the hearty country squire and city sophisticate they demanded. An intellectual who enjoyed the company of intellectuals, he was clearly an outsider in aggressively philistine Victorian Britain.

NEVER STURDY, Albert nevertheless drove himself to accomplishment. He intervened in politics -- sometimes usefully -- when the sovereign's duty was to remain above parties, and he promoted educational, scientific and cultural causes even when it meant pushing a reluctant Britain into unwanted ways of thinking. (James is particularly witty on Albert's activist assumption of the usually honorific chancellorship of Cambridge Uiverity, than a bleak backwater.) If nothing else about him is remembered, it will be his imaginative and vigorous leadership of the Great Exhibition of 1851, housed in what was likely the major architectural achievement of the century -- the Crystal Palace. The first great international fair of technology and the arts left him, he wrote, after weathering its many preliminary crises, "more dead than alive." But it was a magnificent feat of leadership for a "queen's husband" still only 32.

Biographies of Albert have appeared frequently since the fulsome five-volume official life in 1875-80. This is the second such this year alone, one by Hermione Hobhouse having preceded it. Do we need another? The Hobhouse version emphasized the public man; James examines the private politician and the harried husband, and in the process he exhumes cogent papers from the capacious Royal Archives. Without sentimentality, Albert is humanized as perhaps ever before, but the book is half over before we move past the second year of marriage. We learn more about Albert's learning his role than we do about the years in which he ably practices his parallel professions of consort and confidant.

Like other husbands and wives, and with far more reason than most, Victoria and Albert had their quarrels, usually less about politics (on which the more conservative queen often differed with her husband) than about raising children, placating parents-in- law, handling household staff. Even so, theirs was one of the most magical marriages in history, begun when queen and princeling were just out of their teens -- and innocent both of the arts and crafts of marriage and of managing an empire -- and concluding abruptly when so much was yet to be expected of what had become, in effect, a dual monarchy. In 1846, with Albert briefly away speechmaking, Victoria had written to Count Stockmar, "Without him everything loses its interest. It will always be a terrible pang for me to separate from him even for two days; and I pray God never to let me survive him." Victoria would survive him for nearly 40 years, his portrait on the pillow next to her own until the day she was laid beside him in the mausoleum at Windsor.