Currently head of Eton School’s Department of History and the author of such well-received studies as The Royal George: The Life of H. R. H. Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, 1819-1904 and Infamous Victorians, Giles St. Aubyn lends credence to the long-held popular notion that England’s Edward VII was a large-souled monarch who ably led his nation and Commonwealth of colonized nations into the twentieth century. Certainly it cannot be said that St. Aubyn hides his enthusiasm for King “Bertie,” whom he regards much as the anonymous balladeer did who called him “a King . . . from head to sole,/Loved by his people one and all.”
Even the most cursory glance at the author’s eighteen-page selected bibliography will convince the reader that St. Aubyn knows his subject in considerable depth. His biography of Edward is authoritative without being dull and analytical without being nitpicking. In it, he proves that Edward summoned sufficient courage and insight to rid himself of those suffocating constrictions of spirit foisted on him by his father, Prince Albert, and mother, Queen Victoria. Instead of turning out to be the prig his father hoped he would be, he became a pleasure-seeker; rather than a solemn utterer of pieties, he became an ebullient, charming statesman; rather than a Germany worshiper, he preferred France; and rather than be a stay-at-home like his mother, he cultivated a love of travel and outdoor life. As a result, Edward outstripped his emotionally and physically cloistered parents, truly becoming the hale, lively king of legend.
As the author points out, it was incredible that young Albert Edward (as he was known during childhood and his regency period), so emotionally vulnerable as a youth, could survive the death of his beloved father and, even more remarkably, the emotional freeze that set in between him and his mother.
Victoria, looking for someone to blame for her adored Albert’s early death, found her scapegoat in Albert Edward; she spurned his affection and often chose to ignore him completely. The atmosphere of the great houses and palaces in which he grew up was gloomy, if not funereal; and this gloom, combined with Victoria’s sour cast of mind, made life for the boy hard to bear. Yet bear it he did; astonishingly, he did not turn into himself and shut out the rest of the world, but insistently looked to the time when he could escape Victoria and her melancholia.
The Queen’s already substantial consternation about her son increased when she discovered that her tutors could do little with him; as a student, he seemed to be a failure. What he lacked in scholarly diligence he made up for in what his companion, Charles Carrington, later was to call “pluck,” a characteristic he was to display for the rest of his life.
Despite the Queen’s discontent with her son’s progress at school, she did allow him to venture abroad so that he might become better acquainted with the ancient splendors of Rome and other things he avoided studying about. It was on such a tour as the one taken in 1859 that Edward learned not only to behave properly in the presence of foreign dignitaries but to appreciate the elegance, wit, and beauty of women, a pleasure frowned upon by Her Royal Majesty. Edward’s high spirits and ready jests made him the center of attention wherever he traveled, whether it was to visit Austria’s Crown Prince Metternich or King Louis Philippe of France. His curiosity about the countries he visited flattered his hosts, most of whom hoped to see more of him. Needless to say, the grand tours of Europe released the young heir apparent from the tyranny of his mother and taught him to appreciate the wider world beyond Windsor and Buckingham Palace. Additionally, the friendships he made while on tour would come in handy when he did become King.
After leading a fairly restricted life at Oxford University, Edward looked for a likely marriage partner at age sixteen and found her in the person of Princess Alexandra, daughter of Prince Christian of Denmark. As always, St. Aubyn does a fine job of portraying all of the treachery and behind-the-scenes maneuvering that went on to get Alexandra and “Bertie” together (Queen Victoria did not approve of her son’s marrying someone other than a German). The wedding of 1863 served to unite members of European monarchies, most of whom were related to one another, in a way similar to that of Edward’s grand funeral in 1910, their last happy meeting before world war struck. Yet even in 1863, certain cracks in Europe’s monarchical system were apparent.
Especially apparent and stressed throughout this biography was the rift between Albert Edward and his nephew, the mercurial William II of Germany, who was, from the start, jealous of England and all things English. St. Aubyn makes clear that it was William (later Kaiser Wilhelm) who was responsible for creating tensions between Germany and England which were to lead to World War I; in this, he is being fairly traditional in approach, for many historians blame William’s this-way-that-way attitude for driving nations to war. Like other historians, St. Aubyn finds that the reason behind...
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