By Jane Ridley
Random House. 752pp. $35
When the dissipated, overweight, scandal-prone Prince of Wales finally got the job he’d been waiting for all his life, he was 59 and tired. “It has come too late,” he said, in German, to his wife, Alexandra, as she knelt and kissed his hand beside his mother’s deathbed. Jane Ridley’s exhaustive new biography presents her subject as a Victorian Prince Hal, an immature philanderer who grows up into a decent, if hardly heroic, king.
Certainly nobody hoped for much from Victoria’s eldest son — “few kings have come to the throne amid lower expectations” — but those low expectations were his own doing, as hundreds of pages of biography have already detailed. As an attempt to rescue Edward VII (known as “Bertie”) from unfairly harsh historical judgments, the story of his reign — like the reign itself — is too little, too late. The story is also an indictment of the system of hereditary monarchy. And it’s hard not to see parallels between Bertie’s fate and that of his great-great-grandson Prince Charles, now 65: to spend adult life searching for something to do while waiting for Mother to die.
The royal world into which Prince Albert Edward was born in 1841 was one still scarred by the mad, bad Hanoverians of the 18th century. Their legacy of illegitimate offspring, inherited insanity and vicious familial power struggles haunted both Queen Victoria and her cousin and consort, Prince Albert — a fascinating, domineering figure in Ridley’s telling, who was raised in a decadent minor German court and became obsessed with purifying the palace. Albert invented the phrase and concept of the “the royal family,” grasping presciently the power that the new house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha could hold as a “beacon of bourgeois domesticity” rather than as a byword for debauchery.
Unfortunately for his children, this meant a stringent policing of behavior and a rigorous program of private education, under which Bertie — who never willingly read a book — stumbled and suffered. His bride, the Danish princess Alexandra, known as Alix, was chosen for him before he was 20 in a match masterminded by his older sister Vicky, newly married to the future German Emperor Frederick III. Theirs was still a Europe governed by dynastic alliances and insistent upon the (outward) sexual purity of royal children at the time of marriage. Although Bertie protested that he was too young, his parents made haste, knowing that the pretense that the union was “a love match” rather than an arranged, political marriage “depended upon keeping him in a state of pent-up sexual frustration so that he fell madly in love at first sight.”
Predictably, however, the young prince had already found ways to relieve his frustration. Shortly before his wedding, at a military camp in Ireland, he met one Nellie Clifden, “a lady of easy virtue,” as Ridley puts it, using an appropriately Victorian euphemism. The meetings are recorded in Bertie’s diary, where the initials “N.C.” appear by a series of dates, in what became a lifelong habit — adultery recorded as appointments. To his parents, Bertie’s “fall” was a catastrophe, compounded by the fatal fever that flared in Albert after a long walk in cold rain remonstrating with Bertie. The queen never recovered from her husband’s death from typhoid at the age of just 42 and never forgave Bertie for his role in it.
Freed from his father’s control and barely restrained by his marriage, Bertie came of age in the 1860s, “a decade of sexual liberation,” and embraced exactly the milieu his parents feared: “the shooting, hunting, gambling swells whom Prince Albert had so deplored.” It’s hard to cheer for this escape into purposeless luxury, in which the son’s great blow against his mother’s authority is to take up smoking. The members of the prince’s ever-shifting inner circle are social climbers, gossips, hypocrites and sybarites. He spends his time at country-house parties where adulterous “corridor creeping” is a sport as central as shooting or hunting, and more than one of his friends goes bankrupt entertaining the prince and his gargantuan appetite. Although unusually for his time he is not anti-Semitic, this would be a more admirable trait if his generosity seemed to extend beyond Rothschilds. The best anyone seems to be able to muster of Bertie is that he’s good-natured, as long as he’s not bored and is getting his way. Despite the inherent fascination of his vanished world, the prince himself hardly makes for edifying company.
The biography began as a study of the women in Bertie’s life: Victoria, Alix and his many mistresses — who included Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie; Daisy, Countess of Warwick; the actress Lillie Langtry; and Susan Vane-Tempest, who had the dubious distinction of being the only mistress whose pregnancy could be “credited with certainty” to the prince, although no one knows what became of their child. But when Ridley was unexpectedly given full access to the king’s archive, the project grew, along with her sympathy for her subject. It’s a shame that the women shrink as Bertie expands, however: Their stories become tantalizingly condensed, and the cost to individual women of the prince’s “admiration” is barely felt. For all the language of destruction — scandals that “tore apart the Marlborough House set” or “almost derailed Bertie’s life” — we know from the start that the prince will never pay.
Ridley is a thorough and scrupulous biographer who refuses to speculate beyond the evidence, much of which was equally scrupulously destroyed. The result is a cautious book in which the subject is ultimately damned by his biographer’s faint criticism. When Bertie coldly cuts an upstart courtier, he is mildly rebuked for pulling rank — “perhaps the least attractive of royal characteristics.” But the prince has nothing but rank — no power, no job, no responsibility — and, “for all his affability,” he never forgets it. It would take a far more glittering legacy to obscure that fact.
Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer and adjunct professor at New York University’s Gallatin School.