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When things were done better

EDWARD VII by George Plumptre, Pavilion £19.99
ALICE KEPPEL was having lunch at the Ritz Hotel in London in December 1936, immediately after King Edward VIII's announcement that he was giving up the throne to marry his mistress. Although looking, someone recalled, "rather formidable and slightly coarse", Edward VII's erstwhile paramour (and Camilla Parker-Bowles's great-grandmother) startled her fellow diners by announcing loudly that "things were done better in my day".

The implication of George's Plumptre's biography of Edward VII is that a hundred years ago the royal family did things much better than they are doing nowadays, conducting both affairs of the heart and of state with far more discretion and dignity. "Self-indulgent rather than selfish," as Plumptre concludes, Edward VII "gained enormous pleasure from making those around him enjoy themselves." More significantly, during his nine- year reign the king created a monarchy able to survive in a modern democratic society.

Edward's story is familiar. Victoria and Albert were determined to make "Bertie", their second child and eldest son, into a paragon of virtue. His educational regime was long and rigorous; his tutors stern and demanding: his performance slow and disappointing. So worried were the Queen and Prince Consort that they consulted Dr George Combe, a leading phrenologist, who after fondling the royal cranium concluded that the heir's "intellectual organs are only moderately well developed".

Such a prognosis did not deter his parents from sending Edward to Oxford University, where his career was less than stellar. So they decided to make him an officer in the Brigade of Guards, a branch of the British Army that has always been a haven for the intellectually challenged. Unfortunately Victoria and Albert insisted that he master the duties of subaltern to battalion commander in ten weeks, a progress usually completed by more talented officers in twice as many years. Not surprisingly the Prince of Wales baulked at this, and had an affair with Nellie Clifden, a pretty young actress some fellow officers smuggled into his bedroom.

When Prince Albert learned that his son and heir had lost his innocence to a woman who might blackmail him, or give him some horrid disease or - worse still - a bastard, he was outraged. He sent his son to Cambridge University, and insisted that Edward cut the wench off completely (unlike Charles II, the Prince Consort did not care a damn if poor Nellie starved). Soon after this confrontation Albert died of typhoid. But instead of indicting Sandhurst's drains, where her husband had caught the disease during an inspection of the Royal Military Academy, Queen Victoria blamed her son for his father's death.

Burdened by boredom, beset by Oedipal guilt, deprived of meaningful duties and endowed with an oversized libido, Edward sought solace in the enjoyments of the flesh. While his appetites at the dining table did not get him into much trouble (apart from giving him a waistline that explained his nick-name "Tum-Tum"), his activities at the card table and in other people's beds landed him in many scrapes. Trying to clean up after the Aylesford Affair, in which Lord Randolph Churchill claimed that if the letters the Prince had written to Lady Aylesford saw the light of day he would "never sit on the throne of England", Disraeli observed that Edward's indiscretions were "almost as troublesome as the Balkan crisis".

Yet Edward survived to become King of England in 1901 at the age of 59. By all accounts his reign was a success. He helped bring about the Entente Cordiale with France, and let fresh air and new people - including Jews and Americans - into royal circles. But Plumptre may be going too far in seeing Edward's short reign as the creative period that set the pattern for the rest of this century. The King was not all that bright. Prime Minister Balfour recalled that "he never made an important suggestion of any sort on large questions of policy". Neither was Edward all that diligent, spending much of each year on holiday in France, Germany or Scotland. All too often this supposed prototype of modern constitutional monarchy ignored the advice of his ministers. He refused, for instance, to give the Shah of Persia the Order of the Garter, when the Foreign Office was trying to cultivate friends in the Middle East, but used the royal prerogative to make the Tsar of Russia, a ruler many Englishmen regarded as a bloody tyrant, an Admiral of the Fleet.

Of course, all this is well known, for there are already many excellent biographies of King Edward VII, including those by Philip Magnus (1964), Dennis Judd (1975) and Giles St Aubyn (1979). The only justification for a new bio- graphy of any person should not be a perceived market, but that compared to his predecessors the author does it better in his way. And by this criterion Plumptre falls short.