‘You have a nice country, I would like to be your son’

Bee Wilson

  • Bertie: A Life of Edward VII by Jane Ridley
    Chatto, 608 pp, £30.00, August 2012, ISBN 978 0 7011 7614 3

Asked in an exam at the age of 16 whether kings should be elected, the future Edward VII answered: ‘It is better than hereditary right because you have more chance of having a good sovereign, if it goes by hereditary right if you have a bad or weak sovereign, you cannot prevent him reigning.’ By Bertie’s feeble standards, this was a flash of insight. For the 59 years that he was prince of Wales, his mother despaired of him. In 1863, she wailed in a letter to her daughter Alice that Bertie – now 21 – ‘shows more and more how totally, totally unfit he is for ever becoming King!’ Neither Victoria nor the constitution could prevent him from ascending to the throne on her death. It didn’t matter. Bertie – this generally amiable but foolish and corpulent cigar-smoking, tiger-shooting adulterer – was a perfectly respectable king. All he had to do was be himself and his people adored him. In the end, like his mother, he gave his name to an age.

Jane Ridley’s absorbing new biography shows that Victoria was horrified by her eldest son almost from the moment he was born. As a baby, he looked ‘too frightful’ and was ‘sadly backward’. The queen compared him unfavourably with his older sister Vicky, who was far cleverer, spoke French at the age of three and read Shakespeare and Gibbon for fun. But the unfailing point of comparison was her sainted Albert, against whom Bertie never had any chance of measuring up. She named him Albert Edward, but when he was 18 months wrote: ‘I do not think him worthy of being called Albert yet.’ She was anxious to prevent the boy from taking precedence over her husband and bestowed the title of prince consort on Albert to give him a rank above prince of Wales, while also making sure Bertie’s name came after Albert’s in the nation’s prayers.

The education Bertie received from his parents was monstrously harsh and unsurprisingly it neither reined him in nor sharpened him up. At two and a half, a phrenologist examined the bumps on his head and diagnosed ‘defective’ brain development. At four, another doctor found the child ‘nervous and excitable with little power of sustained action in any direction’. His governess, Lady Lyttelton, lamented his ‘passions and stampings’ and inclination to hurl his books and sit under the table. Victoria and Albert’s solution was a heavily timetabled regime, modelled on Albert’s own German education. From the age of six, every half-hour of Bertie’s day was accounted for, from eight in the morning to six at night. At seven, he was taken out of the nursery and given a still more brutal routine, seeing no one except his tutors all day, apart from 15 minutes spent with his parents in the morning and evening. If all this was intended to make him more of an Albert and less of a Bertie, it failed. His tutors found him excitable, with dreadfully weak powers of concentration. Once more, Prince Albert consulted a phrenologist. Again, the news was bad. Bertie’s anterior lobe, supposedly responsible for intellect, was said to be small. ‘I wonder whence that Anglo-Saxon brain of his has come,’ Albert said. ‘It must have descended from the Stuarts, for the family have been purely German since their day.’

To those outside the family, Bertie seemed all too German. He rolled his rs in the German fashion all his life. Violet Trefusis, the daughter of his last great mistress, Alice Keppel, remembered a kind man with a ‘rich German accent’ who ‘smelled deliciously of cigars and eau de Portugal’. Ridley suggests that ‘his fluency in German’ may have been one of the factors slowing down his learning since it ‘interfered with his speaking of English’. Yet his parents worried that the boy wasn’t German enough. His marriage – an arranged union with the waif-like Princess Alexandra of Denmark – caused the queen renewed anguish, even though she had been the one to engineer it. First, there was the question of Alix’s tiny skull. ‘Are you aware,’ Victoria wrote to Vicky, ‘that Alix has the smallest head ever seen?’ The fear was that with Alix’s small head and Bertie’s inadequate brain, ‘future children’ would be brainless. The greater fear was that they would be too Danish. ‘A Danish partisan you must never be,’ she lectured Bertie, ‘or you put yourself against your whole family and against your Mother and Sovereign – who (God knows!) has been as impartial as anyone ever was!’ At the height of the Schleswig-Holstein crisis of 1864 – the dispute was between Denmark, Austria and Prussia – Victoria reminded Bertie that ‘your whole family are German and you are yourself half German.’

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