I would imagine that if you ever think about Edward VII the immediate reaction would be 'oh yes, Lily Langtry, lots of mistresses, he was a bit of a lad and useless as a King' and this has sadly been the case for some time. I have read a lot of Victorian and Edwardian history as I find this period fascinating, and have always felt that poor old Bertie was given a bit of a hard time. I remember reading a biography by Philip Magnus many moons ago and very little since, though it is impossible to read any book about Queen Victoria without Bertie popping up, usually to his detriment.
Last year I read Helen Rappaport's wonderful book Magnificent Obsession, how the death of Prince Albert changed the monarchy and though I became irritated with the seclusion of Queen Victoria and her selfishness, my feelings in the end were that of admiration that she toughed it out and came through. See my review here for my thoughts.
However, after reading this wonderful biography of Bertie by Jane Ridley I am currently feeling less charitable towards her. What a dreadful childhood Bertie had and how cruelly he was treated by his parents, and particularly his mother, as he failed to live up to their ideal of what a prince should be. Constantly compared to the precocious Vicky, he resorted to attention seeking tantrums and bad behaviour and instead of understanding why he was doing this, his parents increased the pressure upon him. Not a minute of his day was given up to relaxation or play, his nose was at the grindstone from early in the morning to last thing at night, not a moment unsupervised as a brutal regime of lessons, exercise and whippings were forced upon him.
Of course as soon as he was old enough to spread his wings and have a bit of fun, he did. Losing his virginity to a young and willing lady, was to be expected but the way his parents reacted you would have thought he had committed murder. Albert posted down to see him at Cambridge where he was supposed to be studying and talked to his son about his behaviour. He left behind him a contrite young man who was probably ridden by guilt at the sorrow he had caused his father. I have no doubt Albert laid it on pretty thick. By the time Albert returned home he was soaked through from the walk in the rain and exhausted. He was already ill and when he died shortly after his mother laid the blame for his demise at Bertie's door and if it wasn't for his sister Alice sending him a telegram to come to his father's deathbed, he would have been in ignorance of what was happening.
The years of Victoria's widowhood and seclusion then began and also her pathological dislike of her son and her denying him access to any state papers or details of the working of the government. Ministers tried in vain to make her change her mind but she was adamant that Bertie was throughly unprincipled and too stupid to understand such matters. The truth of the matter was that Bertie was not stupid. He may not have been book learned (it seems he never read a book in his life and after his childhood one can hardly blame him), but he had a retentive memory, never forgot a name or a face (a useful accomplishment if you are a member of the Royal Family) and knew how to deal with all around him. Dragooned into an early marriage to Alexandra of Denmark, they set about entering society and making a splash and soon the Marlborough House Set was the place to be.
It is forgotten that in all the articles and publications about Bertie's scandals and his mistresses, it was largely due to him that the Monarchy kept a high profile and survived. Victoria was locked away either at Balmoral or Osborne House, refusing to see anybody and carry out any duties and it was left to Bertie to carry the flag. And of course, it is rather ironic that Her Majesty pretty quick to condemn her son for becoming involved in scandal and gossip, should cause one of the biggest scandals herself - the rumours flying around about her and John Brown have still not been satisfactorily resolved to this day.
There were moments of rapprochment and there are letters in which the Queen refers to Bertie as 'loving' and 'kind' but these did not last long though when she died in 1901 it was Bertie she wanted at her side.
"Mrs Tuck the Queen's dresser asked her if it was the Prince of Wales she wanted. 'Yes' said the Queen. Bertie returned to her bedside and she said 'kiss my face' whereupon he 'embraced her and broke down completely'.
An overweight, unhealthy middle aged man was now King and Edward felt it had come too late but he underestimated himself, as did others. His years of travelling abroad, his contacts with all the royal families of Europe, most of whom were his relations, enabled him to carry out diplomatic missions which his ministers were unable to do. Keeping his nephew the Kaiser under control was tricky but he managed it while he was alive by a mixture of buttering him up and being as polite to him as he could manage, though in private his feelings were unprintable. He was responsible for the entente cordiale in 1904 (there are some of us who may feel this is not something he should be praised for............) and, despite his past and his ups and downs with the public, he was loved and appreciated as Edward VII. He only had ten years on the throne and he worked almost up to the last minute driven to work and to try and keep the fragile peace, propped up in his chair, until he eventually had a heart attack and was put to bed.
Odd, as the author pointed out in a most interesting appendix, that Victoria who was so intent on being private and secluded, should produce thousands of letters, copious diaries and published her Highland Journals during her lifetime, whereas the public Bertie hardly left anything behind at all. We are given the impression that he was hedonstic, light hearted and light minded and a rather shallow and mediocre person. This marvellous biography shows that we could not be more wrong. He could be hard and cut those who he felt had harmed or offended him, but to his true friends he was loyalty itself, a kindly father who loved his children and though a dreadful husband in some ways, he was devoted to Alexandra as she to him, and she was devestated at his death.
In her introduction to this book, Jane Ridley says that she has tried to show a Bertie who was more able and more complex that the figure we know as Edward VII. She points out that his bed hopping exploits were wildly exaggerated; his name was linked with fifty women and more than ten illegitimate children were chalked up to him though the true figures, were more modest. In order to show both sides of his life she said she has had to 'chip away at the patina of old anecdotes and peel back layer sof hearsayw hich has been repeated so often that it has almost hardened into fact'. It took a while but the author says 'like so many woman in the past, I have greatly enjoyed the years I have spent in the comany of HRH'.
And so have I.
A marvellous, fascinating and readable biography which I read solidly for three days and was enthralled by. On my list of books of the year.