Author Catharine Arnold is best known for her popular series on London history, including; Bedlam: London and its mad and The Sexual History of London. While this new book is also set in and around the capital, the theme and settings are completely different. Rather than focusing on gritty realism, Edward VII: The Prince of Wales and the Women He Loved, transports the reader into the glittering world of late 19-century high society.
Released just this week on the 25th of July by St Martin’s Press, the book makes for a very entertaining read. It is refreshing to find a book on the lovers of Edward VII, also known as Bertie, which shows the women as human beings, with flaws, ups and downs in their lives and interests outside of their life with Edward, rather than portraying them as mere objects of desire.
Before becoming King, after the death of his mother Queen Victoria in 1901, Bertie was Prince of Wales for a staggering 59 years. Within the book, Catharine Arnold explains how as Prince, Bertie chose to live his life to the full, rather than following his mother’s strict guidelines. Despite following the wishes of his family and marrying Princess Alexandra of Denmark when he was 21-years-old, Bertie was rarely without a mistress or at least a fling or two to keep him from getting bored. While Arnold gives some explicit details of these relationships, she does not judge Edward for the way he lived his life or look down on his female companions, instead offering an impartial insight into their world.
Within the chapters of the book, the reader will find tales about ‘the most outstanding and interesting’ of Edward’s mistresses and his wife, Alexandra. The author expresses a wish to focus on a selection of women rather than offer diluted information on swathes of Edward’s conquests. This approach works well and means that many words are spent on Edward’s official mistresses: Lillie Langtry, Daisy Warwick and Alice Keppel. There are plenty of quotes and snippets from letters and poems from the period, which help to bring the women to life. On top of this, Catharine has still set aside enough space to describe Edward’s early sexual encounters such as with Nellie Clifden, his flings with glamorous, high-earning French courtesans and intriguing liaisons such as his relationship with Jennie Churchill, the mother of Sir Winston.
The book reads easily despite being a well-research piece by an academic. There are plenty of interesting facts as well as enough scandal and gossip to keep the reader engaged. Catharine has managed to strike an excellent balance between stories of the sexual exploits of the Marlborough House weekends and delving deeper into the lives of the mistresses. It is nice to see the political and diplomatic roles of royal mistresses mentioned in the book, with sections covering the work of Daisy Warwick within the Labour Party and how Alice Keppel was seen as ‘indispensable for smooth running of government’ and was even thanked by Herbert Asquith for her duties.
While reading this book, I felt like I was gaining an authentic feel for the period. The accurate descriptions of clothing, people, settings and smells help to animate the names on the page, such as details of the country house weekends where ‘ladies glimmered in satin and jewels, roses in their hair’, these extra touches made the book a delight to read.
This book is ideal for anybody who is interested in the real life of the monarchy. Shying away from politics and Edward’s duties as Prince and later King, Catharine offers a glimpse of Bertie as a person and shows how he and the women he loved throughout his life helped usher Britain and the monarchy into a new era.