Book review: The Heir Apparent, by Jane Ridley

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 January, 2014, 3:47pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 January, 2014, 3:47pm

The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince
by Jane Ridley
Random House
4 stars

Janet Maslin

In her welcome new biography of Edward VII, who succeeded Queen Victoria on the British throne, Jane Ridley explains how this firstborn son managed to spend time in court - and not the kind of court royalty is supposed to frequent.

Bertie, as this Prince of Wales was familiarly known for the first 59 years of his life, was a renowned crinoline chaser, and many efforts were made to keep his name out of matrimonial cases. Nevertheless, he ended up on the witness stand when one disgruntled husband petitioned for divorce.

"He continued to visit ladies, he still wrote letters, and he still saw his 'fast' friends," writes Ridley, a history professor who clears up the myths and mysteries surrounding the Victorian and Edwardian royals, including any possible connection to Jack the Ripper.

Bertie spent most of his life in waiting and had no great gift for amusing anyone other than himself. He infuriated his mother, who decreed, when Albert Edward (Bertie's birth name) was only 18 months old: "I do not think him worthy of being called Albert yet." Victoria's adoration of her husband, Prince Albert, and his ambitious agenda for reconfiguring the role of British royalty left these parents without much time or attention for their children.

Ridley credits the prince for giving a public relations spin to the idea of a royal family, well-posed and frequently photographed as a model for bourgeois families everywhere. He was close to some of his siblings - notably his older sister, Vicky. He once argued with her about which of them owned the Scilly Islands, without realising they would soon be removed from him. Part of his parents' grand plan was to marry their children into Europe's other royal families, and long before Bertie became king of England, Vicky was empress of Germany.

So that left a life of leisure - and Bertie had a proclivity for it. As Ridley points out, he came of age in the 1860s, "a decade of sexual liberation, a brief interlude of eroticism that has been obscured to posterity by Victorian prudishness and respectability".

Bertie's 1863 marriage to the tall, slender Princess Alexandra of Denmark, who bore him many children and ruined her health in the process, did nothing to cramp his taste for afternoon liaisons, house parties, horse racing and gambling. A baccarat scandal also landed Bertie in a courtroom and tarnished his reputation.

But by the time Queen Victoria died, on January 22, 1901, Bertie was ready to change. "At 6.30 she breathes her last," he wrote simply, but another reaction soon emerged. The royal yacht carried Victoria's coffin with the yacht's flag at half-mast until Bertie asked about it. "The queen is dead," the captain said. "The king of England lives," said Edward VII, and up went the flag in his honour.

The final third of The Heir Apparent reveals what Edward was capable of once the weight of Victoria's power hoarding and opprobrium was lifted. One of his first tasks was to restore the idea of royalty to the throne, bringing back pomp and ceremony; he cared very much about such things, including having his hand kissed.

These were minor matters, but they proved endearing to a British public that found Edward unexpectedly sympathetic. His years spent roaming Europe, often to visit royal relatives, had not exalted him. But they had given him diplomatic skills. And they had made him something new to the throne: a man of the world.

The New York Times