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Books: The Most Perfect Man

6 minute read
TIME

KING EDWARD THE SEVENTH by Phillip Magnus. 528 pages. Duffon. $8.50.

“The great object in view,” explained the Bishop of Oxford, “is to make him the most perfect man.” Surely not impossible, according to the phrenologist, Dr. George Combe; the infant Prince of Wales not only had splendid “moral and intellectual” bumps, but gave every sign of developing his “higher powers of control” at the expense of his lower ones. At that happy news, even the Queen seemed satisfied. She was confident, she wrote, that “the dear child” would grow up to be just like “his angelic, dearest father.”

Edward Prince of Wales grew up to be neither perfect nor anything like the Prince Consort, as Victoria learned to her dismay. But in one sense, argues British Biographer Philip Magnus, he was indeed the perfect man: he-fulfilled Britain’s concept of itself as neither Victoria nor Prince Albert had ever done. If he was an anachronism, so was the Britain in which he grew up and ruled. The secret of his easy popularity, thinks Author Magnus, was that he scarcely ever betrayed by word or deed what some of his countrymen dimly suspected: the fact that the last fruits of the semifeudal social order he represented were already wormy on the tree.

Questionable Paragon. Not every 19th century Englishman kept a yacht at Cowes, a hunting lodge at Abergeldie, stables at Ascot and a villa at Marienbad. But they admired the man who did, and cheerfully forgave him what the Times of London called his “round of questionable pleasures.” He pursued those pleasures with particular vigor, thinks Biographer Magnus, precisely because Victoria and Albert had determined to make him a paragon of English virtues. As a result of that determination, his upbringing was appalling. He was not allowed to mix or play with other boys. He was given six hours of instruction by several private instructors six days a week, followed by an hour of calisthenics under the eye of a drill sergeant. To ensure that nothing went wrong, his principal tutor arranged that “Her Majesty and His Royal Highness Prince Albert have, laid before them at the end of every day, a report on the conduct of the Princes and their employment from hour to hour.”

Albert died in 1861, a month after learning that his son, then 20, was having a fling with an actress (“You must not, you dare not be lost,” he wrote to Edward). A year later “Bertie” was married to Denmark’s Alexandra, “the most beautiful Princess in Europe,” and shortly thereafter Queen Victoria in her widow’s weeds withdrew into almost total seclusion. Bertie was left with an income of roughly $550,000 a year, no tutors, and a great deal of free time.

Seasons by Decree. Bertie had to wait another 40 years before he became King. But as heir apparent, he set the style of English society for nearly half a century, determining who should be included and who excluded and where one should go when. The social year, as decreed by Bertie, consisted of two months (January and February) of shooting at Sandringham, two months (March and April) on the French Riviera, followed by three months in London for “the Season.” No gentleman was seen in London after the end of July, when the Prince of Wales went to Cowes for the yachting, followed by a month or so in a German spa, where he tried to reduce his immense bulk by dieting and taking the waters. Around October he went to Abergeldie for a month of grouse shooting, and he finished up the year back at Sandringham where he spent his own and the Princess’s birthdays. He found the intrusion of political affairs intensely annoying. “Another General Election will be a very serious matter,” he wrote in 1886 to Lord Carrington, “and a most untoward event in the middle of the London Season!”

Juggled Beds. That was the public Bertie. Privately, he liked to sneak out with cronies like Lord Hardwicke (who “perfected” the top hat) and Lord Dupplin (who invented the dinner jacket) to chase fire engines or more often, ladies. He was known on sight to the dancers of half the cabarets of Paris, who used to greet him by shouting “Ullo, Wales!” His taste in women was so well known to society, in fact, that when he descended on a country house (usually without his wife but with a retinue of 12 to 16 attendants), a wise hostess juggled bedrooms so that the Prince would be within convenient reach of his current favorite. At his coronation in Westminster Abbey after the death of Victoria in 1901, he ordered the construction of a special box (popularly referred to as “the King’s Loose Box”) for his past and present mistresses. And what impressed him most about the coronation ceremony, to which all the crowned heads of Europe had been invited, was the glimpse he caught of the “white arms” of the peeresses “arching over their heads” as they put on their coronets.

As Edward VII, Bertie changed his style of living not a whit, giving Britain the most colorful court it had seen since Charles II. If he skirted scandal, it was because no man alive better understood British upper-class tribal customs. When, during a divorce proceeding, the testimony of Lady Charles Mordaunt was read in court confessing that she had committed adultery with Bertie when he was Prince of Wales “often, and in open day,” it proved embarrassing but not fatal, because Bertie had played his part honorably—visiting her Ladyship secretly and in a hired brougham in mid-afternoon and never behaving in a manner to embarrass Lord Charles when they were fellow guests on a country weekend.

Easy Scrapping. Biographer Magnus, who had access to several collections of unpublished papers, is most convincing when he is discussing the intricacies of Edwardian social life. He is on less firm ground when he tries to demonstrate that Bertie helped shape his country’s foreign policy in the first decade of the century. After the death of Victoria, who never trusted her son with Foreign Office dispatches, Bertie became an ardent practitioner of personal diplomacy, paying “unofficial” visits to the capitals of Europe, where he practiced his charm on rulers, most of whom were his relatives. Magnus credits him with at least an assist in the rapprochement with Russia and the entente with France that British diplomacy achieved before World War I.

What he could never achieve was a rapprochement with 20th century England. He was profoundly shocked shortly before his death in 1910 to hear Lloyd George, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, quip that “a fully equipped Duke costs as much to keep up as two dreadnoughts” and was less easy to scrap. It was, Edward confided to a secretary, the most insidiously socialistic remark he had ever heard from a Minister of the King.

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