Bertie: A Life of Edward VII
‘There is something comic in the great British nation, with its infinite variety of talents, having this undistinguished and limited-minded German bourgeois to be its social sovereign,’ wrote Beatrice Webb of the Prince of Wales in 1897.
There is no doubt that Bertie lived his years as king-in-waiting with a decided lack of distinction. He was a perennial source of disappointment to his parents, who thought him lazy and feeble-minded and instituted an ‘aggressive system’ of tuition. Bertie’s loving and empathic nature was constantly bruised by their rejection. In retaliation he was difficult, rude and rebellious. Lonely and bored, he hated books and craved company. In 1861 he was sent to military training camp to bring him into line; instead Bertie consoled himself with a young actress, Nellie Clifden, leading to his fall from grace three months before his father’s death. It was the scourge with which Victoria for ever after beat him. Stubbornly blind to Bertie’s innate social skills and emotional intelligence, she refused to give him a useful role, condemning him to the life of an aimless sybarite.
Marriage to Alexandra of Denmark made no difference. Bertie dutifully impregnated her, but was from the start a serial adulterer. He filled his time slaughtering game birds at country house parties, stuffing himself at endless gargantuan meals and relentlessly pursuing every pretty face that came his way. Jane Ridley goes into considerable detail on his numerous affairs, from the ill-fated Lady Susan Vane-Tempest (whom he ruthlessly abandoned when she became pregnant), to all the usual suspects. The physical nature of these relationships remains a mystery; by his late thirties Bertie was morbidly obese and reeked of tobacco. Impotence may well have made him hardly the most desirable of bedmates. But what he wanted of all these clever women was to be entertained out of his almost perennial state of boredom.
The waste of his natural talents is chillingly charted by Ridley, who describes a life lived from one social indiscretion to the next. Despite the death wish of his heavy smoking and eating – which brought on the emphysema and heart disease that killed him – the playboy prince lived to become king at the age of 59. By then he had little life left in which to achieve anything significant other than win the heart of the common man with his horse-racing successes. Ridley argues that he pioneered the role of ‘welfare monarch’ in his patronage of charities, but his influence at home was minimal compared with his undoubted diplomatic skill in promoting the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904, as a counter to his German nephew Wilhelm’s rampant war-mongering.
The key to Bertie’s success as the ‘People’s King’ was that he understood the important role of public ceremonial after decades of dereliction of duty by his mother. He restored a mothballed monarchy to its former glory but made no attempt to interfere in party politics, having little interest in them. Astute and socially adept, he also demonstrated an admirable lack of racial and religious prejudice – a trait inherited from his mother.
One of the many conundrums about this fascinating monarch is his intense privacy. The real Bertie remains a closed book, largely because many of his private papers were destroyed on his instruction after his death. Ridley, in compensation, seems anxious about leaving anything out and at 500 pages this otherwise vivid and entertaining biography would have benefitted from some judicious pruning of anecdotal detail crammed in merely for the sake of it.
Helen Rappaport is author of Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy. (Hutchinson, 2011).
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