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BEING THE Anglophile that I am, I enjoy my biweekly London Review of Books. Worth sharing here are details of Bertie: A Life of Edward VII, reviewed by Bee Wilson in the September 27, 2012, issue of LRB.
After being a “generally amiable but foolish and corpulent cigar-smoking adulterer,” as reviewer Wilson calls him, Edward VII turned out to be a perfectly respectable king. Like his mother, Queen Victoria, he gave his name to an age—and, to focus on a particular interest of mine, to an era of automobile.
Older cars are grouped into categories. Edwardian cars follow Veterans and come before those of the Vintage era. Veteran cars, built before Jan. 1, 1905, are the ones eligible for Britain’s annual Brighton Run celebrating the motor car’s emancipation—with a warning flagman no longer required. Edwardian cars date from 1905 until December 31, 1918. The Vintage era extends from 1919 through 1929.
But enough of cars. What of Bertie?
Queen Victoria considered him “too frightful” and “sadly backward” from birth. To her, Albert Edward was clearly no match for his older sister Vicki—and never worthy of sharing a given name with his father, “against whom,” Wilson notes, “Bertie never had any chance of measuring up.”
A belief in phrenology, popular in the day, was part of this measuring, and periodic consultations only confirmed Queen Victoria’s thinking.
In reassessing her own plans of marrying him off to Denmark’s waif-like Princess Alexandra, the queen wrote to Vicki, “Are you aware that Alix has the smallest head ever seen?” Combined with Bertie’s perceived cerebral shortcomings, it was feared that the royal offspring would be brainless or, worse yet, overly Danish.
The 14-year-old Bertie responded by befriending France’s Napoleon III, to whom he remarked during a Parisian visit, “You have a nice country; I would like to be your son.”
Concerning his marriage prospects, sister Vicki noted approvingly that Princess Alexandra had been “very strictly kept” and had not “read a novel of any kind.”
Not so Bertie. He didn’t read much, but took his first of several mistresses even while royal negotiations were still going on. Nellie Clifden was described as “a well-known ‘London Lady’ much run after by the Household Brigade,” what I believe we’d call today a brigade bicycle. It’s rumored that Bertie sneaked Nellie into Windsor Castle for his 20th birthday party in November 9, 1861.
Bertie continued his Rake’s Progress well into middle age. Finally, after 40 years of less than laudatory preparation, he assumed the throne in 1901.
As Wilson notes, “It is the thesis of Ridley’s wonderfully amusing book that he proved himself in the end to be like ‘Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, the dissolute prince who reformed after his ascension to become the modern king.’ ” Wilson disagrees with this view, but that’s the fun of a London Review of Books piece. There can be articulate differences of opinion without bitchiness.
I must read the book. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2012