Skip to main content

After Victoria

ISSUE:  Winter 1934

The Edwardian Era. By Andre Maurois. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company. $3.00. King Edward VII. By E. F. Benson. New York: Longmans, Green and Company. $3.00.

The art of M. Maurois, as biographer, began a little thinly some years ago as the deft abstracting of what was amusing and readable in a few tedious large volumes, and its deft arrangement into a narrative. The arrangement was as clever as the abstracting, and the result was a striking piece of work; but if it was not inter-esting it was nothing. Since then M. Maurois has adapted his technique to a more serious purpose and greatly enriched his command of English sources. The two or three bulky volumes, the cloven pine made to gape, by the magician’s art, for the release of “Aniel,” have grown to fifty, in “The Edwardian Era,” and M. Maurois has also mastered the subsidiary material, “Punch” and “The Times” of course, “The Quarterly Review” and the “Debates.” In short, he knows far more about England than he did, and the reader has a feeling of confidence that the events themselves are being told in some relation to an understood historical, social, and intellectual background. Better still, in this book M. Maurois has added French materials to the usual English; in many instances the unpublished papers of M. Del-casse and others give the most illuminating commentary, lucid and subtle, on the elaborate Continental diplomacy in which the Uncle of Europe was mixed up.

That indispensable confidence is not so great in the first part of “The Edwardian Era,” where M. Maurois sometimes follows his earliest method of sharp, striking, and too-hasty generalization. Queen Victoria was brought up as a princess of the eighteenth century; Protestant virtue was pained by the immorality of her grand-uncles; the Hanoverians with their loose living could not have kept their crowns; before the Coburgs, royalty had seemed to be made for bedizened libertines or sinister tyrants; the greatest of England’s younger poets was Rudyard Kipling; no minister had ever held the place in England’s life that Gladstone had. Not in the least important in themselves, together and as an indication of a method these easy and effective statements tend to create a little suspicion, fatal to the admiring docility with which the historian ought to be followed. William Pitt held a tremendous place in England’s life, Victoria was brought up as an eighteenth-century princess only as George Ill’s daughters were, in the most painfully proper way. No one could conceivably have been less “loose living” than the farmer king. For the Queen’s grand-uncles read uncles; and how painful to realize that no one has ever noticed the devotion of some of them, at least, to religious, charitable, and moral undertakings. It is high time someone spoke a good word for them; they took part so tirelessly in pious meetings.

In the Edwardian era proper M. Maurois is at home, and he gives a skilful and compact picture, the bird’s eye view of a small but alert and competent bird, of English political history from 1900 to 1910. Spare, concise, and to the point, it is constantly enlivened by his quick intelligence and the unfailing skill with which he selects the essential and amusing characteristics of his actors, Chamberlain, Lord Balfour, or Sir John Fisher. The account is almost entirely political. A few pages sketch social transformation, literature, and the theatre, but they are not important. Maurois is interested, abroad, in the slow development of French friendship, German enmity, and the bewilderment of and over Russia—Willie you could be pretty sure about, but what would Nicky do? Through all of it King Edward moves, genial, sporting, intelligent, and untaught, a natural and in fact almost an unconscious diplomat, gifted in a mysterious way (it is mysterious even in Mr. Benson’s much more learned and detailed account) with the ability to jog surefootedly along the precipices of European diplomacy, reassuring, persuading, and reconciling. At home, the Unionists and the Liberals, the fight over Unionism, over Protection, over the House of Lord’s veto. The picture is always witty, interesting, and lucid, and Mr. Hamish Miles has made a first-rate translation of it.

Good as M. Maurois’ book is, Mr. Benson’s “King Edward VII” is better. It begins with an account of the Co-burgs’ rise “from the ranks of royalty,” and with those uncles of Victoria. Mr. Lytton Strachey set the fashion, so un-discriminating, of calling them the nasty old men, and even Mr. Benson, wise and learned in the century, follows; and so the Duke of Kent, and the Duke of Sussex, and the Duke of Gloucester (unfortunate Silly Billy, almost an uncle— like the Duke of Kent) presided in vain over those hundreds of meetings of the Bible Society and the Tract Society and the Missionary Society, the Climbing Boy Society, and no doubt the Society—so well named—For Returning Young Women to Their Friends in the Country. The good Albert had ordered that Edward was to be so brought up as to resemble in no way any of the uncles; Queen Victoria had ordered that he was in all ways to resemble Albert. Nothing could have come more precisely to the same thing, but it was impossible. Mr. Benson gives an appalling and pathetic account of how it worked out. The Prince, tortured on the one hand with vexing hordes of mental tutors and exercises in all conceivable divisions of learning, and on the other with the most rigid and apparently perpetual moral supervision, gave up reading forever as soon as he possibly could, and abandoned himself with a will to the society of beautiful women and witty men; whether they were Americans, Jews, or unpresentable at Court made no difference.

Mr. Benson’s account of his attempts to do something is admirable; thoughtful and solid in fact and brilliant in presentation, without a point forced, assumed, or guessed at to make it so. Victoria cherished a sentimental sorrow for Albert. No one could take his place, Edward least of all. She was jealous of him, and his way of life naturally made her think he was irresponsible. With all the power of her arbitrary old nature she resisted his wish, and her Government’s, that he should do something in statecraft. But Edward in some way had got out of his barbarous education certain qualities of honesty, commonsense, political decency, and a genuine liking for people, and in his junketings over the Continent he was coming to be considered England’s foremost statesman. There seems a little two-fold weakness here. It is perhaps doubtful if Edward’s genial personality was as influential as Mr. Benson thinks; and certainly we are not given any idea of where it came from. Some modern psychologists will look askance at the idea that Edward was born hating geology, liking horse-racing, fat cigars, and Mrs. Keppel, and possessing all the qualities that made him very adept at cozy chats with foreign diplomats. The dismal crowd that hemmed him in so relentlessly when he was a boy must have contained one human being.

Mr. Benson’s style is easy, urbane, witty, and highly intelligent, in the best British manner, and he gives the feeling that he knows very well what he is writing about, and has written it with design and proportion.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading