King Edward the Seventh
It is democratic of the British that they like their monarchs to enjoy themselves. A tenser or more realistic race might get satisfaction out of watching the hereditary medicine man go trembling about his duties, red-nosed and sneezing at winter parades or itching with an allergy to ermine. Some kingdoms appreciate kings who give to understand that they would rather own a small cosmetics factory and run a Mercedes. But the British feel immensely superior to their sovereigns; the people is father of its king, and likes the lad to have fun playing with that expensive crown he got for his birthday.
They don’t always get that satisfaction. I take it to be obvious that kings and queens get a colossal kick out of being kings and queens; even that Swedish king who prowled about eating grass when he was required in the war room by his mistress, was rolling in kingship in his own way. The distinction is between monarchs who admit they enjoy it, and monarchs who don’t. Here Great Britain has been unlucky. George V gave nothing away. George VI’s enjoyment of the throne will, I think, come out in time—he once sat on the top hat of the Provost of Eton to see what that worthy would dare to say about it—but in his reign there was an impression of reluctance and devotion to hard duty. The present Queen has refused to play heartily with her toys in public view, which is why the public feels a little injured about her now.
The secret of Edward VII’s unpredictable and enduring popularity is that he was the last monarch who adored being king and let everybody see it. People still talk about him, who saw him only once and then were growled at. “He was a proper King. I mean, he let you know it. You felt he knew how to live.” Edward had the simple politeness to show gratitude by really “being a king” as George III never was. Beside that, his lack of intellect, his heavily reactionary politics, his extravagance, and his mistresses did not matter.
Sir Philip Magnus has found a good last sentence for his biography: “Safe havens were attainable from opposite directions; parents and tutors pointed one way but he found another; and he arrived.” Albert and Baron Stockmar, the king-trainer from Coburg, wanted to make the Prince of Wales into a model Coburgian constitutional monarch. He was subjected to merciless education for paragonship. His character was constantly being picked open and scrutinized for signs of moral growth. He had to keep a diary, inspected every day. Only when he was fifteen was he allowed to choose his own food. As a child, he gave way to violent, irrational rages and fits of cruelty to other children (a trait which lasted into his young manhood). Always telling the truth, as he always told it throughout his life, he still utterly failed to please. Stockmar thought that ancestral madness was coming out.
Against the overwhelming intellectual forces massed against him by Prince Albert and supported by the fifth column of real fatherly affection, Edward maintained his resistance. Nobody comes out of that sort of childhood unscathed; but Edward seems to have acquired nothing worse than a hatred of contradiction and an aversion to effort. Politically, this was lucky. Britain in the first decades of the twentieth century was no place for a monarch with elaborate Coburg views about the exact part played by the crown in the “machine of state.” The last and most savage round of the war between the middle classes and the great landowning families was about to be fought in the battlefield of Parliament, and this struggle was an upheaval in traditional society, something between the British themselves and nothing to do with the Kings, who had abandoned in the seventeenth century any serious engagement in class conflicts. The best thing a King could do during the clash between the Lords and the Liberals before the First World War was, within reason, to keep his mouth shut and try to prevent massacres of the wounded.
Sir Philip uses material which suggests that we have been unimaginative about the relationship between the Prince of Wales and his mother. The Beerbohm cartoon of a ponderously grown-up Edward stood in the corner at Osborne for his naughtiness has missed Victoria’s capacity for indulgence; whatever fuss she made at the time, she forgave him his sins extravagantly and soon. For a time she professed to believe that it was the Prince’s affair in Ireland with the actress Nellie Clifden which had worried Albert to the grave, but even that blew over. Albert and Stockmar, rather than the Queen, were rigid. There is even a contrast between her moral attitudes and those of her son in the face of royal blatancy: she did not greatly mind entertaining the horrible Leopold II of Belgium, his gold won with Congolese blood and spent on European nymphets, while King Edward VII would have nothing to do with him. (Possibly he saw Leopold as a caricature of himself.) Politically, too, the Queen was both more tolerant and more aggressive than her son. Tolerant as when the Prince of Wales wrote to her in 1868 to urge “the high hand” in dealing with Irish rebels “…everything that the Government gives in to is a feather in the cap of the lower orders”) and she replied that the “lower orders” were “daily becoming more well-informed and more intelligent, and…will deservedly work themselves up to the top by their own merits…”; the danger, on the contrary, lay in the self-indulgence and irresponsibility of the rich. Aggressive in her furious campaign against Palmerston and her refusal to be left out of the Government’s decision-making; Edward VII was successfully excluded, on the whole, by his administrations, and his resentment never became very active.
Only once, as the husband of a Danish princess during the Schleswig-Holstein affair, did Edward try to play the traditional part of the Princes of Wales and ally with the political opposition. That did not last long. As King, he seemed content with a comfortably fetishist outlook: whatever entrenches on my rights must be bad for the country. He enjoyed uniforms and medals and the niceties which are attached to them, and Sir Philip records the scene he created when he heard that the Foreign Secretary had promised the Shah of Persia the Order of the Garter without first getting his permission. “King Edward…flung the box containing the Foreign Secretary’s letter…through a porthole at the far end of his cabin. It fell into a pinnace and was retrieved by a stoker.”
Sir Philip Magnus does not venture very far into political generalizations about the changing position of the British monarchy in the reign of Edward VII. This is a pity, but a lack deriving from the strategy of the book itself. Sir Philip has almost thought himself into the Royal orbit. Trying to sympathize as closely as possible with the baffling simplicities of a king’s mind, he has fallen into a courtier’s turn of phrase and to some extent into a courtier’s view of politics. To write of Joseph Chamberlain, as Mayor of Birmingham, that his speeches before the Prince of Wales “combined loyalty with manliness and courtesy to perfection,” or of Nellie Clifden that “the woman had bragged,” or of the Prince in America that “his bubbling high spirits and inexhaustible vitality worked like a charm” is coming close to writing a biography from the subject’s point of view. Time after time, Sir Philip wrenches himself away from the spells of such language, and becomes sharply critical of the society whose accents he has caught. “Obedience to [Edward’s] judgments,” he writes at one such moment, “helped to invest idleness with dignity, beside affording comfort to thousands who construed pursuit of pleasure as performance of social duty.”
Anybody who wants to know more about kings should certainly buy this book. It may not have the bite and wit of Ponsonby’s Recollections of Three Reigns, but it provides an enormous mass of new information from the Royal Archives, not the least interesting of which is the news that bundle after bundle of precious correspondence from the private files of Victoria and Edward was systematically burned over a long period of years. And, of course, it goes a long way to satisfy curiosity about the royal mistresses.
The mistresses were surprisingly respectable and secure in tenure. Keeping them separate from the transient affairs—the heavy tread along midnight corridors in so many country houses—there was Lily Langtry, and then there was Lady Warwick, and then, in the later part of the King’s life, there was Mrs. Keppel. They seem to have been sensible women, who were discreet and capable of giving good advice: far from inflaming the man, they calmed him down and even undertook difficult private negotiations for him. One could almost say that he made his mistresses his secretaries, a sensible order of appointment. Lady Warwick seems to have let him down politically, however: In a sentence which intrigues rather than reveals, Sir Philip writes of Mrs. Keppel that she “entered the Prince of Wales’ life in 1898 in succession to Lady Warwick, who turned Socialist.” Was this a consequence, as a bereaved lady might turn to planchette, or did she provoke him by chattering about the dock strike in bed?
Many names which are muttered about in London pubs by people who claim to know are not here, nor is the question of illegitimate children brought up. But the most impressive of Sir Philip’s many revelations is the relative decency of Edward’s behavior when contrasted to that of the smart world he inhabited. Edward liked Jews, whom he brought into society without inhibition: his associates in general did not. He stuck to friends who were in disgrace, when the rest of society would have turned away from them. Above all, he had a sense of balance between his own inclinations and the limit of what was possible: the others often did not. In this book, there is a full account of the three major scandals of his life: the quarrel with Randolph Churchill over his brother’s mistress, the cardcheating affair at Tranby Croft, and the quarrel with the Beresfords. In both the Churchill and the Beresford affairs, Edward had intervened to save friends from the consequences of their own sexual adventures; in both cases, the Prince of Wales was first challenged to a duel and then threatened by his aristocratic companions with blackmail. Alliance between monarchy and aristocracy has always been dangerous and unreal in Britain, and these treacheries helped to turn the kings towards the middle classes, towards adoption like orphans by a good-natured bourgeoisie. In this foster-home, the British sovereigns now seem secure enough—so long as they admit, as Edward so sumptuously did, that they are enjoying themselves.