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IT is good to have from the pen of so discerning a writer on things Victorian as Mr. E. F. Benson a brief biography of Victoria’s son. Sir Sidney Lee’s two volumes on Edward VII are indispensable, and Mr. Benson has drawn judiciously upon them; but they are ‘official’ biography, sober and weighty, a little too weighty for the general reader. Mr. Benson has just the essayist’s skill necessary to make Edward interesting and alive.
Few monarchs of whom so little was expected have done more than Edward VII. Long kept in the background by his mother’s unwillingness to trust him with public business, — and Mr. Benson brings out very well indeed how much Victoria’s motive for this relegation of her son to private life lay in her incredible idolatry of Albert, so that she could not bear to think of another occupying himself with their business, — Edward in 1901 was known to his subjects as a pleasant layer of corner stones and a boulevardier addicted to quite unEnglish pleasures. To their surprise, he turned out to be at least as good a constitutional ruler as his mother He had all her devotion to public business, her determination to maintain, but never to abuse, the Prerogative; he had to an even greater extent than she that indefinable quality for which one must use the somewhat cheapened phrase ‘personal magnetism,’ and he had, as she had not, the ability to dissociate men and ideas. Where Victoria, could never keep Gladstone and Liberalism separate, —hating the man, she hated the party, — Edward could make friends with mild Republicans like Dilke and Chamberlain.
Mr. Benson has rightly emphasized Edward’s great gifts as a conciliator. At home, the political hatreds which were to destroy the power of the House of Lords were too strong to give him much opportunity, though he did manage to keep the Crown free from the unpopularity the Upper House brought upon itself by its rejection of the Education Act and the Budget. Abroad, his rôle was decisive, and it may be urged that Edward was at least as influential as circumstances in founding and maintaining the entente with France. Under the influence of the economic interpretation of history, — which is far from a monopoly of professed socialists, — we have gone too far in recent years in denying the importance of individual leaders in political action. No doubt great impersonal forces, some of them economic, went to produce the Great War. But the actual makeup of the contending alliances was far from predetermined in 1900. After Fashoda and the Boer War, French hatred of England was as strong as French hatred of Germany. In this situation, Edward’s sympathies for France, his tact, his ability to make official visits something more than empty formalities, turned the scale. His three-day visit, to Paris in 1903, begun with cries of ’Vivent les Boers!‘ ended with cries of ‘Vive noire roil’