Dirty Bertie: An English King Made in France by Stephen Clarke

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Dirty Bertie: An English King Made in France by Stephen Clarke

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A lighthearted biography of King Edward VII, who as Prince and King defied his German ancestry to become a passionate Francophile, culminating in his paving the way for the Entente cordiale with England in 1904
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 385 Date: May 2014
Publisher: Century
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978780890340

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Although he was Anglo-German by birth, so Stephen Clarke suggests, King Edward VII was very much a Parisian by nature. As we would expect from the author of several lighthearted books on our Gallic neighbours, including ‘1000 Years of Annoying the French’, this is not the most weighty or solemn biography of the King you will ever find, but it is certainly an entertaining, racy gallop through the life of its subject.

Tradition has it that the Prince of Wales, as he was for most of his life, was an Englishman with all the faults and easygoing nature of his fellow countrymen, in stark contrast to his father Albert, Prince Consort, who was born a German and throughout his life in Britain remained one to the day of his death. ‘Pas du tout’, suggests Clarke, who tells us that ‘Dirty Bertie’ learned all the essentials in life from the Gallic nation across the Channel which he loved so passionately. The state visit of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to the Paris of Emperor Napoleon III in 1855, on which he and his elder sister ‘Vicky’, Princess Royal, accompanied their parents, proved to be the start of a lifelong devotion to the country which had more often than not been an enemy of Britain. Throughout the next fifty years or so, during which France went to war with Germany, was defeated and became a republic, and found itself strongly on the side of the oppressed Boers when Britain went to war in South Africa, the Prince found what was almost a second home there.

His parents had tried to mould him into an intellectual with the morals of a saint, and to follow the family tradition by becoming a good friend of all people and things German. On all counts, they failed completely. The Prince adored coming over to Paris whenever he could, generally without his charming wife Alexandra, who was prematurely lame, deaf and much preferred staying at home with their children. If her husband wanted a few days and nights of friendship and pleasure with French aristocrats and actresses (the latter word often being an euphemism for the oldest profession which had no place in polite Victorian conversation), so be it. She and Queen Victoria knew it went on, and were powerless to prevent it. The Prince’s uncle and great-uncles had not been noted for their fidelity or unimpeachable morals, and boys would be boys.

Yet it was not a non-stop round of gargantuan meals, champagne, cigars, theatre-going and bedhopping. The outgoing, affable Prince of Wales may have learnt nothing from his tutors and his books, but he was a sound judge of character. As Clarke demonstrates, it was his ‘secret life’ in Paris which made him such a successful King when the time came. Dealing tactfully with people was second nature to him, both in the imperial France of his youth, and then after the Franco-Prussian war (after which he wrote to the Queen, offering in vain to negotiate between the warring French and Prussians, an idea dismissed by Gladstone as ‘royal twaddle’) and the republican era. He was equally at home with egalitarian presidents and ministers as with aristocrats – and, of course, with immodestly-clad divas on the stage.

The story of his major Anglo-French achievement has been related before, but in his closing chapters Clarke rightly makes it the centrepiece of his book. A lifetime of diplomacy culminated in the Prince’s accession as King, ageing, overweight, bronchial, but King all the same, Edward Double-O-VII, no longer Bertie the meddling philandering prince. (Well, unless you count his close friendship with Mrs Keppel). On his first visit to Paris as a reigning monarch, he charmed a bitterly hostile nation, furious with British military ventures in Africa, more or less overnight. The way was clear for both nations, so often at loggerheads in the past, to become allies. Vive l’Entente Cordiale.

As a side issue, on the matter of King Edward’s relations with Kaiser Wilhelm, we are on less sure ground. Clarke suggests that the German sovereign felt like a beloved grandson and nephew when Queen Victoria and her eldest son were reigning, and that he was at peace with Britain. A closer study of both men and their differences with each other indicates that the picture was considerably more complicated than that. Nevertheless his other theory does hold water, in that had Bertie gone a little more gently on the smoking and rich food, he might well have lived longer and helped to preserve the peace in Europe beyond 1914. As he commented to a friend while he was at Biarritz in the spring of 1910, he was aware that he did not have long to live, ‘and then my nephew will make war.’ Would the nephew have held back, or would he have been able to restrain the Prussian dogs of war, had Edward the Peacemaker still been there to keep him to heel?

This is a lighthearted biography, with a smile. It will not replace the more heavyweight, searching lives by Jane Ridley and others, but makes an enjoyable read on one of the most colourful monarchs in modern history.

For a more comprehensive life, Bertie: A Life of Edward VII by Jane Ridley

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