A review of Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld by Theo Aronson, London, 1994
A probably pederastic prince imprecisely portrayed ****
Eddy, as Albert Victor Duke of Clarence was known, was the grandson of Queen Victoria who would have become King-Emperor instead of his younger brother George V had he not died of pneumonia at the age of 28. Unsurprisingly therefore, his family were particularly anxious both that he should turn out well and that any indications to the contrary should be hidden from public view. It is thus ironic that the mystery in which his life was deliberately shrouded has fed the most lurid and outrageous speculation, most notably that the establishment covered up his being Jack the Ripper. One might be tempted to consider this the most far-fetched conspiracy yet to gain credence with a swathe of the British public if the latter were not now taking serious notice of even more ludicrous allegations of child-torture and murder by a sadistic cabal headed by a Prime Minister.
In this the most thorough biography of Prince Eddy yet, Theo Aronson amply demolishes both the theories that he was the Ripper and those that the latter in various suggested forms was acting to cover up a secret marriage of the prince. With good reasons, he takes far more seriously and indeed makes the main theme of his story the rumours, widely believed at the time, that Eddy was involved in the Cleveland Street scandal of 1889. This concerned the prostitution of telegraph boys in their mid-teens to the substantial aristocratic clientele of a brothel there. Anyone imagining these rumours were not contemporary should read the extraordinarily vitriolic character assassination of the prince by the London correspondent of the New York Times. After describing the “general conviction that this long-necked, narrow-headed young dullard was mixed up in the scandal,” he reported that “the most popular idea” circulating in clubland was that the “blackguard and ruffian”, then in India, would be conveniently removed from the royal succession through being “killed in a tiger hunt, but runaway horses or a fractious elephant might serve as well.”
Rumours do not of course amount to proof that Eddy was involved in the scandal or that he was homosexual at all. Aronson admits the evidence for either is circumstantial, but claims “there can be little doubt” he visited the brothel. He overstates his case and in doing so displays his most serious flaw as a historian, that much of what he concludes is based on banal psychological generalisations. Thus the first arguments Aronson advances for Eddy’s homosexuality are his possessive mother, his fear of his father and his gentle personality. Nor was Eddy the only one to whom this woolly line of reasoning is applied. It does not matter that there is not a shred of evidence that Lord Curzon was homosexual, since he “developed the sort of violent antipathy towards homosexuality that is invariably the sign of a repressed homosexual.” Nevertheless, putting together the widespread belief in high society that Eddy was involved in homosexual scandal, the numerous otherwise inexplicable references by the privily informed to his indulgence in unnamable vice deserving punishment, and the homosexual tastes of his Cambridge friends, his homosexual inclinations do look extremely probable.
One aspect of Eddy’s “homosexuality” that is not directly addressed by Aronson and seems to have been ignored by other reviewers is its nature. Saying nothing about it may leave readers assuming that what Eddy was involved in were egalitarian sexual relations with men of the kind familiar to them from the gay community of today, far though these are from being the historical norm. By contrast, the homosexual acts by far the most practiced until a concept of fixed homosexual orientation emerged in 18th century Europe were fundamentally different in character, being pederastic, or between men and adolescent boys. This older taste is what the Cleveland Street brothel catered to. It might be argued that in ignoring the distinction, Aronson is being true to the period he is writing about, in that there is probably no period in which these two forms of homosexuality co-existed with less interest shown by anyone in distinguishing between them. The very word homosexual came into vogue at precisely this time and supports this confusion. Nevertheless, the distinction was nearly as real in practice as in any other era. Despite the many like Oscar Wilde who somewhat obscured it by pursuing affairs that, while pederastic in spirit, mostly involved males in their late teens and thus no longer strictly boys, narrower pursuers of classical Greek Love such as generals Gordon, Macdonald and Baden-Powell and the critically concerned courtier Reggie Brett remained as distinct as in any age in practice and psyche from exponents of proto-gay love such as the prince’s first proposed tutor, Edward Carpenter.
Thus, if one is to understand Prince Eddy, it is misleading not to make clear towards which kind of homosexuality he was inclined. Fortunately, though only inadvertently, Aronson is sufficiently informative to make the answer at least as sure as his having had any homosexual inclinations at all. Quite apart from the pederastic character of the Cleveland Street brothel, the only specific affair Eddy is alleged to have been involved in within memory of his days is with a boy called Morgan to whom compromising letters are attested. Moreover, everything that can be adduced from his known tastes supports an attraction to boys. Frequent references are made to his preference for their company. According to the official biography produced on his death, “if the people to be addressed were boys – the lads of a Boys’ Home for example – the Prince addressed them in words exactly appropriate to their needs, and in a tone which, without being for a moment lacking in dignity, was friendly and kindly and went straight to their hearts. He had, indeed, always the tenderest corner in his heart for boys.” On his coffin was placed a wreath from two boys he had befriended: the inscription read simply, “From Norrie and Charlie.”
“Boys’ activities were something in which the Prince seems to have shown a real, and a rare, interest” explains Aronson, adducing it as further evidence of his homosexuality while apparently oblivious to its implications for understanding him more deeply. Ignorance of how people thought sexually before the twentieth century sadly undermines what is otherwise a well-researched book. Oblivious to the evidence of a single male sexual culture in pre-modern Europe that assumed attraction to both women and boys without contradiction, he misrepresents “the Greeks” as “bisexual” and having little sexual interest in women, and mediaeval English Kings like Edward II as “undeniably homosexual” (despite fathering a bastard!). And in line with this, he feels bound persistently to belittle Eddy’s heterosexual interests, including even his highly romantic professions of love and determination to marry the beautiful 19-year-old Princess Hélène of Orléans, which, far from being encouraged, “alarmed everyone” and were initially staunchly opposed by the Queen on religious and political grounds. Contradictorily, Aronson claims he had to be “dragooned” into marriage by his family, even though “it would never have occurred to” him to go against their wishes.
Aronson follows in the tradition of royal biographers devoted to the royal family-as-it-turned-out in final harsh dismissal of his subject: “it was difficult to escape the notion that the greatest contribution Prince Eddy made to the throne was in dying.” What an uncharitable way to conclude the story of a young man who, however lethargic and prone to gaffes, evidently charmed most of those who knew him with his extraordinarily sweet nature, unpretentiousness and consideration for others! Even Aronson admits that the strong-minded Princess Hélène was “genuinely in love” with him, but whenever someone found him loveable, Aronson has to add that whoever it was cannot have known the truth, implicitly meaning that which the knowing considered his sexual vice. No doubt George V was more competent and dependable than Eddy, but Eddy appears far more sympathetic and I think his succession would have been much more interesting.
Aronson’s biography is lively and readable, but adopts much special pleading to arrive at the always-popular conclusion that the truth was obscured through a conspiracy of the establishment. One more example should suffice: he claims the Prime Minister stating that the Cleveland Street brothel keeper could not be extradited from France was a dishonest cover-up for a determination that he should not go on trial. This is blatantly false; there was found on enquiry to be no basis then for extraditing anyone from France concerning the willing sexual acts of boys over thirteen. For a more balanced, albeit much narrower, account of the Cleveland Street Scandal, I recommend Montgomery Hyde’s book with this name which largely allows the sources to speak for themselves through extensive quotation.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 15 Oct. 2015.