The unhappy prince

The Importance of being Edward: king in waiting 1841-1901

Stanley Weintraub <em>John Murray, 443pp

Edward VII still haunts the British monarchy today. His 60 unsatisfactory years as the Prince of Wales bind all those rogue royal males together, the ones whose restlessness has proved so damaging to the crown over the past two centuries. The Prince Regent was his great uncle, Edward VIII was his grandson and the current Prince of Wales is his great-great-grandson.

All four men were bound to an apprenticeship that stretched far beyond the statutory seven years, and, as a consequence, fell into frustrated middle age. Dominated by disappointed parents, deprived of any dignified role, they staged their sulky rebellions by sleeping with the wrong women and making big plans on subjects about which they knew very little.

Edward, in fact, didn't even bother with the plans, although he did get fitfully interested in the London Fire Brigade (mainly, though, because he found big blazes exciting). Instead, he spent the years until he was 60 eating, drinking, gambling, whoring and trying on fancy military uniforms to which he wasn't entitled. Queen Victoria guarded her power like a terrier and, instead of devolving some of it on to her eldest son as she grew frailer, kept him in total darkness about how to run an empire. As a result, Edward came to the throne in 1901 with little more idea about how to be king than on that dreadful day when he was 11 and suddenly realised that it was he, not his elder sister Vicky, who was his mother's heir.

Stanley Weintraub's decision to stop his book just at the point of succession has the unfortunate effect of making Edward's life seem even more futile than it actually was. In fact, he did better as a king than anyone could have imagined, instinctively understanding the changes that needed to be made to take Britain into the 20th century. These included everything from getting rid of the Munshi, his late mother's irritating, disruptive but strangely influential Indian servant, to accepting that both Germany and America were now way ahead in the industrial race.

In addition, there was a genuinely liberal, if not exactly democratic, streak in Edward that came like a breath of fresh air after 65 years of old-lady stuffiness. His indifference to religion, his frank materialism, his lack of snobbery (by contemporary standards, if not ours) meant that he was exactly what was needed for that moment. However, Weintraub's decision not to let us see Edward reach this dignified, if delayed, maturity, means that we are left with nothing more than a reinforced sense of him as a silly, spoilt Peter Pan.

There were many points during his long apprenticeship when Albert Edward (as his mother insisted on him being known) was profoundly bored. Hence, the frenetic seeking after stimulus - the manufactured highs of the race-course, the card-table and other men's wives. Unfortunately, when Weintraub describes these endless loops of listless activity he provokes equal tedium in the reader. Hearing about the first sexy-mumsy mistress is fun, but, by the time we get to Edward's middle age, the plump, compliant women merge into one. Meanwhile, Princess Alexandra gets deafer and more Danish (she sensibly took herself off to her homeland for long holidays as often as she could manage), while Prince Eddy replays his father's disappointing early manhood - but this time in an even more scandalous, homosexual key. Reading the narrative feels like being drafted in as a bored and increasingly exasperated member of Edward's household.

Weintraub is an American academic, and in his previous biography of Queen Victoria showed a subtle grasp of British mores and manners. More of that would have been useful here. For instance, reading this in the 21st century, it is hard to feel the full weight of the Tranby-Croft scandal, which resulted in the Prince being sued for slander in 1891. Edward had been present at a country house party at which it appeared that a man called Gordon-Cumming had cheated at cards. The five other men around the table, including the Prince, drew up a document that Gordon-Cumming was obliged to sign. It amounted to a confession and a promise that he would never play cards again, in return for the other men's silence. Details of that weekend at Tranby-Croft were leaked, compelling Gordon-Cumming to sue his accusers for slander. The scandal was intense, not simply because the Prince of Wales ended up in court, but because the incident opened a window on upper-class male life, with its bonding rituals and obscure codes of honour. It also revealed the Prince as a criminal, since baccarat, the game at which Gordon-Cumming was accused of cheating, had recently been made illegal.

Weintraub rattles smartly through the narrative of Tranby-Croft as if embarrassed to be repeating a story that has become so familiar. If, instead, he had taken the time to tease out its meanings, we would have been rewarded with a far richer understanding of the threat the Prince posed to all that his mother represented.

In an excellent introduction, Stanley Weintraub says that the point of his book is to ask whether "anything that the Prince of Wales did during his extended education [was] worth the doing". It remains unclear why he makes us sit through such a long and elaborate answer. A simple "no" would have been enough.