Monday, January 1, 2018

The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, The Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley

She might have been the mother of her country, her kingdom and her empire - but she was a terrible mother to her children; as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara in one of their knock down drag out fights, “why, a cat’s a better mother than you.”  Queen Victoria certainly had a litter of kittens - she had nine children.  According to legend, she loved sex with Prince Albert, but apparently didn’t like the end result.  She once wrote a letter to her daughter Vicky (Empress Frederick) complaining horribly about her daughter Alice, but accidentally sent the letter to Alice.  Victoria’s response:  it was good for Alice to hear what her mother REALLY thought about her.  Victoria was petulant, stubborn, vindictive, loved to say “I told you so”, spoiled, unforgiving, imperious. She also could be loving, generous, had a loud infectious laugh, and as an older wiser queen loved her last set of grandchildren - but this was not the Victoria that made an appearance in Ridley’s book.  This book was nominally about Edward VII, known as Bertie, the Prince of Wales throughout much of this book.  That’s because he was Prince of Wales for a hell of a long time; his mother was very long lived.  She also did not trust her son; nor did she want to share power with him.  She was particularly awful to him.  She said terrible things about him in letters to her daughters, her ministers; she played favorites, and he was NEVER her favorite.  She thought him dull, stupid, fast, and louche.  She never particularly like his wife, Queen Alexandra, and his kids were NOT her favorites.  I sort of thought I knew everything there was to know about this family; I’ve been reading books about them for years.  But Ridley’s Bertie was something new to me.  He was sneaky - he would have to be with that horrible mother always on his case.  He was also strong.  He was loyal to his friends (female and male) even when his mother did not like them.  He traveled when and where he pleased regardless of her carping.  He lived his life exactly as he wanted, and then - so Ridley argues - when she died, he became a strong and good king who ended up being as beloved as her, even though he reigned for a very short time.  Ridley forcefully argues that Bertie played a larger role in world affairs than was given credit for - he was basically written out of the histories of the year as leading up to World War I, and Ridley has done a great job of writing him back in.  He was uncle or cousin to much of the ruling families of Europe - some of them like the Czar of Russia, autocratic rulers; and beloved Paris; he had a lot more power and influence than ever given credit for before.  He was not simply Edward the Caresser (although he was this) but ended up being a political player as well.

The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy PrinceThe Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ridley argues that history gave King Edward VII undeserved short shrift, and she sets out to prove history wrong about “Edward the Caresser.” He, indeed, earned this moniker and much of the book is about his various scandals and love affairs, which are not always as juicy to read about as you might think (he could be quite cruel; also, the ongoing list of mistresses wasn’t all that interesting to read about). But once Edward became king, he was a powerful influence on domestic and foreign affairs during his short reign, and had lasting influence on the world. His ministers, though, downplayed his importance in their later accounts, and historians came to accept this. Ridley convinced me otherwise through her writing and research; I came away assured that Edward VII was more than a louche art nouveau cad. What I found most interesting about the book was Edward’s relationship with his mother - at least Ridley’s take on this relationship. It was poisonous - she was not a nice mother to any of her children, but particularly to him - but unlike in other biographies (of him or her) or portrayals (Mrs. Brown comes to mind), the Prince of Wales was a strong willed man, loyal to his friends (and mistresses) and pretty much determined to do whatever he wanted regardless of his mother’s incesssant carping. About the only thing he ever did that she wanted him to do was marry Danish princess Alexandra, and when she came to regret that, he held firm and supported the Danish people against the Germans until the end. He was a fascinating monarch, and this was a mostly fascinating book. It did bog down occasionally - there were quite a few scandals and mistresses, and they aren’t all equally interesting to read about. But overall, a great biography.

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