Victoria's heir: sovereign as an engaging rake

April 08, 2001|By Mike Leary | By Mike Leary,Sun Staff

"Edward The Caresser: The Playboy Prince Who Became Edward VII," by Stanley Weintraub. The Free Press. 429 pages. $30.

In the centenary year of his ascension to King of England in 1901 after the long reign of his mother, Queen Victoria, Edward VII's lasting contributions to Western civilization can be listed as these: creased trousers, invented when his valet stupidly applied the iron to the front and rear rather than the sides; the blazer; the dinner jacket; and the practice of leaving the lower button of a suit undone, the better to hide what historian Stanley Weintraub refers to as a "protuberant paunch."

He was a patron of the arts, to be sure, but largely in the attentions he paid to mistresses who favored the stage, notably Sarah Bernhardt, and Lillie Langtree. In Emile Zola's "Nana," the story of a ruthless Parisian courtesan, he was thinly disguised as "the Prince of Scots." Charles Dickens called him "a poor, dull idle fellow."

This was unkind. His father, Prince Albert, the family intellectual schooled at the University of Bonn (a few classes ahead of Karl Marx), had it right: "Bertie [from his actual first name, Albert] has a remarkable social talent. He is lively, quick and sharp, when he sets his mind to it, which is seldom. ... But usually, his intellect is of no more use than a pistol packed in the bottom of a trunk if one were attacked in the robber-infested Appenines."

As Weintraub, a professor at Penn State, and an accomplished biographer of the Victorian age (previous books include lives of Victoria, Albert and the great Tory prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli), notes, "The problem of what to do with the heir to the throne while its occupant will relinquish none of its emoluments is, in Britain, a recurring one, whenever succession comes early to a sovereign, as it did ... with Victoria, and again when Elizabeth II became queen as a young woman in 1952."

Thus, this lively biography, augmented by American sources such as Henry James, who contributes the title, becomes more than a chronicle of travels and tumbles in bed with a succession of willing women, of the consumption of vast quantities of rich food, fine wines and mellow cigars that ruined his health, rendered him impotent and earned him the nickname "tum-tum."

It can be read as a cautionary commentary on the largely pointless life of the current Prince Charles, who though physically fitter than his predecessor and certainly more dour and less stylish, has engaged in similar scandalous conduct, once expressing his wish to be a tampon. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Why, Charles' current mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, is even the great granddaughter of Edward's final mistress, Alice Keppel.

Unlike Charles, Edward was beloved, but only after he survived a near death experience from what was described as typhoid, as many fevers were in those days, as well as the quack treatment of doctors who rubbed his overheated body with "old champagne brandy."

"No one ever got good from an illness," observed the contemporary historian J.A. Froude, but thereafter, Edward earned not boos but approbation despite his continued dissolute behavior, an example of the hypocrisy of the Victorian age, and the peculiarity of the British, who continue to cheer the royals as they clatter by in their carriages, splashing mud.

In Edward's defense, Weintraub notes that, unlike many contemporaries, he was not a racist, or an anti-Semite, and even displayed a social conscience in a speech seeking better housing for the poor before the House of Lords. But this is overwhelmed by details of his personal life that turn the reader into something of a voyeur of the misspent life of a man who waited for 59 years to be king, and ruled for only nine. A man who when he heard the oft-played song, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" during Victoria's diamond jubilee, would mutter, "What about my eternal mother?"

Mike Leary, the national editor of The Sun, is a former London correspondent and books editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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