Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Uncle of Europe

Our book today is 1975’s Uncle of Europe, The Social and Diplomatic Life of Edward VII by Gordon Brook-Shepherd. Our author learned his writing craft in the old-school world of Fleet Street – in other words, he can research the Hell out of a subject and then turn around and write the hell out of that subject, with no assists needed at either end from scuttling uncredited assistants of any kind. And his subject – well, what can be said of his subject that those of you who don’t remember his age will understand?

We must make the attempt, for posterity’s sake. Picture the reality: Queen Victoria lost her beloved Prince Consort Albert in 1861 and went into four decades of semi-secluded mourning. This was certainly her right as a grieving wife, but it was a gross dereliction of her duty as her people’s monarch – the British have always demanded more of their kings and queens than a pulse on purple cushions, and for the second half of her very long reign, Queen Victoria consciously refused to participate in spectacle. Regardless of what her various critics have said through the years, this, too, was an act of indisputable greatness on her part, but it left her subjects pantingly eager for something other than Kipling’s Widow at Windsor.

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 Victoria had set her name on an era and elicited a certain kind of affection from her subjects, most of whom, by the end of her long reign, had never known a world without her. But King Edward, once freed from her shadow, was the exact opposite: he loved showy costumes and uniforms, exulted in display, entertained lavishly, and scarcely ever spent a day that didn’t have a public element to it. He was more beloved than his mother had been (or, indeed, than any British monarch has been since) because he entirely dedicated himself to being king, in the most public sense of the job.

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 Europe.' The kings of Portugal and Belgium were his cousins, his father-in-law was the King of Denmark, the Kaiser was his nephew, the Czar was his brother-in-law, and half the old noble families of Germany were related to him by blood or marriage. Unlike his august mother, King Edward made many trips abroad in an attempt to strengthen or renew many of these connections, and to make new ones. He was by all accounts a genial, outgoing man, easily capable of making an excellent impression on strangers both high and low born. According the Brook-Shepherd, one of the keys to his success was his keen social memory, which allowed every encounter with him to feel personal. Our author gives a typical anecdote:

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 Gibraltar:

If the King’s passage across the Mediterranean had any political undertone to it, this lay in the demonstration it gave of England’s naval might. Like some genial water-borne Pied Piper, King Edward had been steadily collecting warships behind him as he went. On 21 April 1903 it was a miniature fleet which left Malta in his wake. Eight battleships, four cruisers, four destroyers and one dispatch vessel now accompanied the Victoria and Albert on the next stage of her journey, to Italy. It all made rather a nonsense of the signal sent ahead to Naples. This announced that the King of England would be arriving there ‘incognito.’

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. England before the War, before the horrifying 20th century really began in earnest, can seem like an idyllic time of lawn-parties and great banquets and an energetic kind of innocence. This is the era when Mary Poppins descends on the Banks family (“It’s great to be an Englishman in 1910! King Edward’s on the throne, and it’s the Age of Men!” sings the thoroughly hen-pecked Mr. Banks), and when Bertie Wooster is being motored to various country houses by his faithful valet Jeeves – a time before mustard gas and trench warfare and food rationing and aerial bombardments and concentration camps, when there was something grandly right about your country’s king sumptuously going about his business with all the pomp of Nineveh and Tyre.

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. England under the Stuarts was gay though not yet great. England under Queen Victoria became great, yet was no longer gay. The England of Edward VII was both great and gay. One wonders, writing these lines, when we shall see either quality again.

18 comments:

Beepy said...

Steve, I'm cold and my head hurts. Rub my feet.

Beepy said...

Oh, and would this be the Prince Edward of "do you have Prince Edward in a can?" fame?

Beepy said...

Yeah, that was Prince Albert. No wonder my prank calls never worked.

Greg said...

Queen Victoria may have refused to participate in "spectacle," but wasn't English "spectacle" rather, um, shitty for much of her reign? And wasn't there a bit of amibivalence about the monarchy in general over the same period? I bow before your wisdom!

steve said...

that's good, because from yer bowing position ye might be able to tell me what the HELL YER TALKING ABOUT.

Just in case you haven't picked up the PATTERN here, it's BEEPY who traditionally leaves the self-evidently drunken responses - cf tonight's rambling, incoherent replies. If you want the job, go to the front office and fill out the application marked 'manatee-01/Loser' ... but you face some pretty stiff (no pun intended!) competition ...

Greg said...

What I mean was wasn't English pageantry shabby around the turn of the century? Wasn't the population ambivalent about the role of the monarchy? Eh? EH?

steve said...

No.

steve said...

And no.

steve said...

So shaddup.

Sam said...

Wow, this is like a 1980s BBC domestic drama: Mum drunk and muttering in the pantry, Dad and firstborn son bitterly going at each other hammer and tongs, ostensibly about some government policy regarding the Falklands but really about all sorts of unresolved childhood issues. Who's going to be the wayward daughter who gets a mohawk and starts dating some scouser punk rocker?

steve said...

my vote would be Jeff ...

Sam said...

Well actually, I was hoping Jeff would be the coke-addict older brother who made a killing on Bank Street and sobers up enough twice a year to take his embarrassing family out for a patronizing "nice" dinner in the West End. Or maybe that would be John...

Man, this show is shaping up great!

Greg said...

Well the, I'll quote Lord robert Cecil after having watched Queen Victoria open parliament in 1860:

"Some nations have a gift for ceremonial...this aptitude is generally confined to the people of a southern climate and of non-Teutonic parentage. In England the case is exactly the reverse. We can afford to be more splendid than most nations; but some malignant spell broods over all our most solemn ceremonials, and inserts into them some feature which makes them all ridiculous...Something always breaks down, somebody contrives to escape doing his part, or some bye-motive is suffered to interfere and ruin it all."

Greg said...

Or Illustrated London News in 1852 on the occasion of Wellington's state funeral:

"The English are said to be a people who do not underatand shows and celebrations, or the proper mode of conducting them. It is alleged that they flock to and applaud the rudest attempts of the kind; and that, unlike the French, and other nations of the continent, they have no real taste for ceremonial. There is, doubtless, something in the charge."

Greg said...

Or The Times on the occasion of George IV's funeral:

"We never saw so motley, so rude, so ill-managed a body of persons."

JEaton said...

Good God, Greg! Are you MAD?!

As to our BBC drama, I think I would be the bespectacled neurotic who rents the flat in the basement, collects old newspapers and magazines, and has a dozen pet birds.

Kevin said...

I'd be the bespectacled neurotic's diminutive friend (who has an unrequited crush on the wayward daughter).

Or a randy, well set-up rugby player.

Greg said...

I'm just trying to prod Steve into a rant, which might qualify me as mad.