If there is a single defining characteristic of Americans as a people, it may be a commonly held belief in the malleability of fate and character that lets the least amongst us rise to the highest of heights through effort, reform, and persistence. And although this is antithetical to the hidebound order of the European court system, this appealing redemption story lies at the heart of The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, The Playboy Prince, the story of the Prince of Wales who rose from rotten beginnings to an exhilarating turn as monarch of Great Britain.
The kingship of Albert "Bertie" Edward – eventually Edward VII – seemed to be a disaster in the making. Viewed as feeble-minded during his childhood, Bertie grew to become a caddish young man known for his seductive letters to (often married) young women, and his penchant for raising Cain. In his wake, he left scandal, debts, and the occasional shame-fueled suicide.
The trouble didn't come from nowhere. Much of the narrative oomph in "The Heir Apparent" comes from a lively deconstruction of the relationship between Bertie's mom (the manipulative, perpetually grieving, and often withdrawn Queen Victoria) and the troubled crown prince. Here's Victoria talking to her daughter Vicky about Bertie's wife Princess Alexandra (Alix) and the prospect of grandchildren: "Are you aware," Victoria asked Vicky, "that Alix has the smallest head ever seen? I dread that – with [Bertie's] small empty brain – very much for future children."
But as it turned out, Edward VII's qualities – tolerance, diplomacy, a worldly interest in other people and places, a deft common touch – led him to become a surprisingly able monarch who helped to lay the groundwork for the modern, media-sensitive monarchy.... for better or worse.
The book's subtitle – "A Life of Edward VII, The Playboy Prince" – is too modest by half. If this 726-page, meticulously researched dreadnought of a book isn't THE definitive life story of this fascinating figure of British history, then nothing ever will be.
Historian Jane Ridley's efforts have yielded an imposing work. Fortunately, Ridley's talents are twofold: first, in finding masses of interesting information, and second, in rendering them in lively, engaging ways that make "The Heir Apparent" feel less like a swampy slog and much more like an elegant waltz.
Ridley chooses her battles carefully. The book exists in a quaint sort of bubble evocative of the royal lifestyle – nothing of the modern (from pop culture to meditations on the current state of the royal family) creeps into its hermetically sealed world. At times this is frustrating. As often as you might detect parallels to the forever-in-waiting Prince Charles or the public pageant that was the life and death of Princess Di, for example, you won't get explanation or context from the author.
Indeed, the general state of public welfare or politics is rarely explored beyond its impact on the royals that are the subjects of this book, which enhances the trapped-in-bubble feeling that readers may experience while making their way through its pages.
This isn't to say that Ridley wears rose-colored glasses while assessing Bertie's world. Death comes often to the princes, queens, and court hangers-on that stuff the pages of "The Heir Apparent," and wealth and royalty provide little-to-no protection from dying young. The immensely fleeting nature of life in Victorian times and the difficult-to-predict ups and downs of fortune are two of the themes that give "The Heir Apparent" its sense of gravity. Had Edward VII died while middle-aged, he would have likely been remembered as a wastrel and rapscallion. Only by surviving to ascend the throne did his finer qualities become evident to all.
And while the royals are the alpha and the omega of "The Heir Apparent," it must be noted that because so much statecraft of the era was person-to-person – involving the marriages of the royals, their prejudices, their, religions and their failings – Ridley manages to capture a lot of interesting historical tides (and the seeds of many a war) in the dragnet.
And at the center of it all, the story of one man, from start to finish, including a suitably dramatic close. After Edward VII's death following nine years on the throne, the public lined up in a queue twelve-wide and seven miles long waiting for a glimpse of the body lying in state at Westminster Hall:
"Never in recorded history, boomed the Times, had the death of a sovereign caused such wide and impressive manifestations of sorrow. The crowds were bigger than at Queen Victoria's funeral, and the public sorrow deeper. Bertie, the dissipated, self-indulgent Prince of Wales, had somehow transformed himself into the father of the nation."
James Norton is a Monitor contributor.