Bertie: A Life of Edward VII by Jane Ridley

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Bertie: A Life of Edward VII by Jane Ridley

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The first full biography of King Edward VII written for many years, with the aid of full access to papers from the Royal Archives and elsewhere.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 608 Date: October 2013
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099575443

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Several of the main facts about King Edward VII (1841-1910) are reasonably well-known. Considered oversexed by his parents, Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort, he was 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. He 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 low expectations of others and poor health he made an excellent King for the last nine years of his life.

Having read so many books about him already, I wondered whether there was anything new to be said. This proves 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 mother, sisters, wife, and naturally his mistresses. Once granted unrestricted access to his papers in the Royal Archives, she realised that here was enough for another full biography, especially with the use of archives elsewhere. She had almost finished what was already a very long book when the Royal Archives told her they had just discovered many more relevant papers and files.

Four years later, it was finally complete. She aimed to present a new portrait of a man somewhat 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 must begin with a close look at his upbringing, at the hands of tutors who were urged by his less than understanding parents to produce a paragon of virtue. The Prince Consort was not the best of fathers, his favourites among the nine children being the more serious, literary-minded, art-loving, scholarly 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. His parents were not pleased, although his mother understood him enough to admit that he was her 'caricature'.

Although the author is sympathetic with regard to the bad parenting he received, and to some extent with his being forced into an arranged marriage before he was ready to settle down, she admits that he was immature, treated his unfortunate wife Alexandra and mistresses selfishly, and suggests that he might have given the former an STD. If true this could explain why their sixth and last child only lived for one day and why, though she was only aged 26, she never had any more.

Regarding their children, I was interested to read from this that their eldest son Albert Victor ('Eddy'), who some 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 his mother’s deafness and also suffered from mild epilepsy. In a later, more understanding age he would probably have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. From this book it appears that he was quite intelligent, and but for the impatient tutor John Dalton in whom his parents had placed such blind confidence, he would have turned out perfectly well. Bertie was obviously not above making the same mistake with his eldest son (the wrong tutor) that his own father had made with him. After Eddy died at the age of 28, it was considered that his surviving brother, later George V, made a far better King than he would have done.

Rumours and reports of mistresses there are many. But either Bertie covered up his tracks well, or else his womanising and apparent fatherings on the wrong side of the blanket were very few. Only one such child can definitely or probably be regarded as his, namely a son born to Lady Susan Vane-Tempest around Christmas 1871. Ironically, this was the same time that Bertie almost died of typhoid, on the tenth anniversary of his father’s death. Lady Susan's husband was an alcoholic who had gone mad, attempted to murder his wife, and died of a burst blood vessel while struggling with 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 went to Ramsgate to have the child. It may have been adopted, or even stillborn, while another theory suggests that it was never born and in fact had been aborted. As she was quite generous with her favours to other men, the Prince may not have been the father. All we really know is that within four years Lady Susan was dead from unknown causes.

The devil found work for idle hands to do. Denied a chance to see state papers, serve in the armed forces or do anything 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.

But when Queen Victoria died in 1901 he defied expectations and proved himself an exceptionally unstuffy, modernising monarch. He was unexpectedly conscientious in reading state papers, astonishing courtiers who thought him 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 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, Independent Labour MP and an unashamed republican, he retorted 'You don't understand me! I am King of all the people!'

The view is that good as he was as a monarch, it came to him too late, being 59 when Queen Victoria died. Throughout his nine-year reign he suffered from bronchitis, and although an abstemious drinker, ate and smoked too much. 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.'

The author has taken a good look at family relationships and added a certain amount to what we already knew. She is sound 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 enjoyable 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 hint of impropriety beyond the vaguest facts. In the 21st century we all know 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 text alone is almost 500 pages long, so it is not for the casual reader. Nevertheless I found it one of the most interesting royal biographies I had read for a long time.

If this book appeals then w can also recommend:

Sons, Servants and Statesmen: The Men in Queen Victoria's Life by John Van der Kiste

For correspondence between the King's mother and elder sister, Letters To Vicky by Andrew Roberts (Editor)

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Booklists.jpg Bertie: A Life of Edward VII by Jane Ridley is in the Top Ten Autobiographies and Biographies of 2013.


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