Bertie the Good
The royal antidote to Victorian austerity.
Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By EDWARD SHORT
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:
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:
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:
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.”