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Scholarship That's Meant To Be Read
on November 4, 2013
It's difficult to imagine the time and effort that Jane Ridley devoted to her book The Heir Apparent, a long and painstakingly detailed biography of King Edward VII of England. The author has a career-long commitment to studying the history of Great Britain and its monarchs, and delving into archives that had been untouched for a century or more must have been extremely exciting. The author, I'm sure, found her work especially satisfying since discovery of new documentation was due, in good part, to her efforts to make the biography as accurate and complete as possible. When the portrait that emerged from her decade-long study of this massive collection of forgotten or previously ignored sources came to constitute a substantial revision of long-standing assumptions about the role and importance of Edward VII, I'm certain that Ridley was thrilled. She had created something genuinely new: a picture of early 20th Century England that differed significantly from other interpretations.
The eldest son of long-reigning Queen Victoria, the youthful Edward VII, then known as the Prince of Wales and nicknamed Bertie, showed little promise as a prospective British monarch. Insofar as his future required disciplined intelligence and scholarly cultivation, the transition from the high-sounding but devoid-of-duties Prince of Wales to the demanding role of King in a constitutional monarchy seemed a move that Bertie was sure to bungle. Ignorant and ineffectual monarchs are commonplace throughout European history, but the proud Victoria had hoped to produce something much better.
Ironically, the length of Victoria's reign and her lack of confidence in Bertie both contributed to turning him into a womanizer, hard-luck gambler, world-class glutton, and general purpose do-nothing. After all, there were no obligations, whether legally prescribed or traditionally observed, to impose purposeful activity on the Prince of Wales. In the absence of special talents to develop, interests to pursue, or the Queen's request for his assistance, becoming a royal playboy seemed a predictable way to go. The fact that Victoria inexplicably blamed her beloved husband's death on his knowledge of Bertie's first sexual misadventure only made matters worse. Victoria went into permanent mourning, withdrawing from public life, but refused to step aside for Bertie's ascendance to the throne. Without purpose, Bertie drifted into a pattern of dissipation that endured even after he married Princess Alexandra of Denmark.
Bertie's redemption, as Ridley sees it, came after Victoria's death, during his relatively brief time as King. Though he persisted in his sexual adventurism and otherwise gave pride of place to pleasure, his social and political skill in working with others in comparably high positions finally came to the fore. While the King had little power in a constitutional monarchy, especially after Victoria's long and reclusive reign, the author lauds him for the personal persuasive force that he exerted at the highest levels both at home and abroad. Ridley credits Edward VII with with providing the decisive influence that led to the joining of Great Britain, France, and Russia in the entente cordiale, a united front that soon faced the evermore bellicose Germany in World War I. As Ridley sees it, had it not been for the social aptitude, natural charm, and instinctive political acumen of Edward VII, Europe might have become a very different and hostile place, with implications for today that might have been profound.
It is with regard to these latter developments that Ridley parts company with other scholars in that she gives what she judges to be long overdue credit to Edward VII for his behind-the-scenes diplomatic accomplishments. Other observers have noted little difference between the sybaritic Prince of Wales and King Edward VII. Whether or not Ridley is right, she makes a strong case that the playboy Prince became a dutiful and hardworking King, in spite of his continued self-indulgence.
Inevitably, a biography of Edward VII will be loaded with titillating gossip. Sometimes, I think, Ridley includes too much of this, and the reader's attention begins to wane. Nevertheless, her descriptions of how the Prince and then King spent his spare time are historically illuminating. The accounts of shooting vacations bespeak an unacknowledged cruelty and perversion of sportsmanship beyond anything I've previously imagined. Now I know why members of the aristocracy often owned enormous tracts of wooded land and employed game keepers. On a typical shooting day, it was not at all uncommon for ten or twenty blue-bloods armed with shotguns to kill more than a thousand pheasants or grouse, driven towards them as they waited in their stands to shoot indiscriminately at a veritable cloud of birds. The disposition of the products of such a slaughter is not told.
Whether or not one construes such a grotesque activity as sport, it speaks volumes as to the resources available to the high born and wealthy. Edward VII's one reported glimpse of the condition of the poor in England left him shaken and horrified. Clearly, he had never imagined such misery and degradation, and to his credit, as King he devoted a good deal of effort to charitable ventures. Nevertheless, the gluttony, bed-hopping, and high-priced cruises and vacations taken for granted by Edward VII and his kind stood in the sharpest possible contrast to the lives of most of the population of Great Britain. This is well known, but Ridley displays it so graphically that it takes on new meaning.
Edward VII was a man of his time. I think the author may have unwittingly exaggerated his accomplishments as King, but she does show us forcefully that he was a wounded soul who had been treated with inexcusable, neurotic cruelty by his mother, and that was something that stayed with him.
There is so much information in this well written book that a review can give it only a cursory gloss. Whether intended or not, the author's treatment of Edward VII's life leaves the reader with a renewed and sobering appreciation of the finite nature of our time on earth, and the eventful and changing character of a fairly long life course. The Heir Apparent is long and extremely detailed, but I found reading it well worth the time and effort.