Uncle of Europe
Edward was born heir to Victoria’s throne, but he did not succeed her until he was fifty-nine years old. He set fashions, had a reputation for wine and women, if not song; he had a direct and personal influence on the diplomatic arrangements of his day. There are certainly a number of possibilities for a biographer or historian here: the personal, whether of the level of warmed-over gossip, or of psychological searching; the constitutional, for his reign may well have seen a turning-point in the character of the monarchy and the constitution; and the diplomatic, with tremors of the coming earthquake.
Brook-Shepherd, an English journalist with experience of Europe, and especially Austria, has chosen to focus on the social and diplomatic aspects of his subject’s reign, though he could not avoid touching on the personal areas as well. His stress is on Edward’s leadership of Continental society, his love for life and for people (and gift for handling the latter), and the way he turned these gifts to use in forwarding the diplomatic policies of Great Britain, policies which Brook-Shepherd sees as ones of Edward’s own forming.
Not much of this is new, though Brook-Shepherd has new insights and an interesting view. One of the great preliminary difficulties, and it is one he masters as well as can be expected, is the wholly different world Edward inhabited. It really mattered that he was “Uncle of Europe” as Victoria had been grandmother and great-grandmother. There is a chart in the back of the book tracing Edward’s relationships with royal families of Germany, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Spain, and Greece. This is not genealogical gamesmanship; some monarchs still ruled, not merely reigned, and even constitutional kings had a different position from those of today. Edward’s kinship and kingship gave him leverage.
Similarly, the distinctions of class (not merely money) counted for more and counted differently. Edward could make friends with those outside the circles of club and country-house, but even for him there were some tricky places, and it is hard to imagine anyone else doing it. At its simplest and most fundamental, there is a gulf between that age and ours, created by the upheaval of World War I, which has been widened and deepened by the decades of revolution and war that have followed.
What was Edward’s background? Brook-Shepherd (maybe from his Contintental experience) stresses the Germanic strains in his ancestry—not only the original Hanoverian, but the repeated German princesses, and finally, Albert Edward of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the Prince Consort. The German was not only by inheritance: Albert’s conscientious, heavy, almost pedantic habits formed Edward’s education. He resisted, crawling under desks at the age of four, and he found other escapes later, but the pattern was there. And Victoria, after Albert’s death, was intent on fulfilling her beloved husband’s plans.
Brook-Shepherd is perceptive about the miseducation. Edward was not, he insists, stupid or unintelligent—he may well have been unintellectual. (It is hard to think of any of the Hanoverian line as intellectual.) The stiff regime of Albert and Victoria’s Germanic advisers brought resistance and rejection. And, of course, there were those nearly forty adult years in a waiting posture. The function of the heir apparent, like that of the Vice-President of the United States, is not an active one, and it is hard to imagine how it could be made so. But Victoria gave Edward no scope, no opportunity, and by negation encouraged (certainly against her intention) the pursuit of pleasure.
The education, in a sense, begins with an incognito visit to the United States. Brook-Shepherd recounts “Baron Renfrew’s” tour of the United States in 1860, the year of Lincoln’s election. Surely it was one of the most transparent disguises for the nineteen-year-old Prince of Wales. Through it, Americans, always excited by royalty, saw a great deal of charm, and Edward, apparently, had a good time. As one in the New York crowd said, “Come back, and we’ll elect you President.”
He never did go back, but there may have been the access of confidence Brook-Shepherd argues. It was the continent of Europe he traveled in the succeeding years, and came to know in his own way—theaters and spas, as well as palaces and chancelleries. In that age when royalty still counted, he knew most of the crowned heads, or their wives, as members of the family.
As in many families, the relationship was not always one of harmony and...
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