PRINCE PHILIP: THE TURBULENT EARLY LIFE OF THE MAN WHO MARRIED QUEEN ELIZABETH II
By Philip Eade
Henry Holt, $28,368 pages, illustrated
Is there anything left to say about Prince Philip to justify yet another royal biography? Well, yes, if you write as well as Philip Eade, who originally was attracted to Philip's life story because of their mutual interest in unidentified flying objects - an interest Philip also shared with his uncle-mentor Lord Louis "Dickie" Mountbatten.
Mr. Eade, a thorough researcher who has mined family correspondence and other primary sources, calls Philip "the most colourful and fascinating member of the current royal family," and he sets out to prove that Philip's "turbulent" childhood explains much about the role he has played in the British monarchy over the past six decades.
Mr. Eade makes the case that Philip is fortunate to have emerged from his unsettled youth as well as he did, given that his family, originally Danish, had been exiled from Greece by revolutionaries when he was a baby. Moreover, his mother, deaf from birth, was so mentally unstable that she was committed to a psychiatric sanatorium for many of his formative years and surfaced when he was 15 as a religious zealot who spent the rest of her life in the Greek nunnery she founded.
Meanwhile, Philip's father closed the family home in Paris when Philip was 10, deserted the family for a mistress and died in 1944. In addition, all four of Philip's older sisters married Germans, two of whom fought on the wrong side during World War II.
At the time of his marriage to Princess Elizabeth in 1947, Prince Philip, age 26, had survived - and flourished - at a variety of rigorous schools in France, Germany, England and Scotland. He had graduated as top cadet at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth; had served with distinction in the Royal Navy during World War II; and was anticipating many more years as a naval officer.
Indeed, the young couple enjoyed what the author calls their "happiest time" from 1949 to 1951, when Philip was serving on ships in the Mediterranean and the two were spending time together at the home of his uncle in Malta. The author paints a well-balanced picture of the important - sometimes overweening - role Mountbatten played in Philip's life, and of Philip's occasional push-back.
Before the engagement was announced, Philip nervously cautioned his uncle, "I am not being rude, but it is apparent that you like the idea of being General Manager of this little show." (Mountbatten's later attempt to change the name of the royal family from the House of Windsor to the House of Mountbatten was shot down in flames.)
Alas, the death of Elizabeth's father, George VI, in 1952 put an end to Philip's naval career, and Philip, now 90, has never seemed fully at ease walking several paces behind his wife.
Much of this book is taken up with the adventures and misadventures (or tragedies) of Philip's "pan-European" relatives and his constant travels to royal funerals and weddings. (Somebody taught him to write gracious thank-you notes for all the hospitality he cadged in palaces and stately homes over various school holidays.)
Mr. Eade gives full coverage to Philip's occasional "diplomatic gaffes," for which he has been criticized often in Britain, but to an American reviewer, many come off as humanizing spontaneity. For example, to a British student who was trekking in Papua New Guinea, he said, "So you managed not to get eaten then?" And on the subject of class, he said, "People think there's a rigid class system here, but dukes have been known to marry chorus girls. Some have even married Americans."
In summarizing why biographers keep returning to Prince Philip, Mr. Eade says it is because his character poses so many paradoxes:
"He is intelligent and enquiring, interested in psychology, philosophy and religion, as well as in science, technology and the natural world. Nevertheless, his ideas are not always well thought through. While he goes to great lengths to keep himself well informed he has been known to hold forth on a subject in which he is not well versed in front of an audience who are. Dynamic, driven, outspoken and prone to explosions of both ardour and anger, he was never cut out by temperament for a secondary role; however, that is what he ultimately chose for himself."
Mr. Eade stresses that this biography of the young Philip (the book ends when he is 32) is "in no sense approved or authorized" and therefore, the author was "under no obligation to omit things and incidents that might be deemed to be discreditable to Prince Philip or the royal family."
Nonetheless, Mr. Eade has trod discreetly, giving the prince the benefit of any doubts. He writes: "Philip came from an era and a family background in which mistresses were the norm, where loyalty was expected of the husband, though not necessarily fidelity. And after marrying Princess Elizabeth, his personal freedom and privacy had been so curtailed that it would have been natural for him to feel the occasional urge to escape. In any event, the consensus among those in a position to know best is that his marriage to Elizabeth was a success, with a strong sense of mutual dependence, a visible fondness and a marked ease in each other's company."
And, he claims, Philip has carried out his principal role of supporting the queen with "utter devotion."
Priscilla S. Taylor edited Phi Beta Kappa's quarterly Key Reporter for 18 years.