A King in Spite of His Mother: Edward Vii
In the eyes of many Americans, says GERALD W. JOHNSON, ”the reign of Edward VII was,at most, a pale afterglow of the departed Victorian splendor.”But in Sir Philip Magnus’ carefully documented biography KING EDWARD THE SEVENTH, published last month by Dutton,the reader finds a monarch whose nine-year reign profoundly influenced the course of history.
by GERALD W. JOHNSON
THE Queen of England — repeat, England wrote to the Crown Princess of Prussia — repeat, Prussia — with reference to the Prince of Wales, “I hope you have ‘germanized’ Bertie as much as possible, for it is most necessary.”
Read in the political context of 1964, an assertion by a reigning Queen that it is “most necessary” for a future King of England to be thoroughly germanized leaves one — what shall we say? — well, call it bemused. One might echo Andrew Lang’s comment on the metamorphosis of a pair of lovers into birds:
In the reign of the Emperor Hwang,
but it does not apply, because this King reigned, not in antiquity, but in the first decade of the present century. He was Edward VII.
Yet the tale is undoubtedly true, for the letter was found among the Queen’s papers by a scholar of unimpeachable veracity, and the same attitude is reflected in a great many other documents. examined by Sir Philip Magnus in his King Edward the Seventh (Dutton, $8.50). There is no escaping the fact that in the considered opinion of Queen Victoria it was essential to make a King of England German in spirit; which implies that in some respects the thinking of Victoria Regina, separated from us by less than two thirds of a century, was closer to that of the legendary Hwang (circa 2650 B.C.) than to the modern temper.
The line of demarcation is sharp. Victoria was the last occupant of the British throne who believed wholeheartedly in the mystique of the blood royal. Edward, her son, accepted and defended it, but because it was expedient to do so, not because he gave it full faith and credit. If he had believed as his mother believed, he would never have understood how ruinous to the monarchical principle was the conduct of his nephew William of Germany. If kings ruled by divine right, how could an individual among them destroy that right? But if the royal prerogative derived from a mundane source, then one royal mountebank might easily shatter its basis.
Edward VII had no doubt whatever that it was his duty and in his interest to stop the besotted William before he ruined all European monarchy. Accordingly, he arranged the concert of powers that eventually did destroy Imperial Germany, but not soon enough to effect the survival of European royalty, which today clings only to the northeastern fringe of the Continent in the Scandinavian highlands and the Rhine delta.
Contemporary British politicians — conspicuously, Arthur Balfour — sourly denied that the King had anything to do with this. They would. They wanted to keep the credit exclusively to themselves. But Sir Philip Magnus, in his carefully documented biography, establishes a high probability that had there been no Edward VII, there would have been no Triple Entente, and without the Entente there would have been no concerted resistance to the Kaiser in 1914. By that time Edward was dead and gone, but his work lived after him.
This probability alone would be sufficient justification for the time, the labor, and the skill that Sir Philip has lavished upon the life of this King. The work needs justification in the eyes of Americans, who have been pretty well persuaded that the reign of Edward VII was, at most, a pale afterglow of the departed Victorian splendor. As regards the government, this may be true, but Magnus argues, plausibly indeed, that as regards the monarchy, the reverse is true. He portrays Edward as the last King of England who was de facto as well as de jure royal in that he personally bent the trend of history more in his nine years than his mother did in her sixty-four.
If that is the case, he deserves attention. A typical American may be as astonished to find a biographer of British Kings concentrating on this man as he would be to find a biographer of Presidents devoting long labor and hundreds of pages to the career of Franklin Pierce; but by the time he has finished Magnus’ book, the American’s astonishment will be assuaged.
The story would have remained a fascinating, if appalling, story had Edward Wettin—it was after his time that his family became the House of Windsor—been the son of a nonconformist parson instead of the son of a Queen.
For Edward’s personal—he had no private — life is almost a textbook case of the baleful influence of good women. Edward’s mother, his wife, and his sisters were all women of the type conventionally described as good. It may be argued that no human being massively infected with moral certainty can be really good. The women in this case were certainly decorous, and why they did not utterly destroy the youth passes understanding.
This suggestion perhaps will shock Magnus, who is scrupulously deferential to the ladies; but he is, after all, a scholar before he is a courtier, and when he finds a fact he sets it down as he finds it, seldom assuming to deduce a moral. He finds as a fact that only one of Edward’s mistresses did him any serious damage, and by inadvertence rather than by malice aforethought, while at least one was a salutary influence in that her tact and intelligence smoothed over many minor irritations that otherwise might have developed into serious and injurious quarrels.
THIRTY years ago, Lytton Strachey, ably seconded by the coalition of Laurence Housman and Helen Hayes, instructed Americans regarding the abnormal ascendancy that Albert, the Prince Consort, exerted over Queen Victoria. But all three, as creative artists, handled the subject gingerly; Magnus, as annalist, doesn’t handle it at all. He merely records the facts, more often than not in the Queen’s own words, and always as they are presented in some official record, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusion.
The inescapable inference is that the case was pathological. After Albert’s death his widow spent a full decade in a seclusion that, as far as the nation was concerned, was virtual hermitage. She spurned her duty to act as a public figure and was infuriated by any suggestion that she was under obligation to give direction and tone to social life in London. For years on end she never set foot in her own capital, and her letters were filled with descriptions of the dead man so extravagant as to verge upon pagan idolatry.
The horrible phase of this dementia, however, was that it produced a phobia against her eldest son. Albert was already a sick man, although he was preparing to attend some public function out of London, when talebearers came to him with news that Bertie had landed in a scrape with a young actress, who was boasting of the affair. Albert was exasperated, naturally; but he was a German prince who had lived all his life in royal courts, so the idea that he was jarred to the bottom of his soul by the news is beyond credulity. However, he interrupted his journey long enough to have nineteen-year-old Bertie on the carpet and give him a tongue-lashing that apparently was a classic; then he went on to keep his appointment, but on arrival felt so ill that he took to his bed, from which he never rose again.
The attending physicians were in no doubt whatever about their diagnosis. It was a typical case of typhoid fever, in those days endemic in England. The period of incubation, we have since learned, is such that the idea that anything that Bertie did or failed to do could have infected his father with Bacillus typhosus is sheer lunacy; nevertheless, Victoria conceived and clung to the idea that her son had killed his father, and it poisoned her relationship with Bertie for years. “Much as I pity, I never can or shall look at him without a shudder,” the Queen wrote to her daughter; and when the Prussian Crown Princess continued to remonstrate, “if you had seen,” Victoria wrote, and then described Albert’s death, “I doubt if you could bear the sight of one who was the cause.”
This was bad enough, in all conscience, but Victoria contrived to make it worse. To her idée fixe that her son was a monster of iniquity, she added the even more preposterous notion that he was irremediably puerile. The idea that he must inevitably come to the throne filled her with horror, and she did everything humanly possible to prevent his preparing himself for the duties of that station. She absolutely forbade his access to the confidential dispatches coming to the Foreign Office, and she forbade her ministers to discuss affairs of state with the Prince of Wales. This she could not make absolute, for some of them contrived to give him information indirectly.
Generally speaking, however, by his mother’s ban he was cut off from government business; by his rank he was cut off from commercial business; by temperament he had little aptitude for the arts and sciences and found no great pleasure in the company of their practitioners. His mother was reluctant even to have him represent her at cornerstone layings and similar public functions; she preferred to send a younger son. The one activity open to him was the leadership of society, so to that he devoted himself for fifty-nine years.
THE only point on which Edward made a successful stand was, according to Magnus, that of his marriage. He understood its political necessity, and he conceded that only a royal bride was eligible. But Edward was not taking to his bosom any female fright, and that was flat.
It was an embarrassment, for the royal houses of Europe were not conspicuous for their success in producing beautiful women. Most of the eligible princesses, to put it bluntly, looked more like homemade sin than like the goddess of love and beauty, and Edward was not having any. The situation grew strained for a while, but eventually some ingenious courtier discovered a princess; of a relatively poor and obscure house, it was true, but an authentic princess, and really good-looking. She was the daughter of a German prince who, the Great Powers had agreed, should succeed his great-uncle, the childless King of Denmark, when the old King died.
A meeting was contrived, and Edward fell. It seemed to him that the girl had not only beauty but brains, or, at least, a fine fund of common sense. He was to find later that she was cheerful, kindhearted, and gifted with remarkable tact. In short, he chose well.
But when the name was presented to the Queen, she went into what a later generation would vulgarly term a tailspin. About the girl herself she knew nothing, but she knew that the political situation of Denmark, in a contest between Russia and Prussia, was delicate, with England walking warily around the edges of the competition. More, and from her peculiar standpoint, much worse, she knew that the King of Denmark was something of an old rip, and she knew that the girl’s mother, while irreproachable herself, had a set of brothers whose lives, common gossip had it, were lurid. No, said the Queen, and the situation became all the more difficult.
Apparently it was Edward himself who somehow wangled from his mother an invitation to the Princess to spend a week at Windsor. Tradition says that at first she objected to being “sent on approval,” but, once persuaded, she decided to make a good job of it, and she was intelligent enough to discover how to approach Victoria. The upshot was that at the end of the week the Queen reluctantly admitted that the girl herself seemed to be all right, but that family!
The main point was won, however, so they were married, and the new Princess of Wales arrived, with Alfred Tennyson shouting,
Norman and Saxon and Dane are we,
But all of us Danes in our welcome of thee,
and with the British public enchanted by her beauty and soon to be permanently enthralled by her charm.
As royal marriages go, it was a success. Edward’s affection for her was genuine and lasting. It is beyond belief that Alexandra was totally ignorant of his occasional dalliance, but she knew it for what it was — dalliance; so while he probably angered her repeatedly, they were never alienated. She steadied him and, especially in the early years, was of invaluable assistance to him as a social leader. Her one flaw was political; especially after her father became King of Denmark, she was as violently anti-German as the Queen was proGerman, and the luckless Edward was caught in the middle. But it was a small price to pay for all that Alexandra gave him, including a sane and healthy heir.
Nevertheless, as one follows Sir Philip’s careful tracing of this career through endless empty years, the story builds up a tension that toward the end becomes almost unbearably painful. It is no literary contrivance, except as the beautiful lucidity of the narration is a literary effect. It is precisely what is not in the book, and could not be in it while the author stuck to his chosen task, which was to recount the life of Edward VII.
Stopping in Paris on the way to Cannes, the Prince of Wales called on President Thiers and met a number of representatives of the new republican regime which had been recognized by the British Government. He visited the Jockey Club, of which he was a popular member, and entertained at his hotel the Comte de Paris and other members of the Bourbon-Orleans family. . . .
From Cannes the Prince and Princess went on the royal yacht to Rome, where they were joined by the King and Queen of Denmark and entertained by King Victor Emmanuel. The Prince exchanged civilities with the Pope, who had immured himself in the Vatican; and, after staying in Florence, Venice, and on Lake Como, he returned to Marlborough House on 1 June in good health and stouter than before his illness.
And so on, and so on, through hundreds of pages describing thousands of vacant days. His Royal Highness went to Goodwood for the races. He went to Ascot for the races. He attended parties and balls. He gave parties and balls. He went to Scotland for the grouse shooting, to the Black Forest for the pigsticking, to Nepal for the elephant hunting. He danced. He gambled. He engaged in flirtations. In a divorce case, “he perjured himself like a gentleman,” though Magnus says in that case, for once, he was innocent. He became snarled in a messy business involving cheating at cards. But only on the rarest occasions did he have any perceptible contact with politics, business, art, science, or literature; and this for fifty-nine years.
What converts the story from mere vacuity into corrosive irony is one’s awareness that while this inane drama was being played right up against the footlights, behind the painted scene that cut it off, a tremendous battle of ideas was being waged, not by pasteboard puppets, but by huge and solid men. The sequel proved that Edward’s head was by no means as empty as his life, so it is beyond belief that he was completely oblivious of what was going on; he must have heard, if dimly, the clangor of steel on steel as the empire was being hammered into shape; he could not have missed completely the shouts and curses, the roars of rage, and the yells of triumph of the empire builders.
Within his arm’s reach, yet cut off by impalpable but impermeable convention, they passed: Melbourne and Palmerston, Lord John Russell and plebeian John Bright, Gladstone, Disraeli, Parnell and wily Joe Chamberlain; then, at the very end, the Welsh silver-tongue, Lloyd George, and the smart, brash young undersecretary, Winston Churchill. The Queen preferred to have him converse with royal rather than “common" duchesses, and she would have been most displeased had he filled Marlborough House in the evening with such odd fish as Darwin, Galton, Lyell, and Huxley; or the controversial Carlyle and Spencer. Alfred Lord Tennyson would pass muster, but not mere scribblers of the order of Browning, Swinburne, and Rossetti — not to mention that vulgarian, Rudyard Kipling.
So Edward lived and moved and had his being among the blue-blooded insignificant, the great masters of the trivial, the world’s supreme authorities on the proper knotting of a cravat and “the nice conduct of a clouded cane.” It is a long, long tale of gilded dreariness, of perfumed vacuity, that would have been depressing had it been inflicted upon a noodle, but that was tragic when imposed upon a man of parts.
For when the old Queen died at last, King Edward found that most of the burly empire builders had gone before her; in the shoes of Gladstone and Disraeli. Balfour and CampbellBannerman were shuffling dispiritedly, while the insolent and rattlebrained Wilhelm II of Germany was strutting all over Europe and threatening to pull down the whole monarchical system.
Even the simulacra of statesmen who had succeeded to the real ones in both Paris and London knew what ought to be done — namely, to establish a firm coalition of Britain, France, and Russia: but none had the force to capture and control public opinion in either France or England. Then the King stepped into the breach. At the critical moment, he visited Paris, and by an exhibition of personal adroitness, vigor, and courage that would have done credit to Elizabeth the Great, in one week he converted a coldly hostile reception into a roaring acclaim, under cover of which the French government managed to put through the agreement.
Returning to London, Edward repeated the feat, less spectacularly but effectively enough for the Cabinet to bring the House of Commons into line. Yet Balfour said that the King really had nothing to do with establishing the Triple Entente!
So he has acquired a permanent niche in history, none too great, perhaps, but distinctly his own. Edward VII, Dei gratia King, Emperor, Defender of the Faith, was in truth just that. Banished to a world of shadows for fifty-nine years, he yet retained a core of reality that showed when the test came. Dei gratia? Why not? It was certainly not by the grace of his mother, not by the skill of his ministers, not by the political maturity of his subjects, that he remained a man and did not degenerate into a uniformed manikin. Then let piety have its say: when all else worked together to effect his destruction. God saved the King.