"Many of the women with whom he began relationships ...refused to go quietly. Blackmail, pregnancy, even a court case were to return to haunt him. There was no such thing as a relationship without consequences."
So writes Jane Ridley in her amazing book, The Heir Apparent: The Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince.
•History never bores me. The most dense chronicle has appeal. But naturally a riveting good history book is much more fun. So what a pleasure to come upon Jane Ridley's 2013 revisionist examination of Edward VII, and his terrifying mama, Queen Victoria. I don't know how I missed it last year.
This is a book that I wanted to finish in one night. But the rich detail, the adventure-upon-anecdote-upon-real events, as written up by Ms Ridley, was too much to take in within a 24-hour period. I had to put the book down occasionally to catch my breath -- reading pleasure can be dangerous!
•The Heir Apparent tells of "Bertie," The Prince of Wales and his long, long trek to the throne of England. His mother, Queen Victoria -- a very strange woman -- blamed him for his father, Prince Albert's death, of typhoid. (Albert had recently learned of one his son's peccadilloes. He was unnerved. Being unnerved doesn't lead to typhoid, but to Victoria, a slave to her passion for Albert, she felt it did.)
Albert was a pretty good father. And a fine ruler behind the scenes. Victoria -the last of the Hanover line of British monarchs -- was a woman for whom childbearing was something she endured and accepted. "Her pregnancies were unwelcome by-products of her infatuation with Albert." Tactless in the extreme -- " I can never say what I do not think." She was brutal in her inability to dissemble or mask her feelings. She did not like her son, Bertie, and her written descriptions of him, not to mention her chilly in-person exchanges, marked his life.
•After Prince Albert's death, Victoria donned black mourning clothes and hid herself away for 30 years. ("Under the cover of mourning she could do exactly as she wished...apres moi le deluge was Victoria's excuse for doing nothing.") She is venerated as a great long-running ruler, but this book makes you wonder why.
Vicky liked being called The Empress of India and attempted to influence policy, but she was basically "not there." While waiting for his dear mama to abdicate, die or at least change her dress, Edward embarked on a life of considerable excess. He married the lovely Alexandra of Denmark ("Alix" to her pals) but his lust for life could not be contained. Alix resigned herself to his extramarital excursions. More than slightly deaf, but beautiful, modish and thin, Alix was a perfect princess, rarely exceeding the limited life and emotion demanded of her.
Bertie had affair after affair, some were major (Daisy Warwick, Mrs. Alice Keppel) some minor (despite the colorful assertions of actress Lillie Langtry, she was on the minor side.) It is fascinating and amusing to note how judiciously his romances were chronicled in the tabloid press of the day. All that was needed was one pungent, semi-anonymous statement to create a scandal. It was the era of letter-writing and beware the most benign note -- although Bertie himself kept a meticulous diary, with a secret code referencing his various ladies.
He had a mania for protocol -- subjects kissing his hands -- and wearing the last word in proper uniform, but was undisciplined and erratic in his behavior. Still, he traveled widely, and knew everybody who was anybody in Europe -- Victoria's dynastic sweep, despite her inattention, was considerable, what with having given birth to eight far-flung children. (Despite her rigidity on moral issues, Victoria was amazingly modern in one aspect -- telling all. Memoirs published during her lifetime were considered ill-advised by the family, but Vicky thought people should know as much as possible: "I know that the publication of my book did me more good than anything else.") She thought of herself as invincibly correct.
Still, Victoria was physically enclosed, and not truly beloved by her subjects, who felt abandoned. For one thing, she was always pushing the German facet of her bloodline! It was her son's keen knowledge of various royal families and the politics swirling around, that put him in surprisingly good stead when he finally ascended the throne in 1901. After all, Victoria was related to almost every other European royal.
•"We grovel before fat Edward -- Edward the Caresser as he is privately named," wrote Henry James at the time of Bertie's accession. And he was not alone in despising the "59-year-old philanderer."
But waiting, under his mother's constant disapproval and living as a serial adulterer, smoker and over-eater, Edward had surprisingly matured. He became an astonishingly accomplished and canny king for his brief reign. "In foreign policy and defense, which were traditionally seen as the special preserve of the sovereign, he intervened behind the scenes...he understood the need to project the authority of the Crown through ceremonial and public display...he became the nation's head. This was the greatest achievement of his reign."
At his death, after only nine years as King, Bertie had transformed his image, and passed away as a much beloved monarch.
There is so much more to this book -- the childhood deaths, the near-fatal illnesses, the scandals erupting from what we today would consider almost nothing, the self-serving mistresses at the dying king's bedside, the mother's cruel opinionated notes about her son's physical shortcomings, the political machinations that impinge on the imminent World War I. I cannot recommend this book in any higher manner except: read it and be astonished and pleasured and educated.
Author Jane Ridley delivered a masterpiece. And it wasn't easy! It took her five years and an almost daily trek to research at Windsor's Royal Archives -- eighty-nine steps up to reach the Round Tower where these archives are stored.
This book would make a fine, fascinating movie, a sequel to 2009's excellent Young Victoria. That starred Emily Blunt, very good as Vicky, trying to escape her detested mothers clutches and falling madly for Albert.
In her conclusion to The Heir Apparent, Ms. Ridley writes: "Money and sexual scandal have been the twin demons of the monarchy since the 20th century....as Bertie's successors were to discover, projecting monarchy as a 'family firm" placed an unreasonable pressure on its members to lead exemplary lives."
Indeed! If only this great history had been around for Margaret and Tony, Fergie and Andrew, Charles and Diana. Perhaps even for Queen Elizabeth II herself.