The Magazine

Bertie the Good

The royal antidote to Victorian austerity.

Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By EDWARD SHORT
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In 1871, when Albert Edward Prince of Wales (1841-1910) and his wife Alexandra lost their youngest child after a premature birth, Queen Victoria advised that they go into prolonged mourning. Bertie’s response exhibited one of the great differences between him and his notoriously woeful mother: 

Want of feeling I never could show, but I think it’s one’s duty not to nurse one’s sorrow, however much one may feel it. .  .  . You have no conception of the quantity of applications we get .  .  . to open this place, lay a stone, public dinners, luncheons, fetes without end .  .  . and all these things have increased tenfold in the last 10 years. .  .  . It is however gratifying that this wish exists in these Democratic days, as one must show oneself in public.

If Victoria, after the death of her husband Prince Albert, secluded herself, Bertie was ubiquitous, making the rounds not only of country houses and ceremonial dinners but theaters, operas, and music halls. As Jane Ridley shows in this superb biography, Bertie’s gregarious delight in people uniquely fitted him for his royal role, which he played with enthusiasm.   

Although sent to Oxbridge for his education, Bertie was the reverse of studious. After being found with a prostitute, he so scandalized his father that Victoria believed his “fall” had actually killed Albert. She never forgave her son, and for the rest of her life made sure that he received no government dispatches. Bertie responded by giving himself up to a life of pleasure—eating, drinking, shooting, and fornicating on a truly Olympian scale.  

Paying for this sybaritic life, which he led for 60 years before ascending the throne, required continual loans, but Bertie could always tap rich financiers, most of whom never required their loans to be repaid. Whenever he needed urgent rescue, he would write his friend Nathaniel Rothschild, beginning his begging letters “My dear Natty .  .  .” 

When he became king, he could boast to Parliament that “for the first time in history the heir apparent comes to you without a single penny of debt.” 

There have been two full-dress biographies of Bertie, an unduly reticent one (1964) by Gladstone’s biographer, Sir Philip Magnus, and a far superior one (1979) by a onetime Eton history master, Giles St. Aubyn, which takes stock of not only Bertie’s political and diplomatic achievements but the peculiar moral character of Victorian England. In one memorable passage, which Ridley substantiates again and again in her own biography, St. Aubyn observes:

There can be no advantage in pretending to virtue unless society values it. Hypocrisy only flourishes where standards are high. In permissive ages, where few things are unacceptable, there is little to hide. Because the Victorians made such strenuous moral demands they did not always practice what they preached. The dominating idea of English society was not to cultivate virtue but to avoid scandal. “Everything was all right,” claimed Lady Warwick, “if only it was kept quiet, hushed up, covered.”

However excellent a biography, though, St. Aubyn’s life lacks the richness and panache of Ridley’s magisterial work. Her command of her sources is masterly; she holds up the folly of her characters with patient tongs, and she recreates their plutocratic world with gusto. About Sandringham, Bertie’s country residence, for example, she writes:

It was hardly a normal country house. .  .  . Lunch at two thirty (the clocks were half an hour fast) was followed by tea, when the King scoffed poached eggs, petits fours, cakes and shortbread. A twelve-course dinner followed at nine, and the King would cheerfully swallow several oysters in minutes, and then devour at high speed course after course of pheasant stuffed with truffles, chicken in aspic, sole poached in Chablis, or quails and boned snipe packed with foie gras, the richer and creamier the sauce the better. 

Together with good food, good cigars, and impeccably cut clothes, Bertie reveled in the society of beautiful women. Ridley vividly recaptures his affairs with Lillie Langtry, Jennie Churchill, Daisy Warwick, Alice Keppel, and many others, all of whom prized their royal inamorato. Still, as Ridley points out, the prince did not have as many affairs as he was rumored to have had: One of the revelations of this book is the extent to which the prurience of 19th-century England required Bertie to be more debauched than he was. As Ridley nicely puts it, Bertie was popular with his compatriots precisely because he stood for “an ideal of illustrious misbehavior absolutely beyond their reach.”