Our book today is 1975’s Uncle of
We must make the attempt, for posterity’s sake. Picture the reality: Queen
To say the least, her eldest son and heir apparent, ‘Bertie,’ filled the bill. In his youth and embarrassingly into his not-so-young years, Bertie had been the bane of his handlers and the bright light of his subjects for all the escapades he got involved with that never met the approval of his serially disapproving parents. Everything he did, he did to epic proportions: he borrowed (by the 1880s if not earlier, no money-lender worth his salt, Jew or Gentile, in London had passed up the opportunity to make a special arrangement with the heir), he, em, dated (the bastard-count at his ascension in 1901 was already circling around four, with fairly extensive payments being made on regular bases from the practically-limitless resources at the Crown’s private disposal), he ate prodigiously (Edwardian meals were known for their dimensions, but even so, ‘Bertie’s had courses that went on for hours), smoked prodigiously (indeed, perhaps moreso than any single individual in history who wasn’t employed by a carnival side-show for that purpose: twenty-five enormous cigars a day and an endless intervening stream of cigarettes), and most of all, he enjoyed – and once he was King insisted on – exactly the oversized pomp his mother had for forty years mostly avoided.
His people, to put it mildly, went wild. Queen
It’s perhaps because of his dedication to this very aspect of his job that King Edward VII was initially treated poorly by his historians, many of whom characterized him as a dilettante flaneur, a showboating sybarite whose addictions to racing, gambling, whoring, yachting, and spa-ing rendered him nothing more than the world's most spoiled brat.
To correct this impression, Philip Magnus in 1964 published a thorough and conscientious biography of King Edward that drew on a slew of previously unexplored primary sources and was adapted into a very entertaining BBC mini-series. Brook-Shepherd is respectful of this stately monument, but he has his own story to tell, and his years of research turned up plenty of previously unexploited sources of his own. Unlike Magnus, he’s not intending to tell the whole of King Edward’s life. He’s concerned mainly with the reign, and even there his focus is specific: the ways in which King Edward interacted with – and shaped – the international world of his time.
Certainly Brook-Shepherd’s title is aptly chosen. At the time of Edward VII’s reign, he really was something close to being 'the uncle of
Among the lowly examples of his [the way the public pestered the King during his stays at the Royal resort of Biarritz] was a pair of blind beggars who posted themselves soon after noon every day on the road from the Hotel du Palais to the beach where they would be sure to catch the King on his regular stroll. Caesar [the King’s indomitable and possessive dog], who, of course, went on these walks as well, developed a particular dislike for these tattered creatures and would start barking as soon as he spotted them. For them, however, this was a most convenient signal to warn them of the King’s approach and, at the dog’s first bark, they would put on their most pitiful look and extend their bowls for money. The King never failed to drop a handsome contribution into each bowl and to give them what must have been a most warming greeting: A demain. One day, only one of the beggars turned up. The King’s concern that one of his faithful sentinels might be unwell turned to curiosity when the missing man appeared as usual the following morning. Had he been ill? He asked the beggar. No, sire. Late, then? This second question threw the poor man into great embarrassment. Finally he blurted out, “Pardon, monsieur le Roi, it was not me who was late but you who were early!” The King roared with laughter an offered profuse apologies together with his normal contribution.
Brook-Shepherd is quick to point out that this affability was offered in measured doses; the King was very much still the King, different from normal men and fond of ostentation, as during his trip to
If the King’s passage across the
The case that King Edward was not the 'meddler' his critics have called him (the loudest of such being the Kaiser) but rather a thoroughly informed and often very effective proponent of British interests abroad is skillfully presented here, and Brook-Shepherd wholly makes his case. One comes away from the book with a very different Edward than the one portrayed by Philip Magnus, a much more engaged monarch, not so totally the slave of his appetites and his mistresses.
Still, one of the most satisfying attractions of the book has nothing to do with the King but is instead all caught up in the setting.
This was not the reality, of course, and every Edwardian knew it, most certainly including the King who gave his name to that brief interlude (the illusion was shattered when he died and London was witness to a brace of kings marching in funeral state – with King Edward’s fiercely loyal dog Caesar up in front, alone and visibly desolate). But though it was an illusion, it was for all that an exceedingly sweet illusion, often evoked in Brook-Shepherd’s anecdotes:
The cause of the fuss [on a private golf course at the royal resort of Marienbad] was a Russian nobleman who had invented for himself a special club for getting out of trouble whenever he landed in the rough: a mashie fitted with prongs which swept through the long grass. The trouble this time was that, in playing his shot, he had actually impaled the ball on one of the prongs. What should he do – shake the ball off; remove it and drop a penalty; or just go on playing? Ponsonby the oracle simply disqualified the Russian for using an illegal club and then marched off, leaving an even louder babel of argument behind him.
Indeed, we can close this look at The Uncle of Europe and its subject with the author’s own personal assessment of the attractions the Edwardian Age holds for the Englishman of today, as touching as it is sad:
Inevitably, for me and many of my countrymen, there is a whiff of nostalgia about all this as well.