With the publication of Jane Ridley's new biography of Edward VII, we have an opportunity to compare the long and fascinating life of one of England's most colorful heirs to the throne with the life and loves of the current heir. Similarities abound.
Like Prince Charles, the current heir apparent, Edward VII, or Bertie as he was known (son of the beloved Albert, consort to the long-lived Victoria), was forced to wait so many years to inherit the highest royal title in England, and best known in the world, that by the time the honor was granted, he was almost too old to make much of it. In the years of waiting, Bertie did not waste his time. He spent it womanizing, gambling, posing for cameras and portraitists, smoking --- and eating. His feats at the table were so prodigious that they started a style --- the unbuttoned last button on the royal vest. Once he became King in his 60s, he was already in poor health from overindulgence in one vice or another, and died only nine years later.
"With rare access to the royal archives, Ridley has created a detail-rich book that will leave the American reader crying for more."
Ridley, for whom writing seems to come quite naturally, has a bestseller here, already widely lauded in her homeland. A professor of history at Buckingham University, she has previously written biographies of Disraeli and Edwin Lutyens, THE ARCHITECT AND HIS WIFE, for which she won the Duff Cooper Prize. She reviews regularly for the Spectator, the Literary Review, and the Times Literary Supplement.
With rare access to the royal archives, Ridley has created a detail-rich book that will leave the American reader crying for more. Who among us can resist such scenes as Bertie in India, shooting tigers and dining with potentates? Well, apparently Victoria could; she dismissed the accounts of her son’s travels as "a wearying repetition of 'elephants --- trappings --- jewels --- illuminations and fireworks.'" But it was precisely because Bertie sought the limelight, the priciest gems and the most exquisite women, that his people eventually came to adore him. Certainly a contrast to his mother, whose lack of amusement at anything that smacked of immorality was a hallmark of her reign, the youthful Bertie at first repelled the populace with his gambling and groping. But when he had the limelight to himself, “column inches of newsprint detailed the enthusiasm with which King Edward the international superstar was received” abroad. And he himself took on some of his mother’s morally persnickety ways, trying, for example, “to ban from Hyde Park women who had abandoned the sidesaddle.”
The biography of a man who evinced no fear of negative publicity before his ascension to the throne and became something of a grumpy recluse afterwards; who instituted large pompous celebrations but eschewed examinations of his family life; who referred to his wife as his "brood mare"; who "made it plain from the start that he had no intention of dropping his lady friends after he became king”; who was known to be a "poor talker and a worse letter writer" and yet ruled, for his short span, rather well, offers entertaining reading and leaves much room for speculation.
Parallels between Bertie and Charles are apt and appraisals inevitable. Will the new heir apparent live to succeed his mother? And if he does, how will he be viewed by a future biographer? If he is lucky, his tale will be told by someone with the zeal, intelligence and good humor of Ms. Ridley.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on December 7, 2013