“ Author: Jane Ridley / Format: Hardback / Genre: Historical, Political & Military /Title: Bertie / ISBN 13: 9780701176143 / ISBN 10: 0701176143 / 624 pages / Publisher: Chatto & Windus / Published: 30 Aug 2012 / Language: English / Alternative title: Bertie: A life of Edward VII / Alternative ISBN 10: 0701176148 „
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KING EDWARD VII
Most of the main facts about King Edward VII (1841-1910) are reasonably well-known. He was regarded as oversexed by his parents, Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort, blamed by the former for breaking the latter's heart and causing his early death with the news that he (Edward) had enjoyed himself with a lady of the night, was notoriously unfaithful to his charming but prematurely deaf and lame wife Alexandra, hated reading books and learning but became a first-class unofficial ambassador to courts and countries abroad, and despite the low expectations of others and his poor health made an excellent King for the last nine years of his life.
Having read several other books about him already, I wondered whether there was possibly anything new to be said. This proves that there certainly was. As she explains in her Foreword, Professor Ridley's original intention was to write a short life of the man, his relations with his women - his mother, sisters, wife, and naturally his mistresses. Then she was granted unrestricted access to his papers in the Royal Archives and it soon became apparent that here was enough to produce another full biography, especially as she had access to archives elsewhere. She had almost finished what was already a pretty hefty book when the Royal Archives told her they had just discovered many more papers and files for her to consult.
Four years later, the book was finally complete. She intended to present a new portrait of a man who had in effect been obscured by authorised biographers who concentrated on the politics and said little about the scandals, and unauthorised ones with their one-sided image of a frivolous prince of pleasure whose bed-hopping exploits had been wildly exaggerated in the interests of a good story.
Any fully-rounded account of the life of King Edward has to begin with a close look at his upbringing, at the hands of tutors who were urged by his not very understanding parents to produce a paragon of virtue. The Prince Consort was not the best of fathers. His favourites among the nine children were the more serious, literary-minded, art-loving, scholarly, clever ones. 'Bertie', as he was always called in the family, was none of these things, but he was intelligent, outgoing, and eager to please. In some ways he was a perfectly normal lad - and his parents were not pleased, although his mother understood him enough to admit that he was her 'caricature'.
Although the author is sympathetic to him with regard to the bad parenting he received, and to some extent with his being forced into an arranged marriage before he was really ready to settle down, she admits that he was immature, treated his unfortunate wife and mistresses selfishly, and advances the possibility - which I had never come across before - that he might have given the former an STD, which if true could account for why their sixth and last child only lived for one day and explain why, though Alexandra was only aged 26, she never had any more.
Talking of their children, I was interested to read from this that their eldest son Albert Victor ('Eddy'), who some conspiracy theorists have tried to frame as Jack the Ripper, was not the half-witted youth previous biographers have insisted. He was backward, lazy, a slow developer, might have inherited deafness from his mother and also suffered from a mild form of epilepsy. In a later, more understanding age he would possibly have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. However from this book it appears that he was quite intelligent, and had it not been for the impatient tutor John Dalton in whom his parents had placed such blind confidence, he would have turned out perfectly well. In this case, Bertie was obviously not above making the same mistake with his eldest son (i.e. the wrong tutor) that his own father had made with him. Eddy, incidentally, died of pneumonia at the age of 28, much to his parents' everlasting grief. The informed opinion is that his surviving brother, later George V, made a far better King than Eddy would have done.
Rumours and reports of mistresses there are many. But either Bertie covered up his tracks extremely well, or else his womanising and apparent fatherings on the wrong side of the blanket were very few. In fact, it seems that only one such child can definitely or almost probably be regarded as his, namely a son born (we think but cannot be sure) to Lady Susan Vane-Tempest around Christmas 1871. Ironically, this was the same time that Bertie came perilously close to dying of typhoid, on the tenth anniversary of the date that the same disease had killed his father. (There is a theory that stomach cancer might have carried the Prince Consort off, but the doctors attending him were called 'not fit to attend a sick cat' by some, and we will never know for sure). Lady Susan's husband was an alcoholic who had gone mad, been locked up, and attempted to murder his wife not long before, so it seems, he died of a burst blood vessel while he was struggling with his keepers who were trying to restrain him. A few years later she had a brief affair with the heir to the throne, became pregnant and was sent away to Ramsgate to have the child. It may have been adopted, or possibly even stillborn, while another theory suggests that it was never born and in fact had been aborted. Bearing in mind that she was quite generous with her favours to other men, the Prince may not necessarily have been the father. All that is known for certain is that within four years Lady Susan herself was dead, the cause of her death being unknown.
The devil found work for idle hands to do. Denied a chance to see state papers, serve in the armed forces or do anything really useful, apart from serving briefly on a royal commission to look into improvements in housing for the working classes, the Prince of Wales spent too much time enjoying the good life, partying until all hours, eating gargantuan meals, shooting, gambling and enjoying the company of other men's wives. When he was in his early twenties, Queen Victoria had complained in a letter to one of her daughters that he 'shows more and more how totally, totally unfit he is for ever becoming King.'
However, when she died in 1901 he defied expectations and proved himself an exceptionally unstuffy monarch, determined to modernise the institution after his mother's years of seclusion. He proved unexpectedly conscientious in reading state papers, astonishing courtiers who thought he was little more than an ageing playboy. Determined to end what he saw as Britain's isolation from much of Europe, and detach the nation from its time-honoured over-dependence on an increasingly warlike and untrustworthy Germany, in 1904 he paved the way for the creation of the Entente Cordiale with France. His last prime minister, Herbert Asquith, called him 'a very good listener and quite a clever man' He soon disarmed the critics who scoffed at him as 'vulgar', partly because they did not share his abhorrence of racism and anti-Semitism, prejudices from which he was considerably more free than many of his countrymen. When a courtier asked in astonishment why he had enquired after the health of James Keir Hardie, the first elected Independent Labour MP and an unashamed republican, his angry reply was that 'You don't understand me! I am King of all the people!'
The impression is that good as he was as a monarch, it came to him rather too late - he was 59 when Queen Victoria died. Throughout his nine-year reign he suffered from bronchitis, and although quite an abstemious drinker, obviously ate and smoked too much, resulting in a severe weight problem. His life was only saved just a couple of days before what was to have been his coronation (and had to be postponed for several weeks while he recovered), when a large abscess was operated on, and there is a graphic description of this in the book. There is also a telling account of him shortly before the end as a man who 'craved the affirmation of crowds' as he lived in 'the lonely bubble of a political leader, cocooned by his staff and detectives, with a mistress who was more political companion than lover and a deaf wife who shut herself away.'
I came across one or two minor errors of fact, such as a couple of family relationships given wrongly. Moreover the bald statement that the mad King Ludwig of Bavaria shot himself is inaccurate. As far as is known, he was drowned, or drowned himself, in a violent struggle with his psychiatrist, who was also killed while trying to save him. Yet this does not detract more than marginally from this being an excellent and very full biography.
The author has taken a good hard long look at family relationships and added a certain amount to what we already knew, or perhaps only guessed, about these. She is good on the personal and political aspects of his life, particularly the unsettled last few months of his reign with Parliament's efforts to curb the power of the House of Lords. I also found her last chapter, 'Bertie and the biographers', particularly interesting in its look at the various official biographies of him already written and how authors were encouraged to put a positive spin on their subjects, toning down any suggestion of scandal beyond the vaguest facts. In the 21st century we all know that there were royal scandals a-plenty, yet to reveal these in new biographies or discuss them in greater length is hardly likely to shake the foundations of Windsor Castle.
The book, or rather the text alone, is almost 500 pages long, so it is not for the casual reader. And at the price it is, I'd recommend trying the library first. However I thoroughly enjoyed it, finding it one of the most interesting royal biographies I had read for a long time.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]