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  • Royal Spectacle: The 1860 Visit of the Prince of Wales to Canada and the United States
  • Alan Gordon
Royal Spectacle: The 1860 Visit of the Prince of Wales to Canada and the United States. Ian Radforth. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004. Pp. 469, illus., b&w, $39.95

Royal Spectacle is a thoroughly researched and well-written account of the North American tour of Edward Albert, Prince of Wales, in 1860. This [End Page 117] was a well-known tour that regularly appears as background elsewhere, but in Ian Radforth's hands takes centre stage. Borrowing from the expanding literature on parades and civic celebrations, the tour becomes for him a means to examine British North American identities, and more. Radforth covers not only the young prince's travels through British North America, but his voyages through the American republic as well. And he covers this four-month odyssey in painstaking detail.

There is perhaps too much detail. At 381 pages, the account is a little excessive. The introduction, for instance, explains Radforth's intellectual influences, which really only amount to a list of the obvious titles. There is nothing unique in his choice of reading, and footnotes – a standard tool of scholarly writing – easily convey the same information. It comes off as a bit indulgent. Similarly lengthy portions provide more narrative about the planning and parading during the trip than are really necessary. There are many places where judicious editing could have reduced the minutiae without sacrificing the argument. Moreover, the detail can be uneven. All the discussion of planning means that, in a book that is largely a chronological narrative, it takes 83 pages for our hero to reach Newfoundland. By contrast, his return voyage, a more arduous and dangerous one nervously anticipated in England, takes a merciful 2 pages. Still, Radforth tells the story of the young prince's travels with a certain panache and a wry sense of humour. If at places one is tempted to flip quickly through the pages, at others it makes engrossing reading.

The book's great strength is that it turns attention away from the dignitaries to the crowds themselves. Perhaps the greatest contribution to this ever-growing literature on public spectacle is Radforth's effort to capture the reception of the events by the faceless masses. Relying primarily on newspaper accounts, he analyses how journalists viewed the common masses of humanity that everywhere met the prince and tried to stake their claims to legitimacy through an audience with royalty. The best chapter deals with the struggles of Orangemen to parade in colours before the heir to the throne, and the equally determined opposition of Bertie's 'political advisor,' the Duke of Newcastle, to prevent sectarian displays from tainting the monarchy. This is a chapter that reveals the multiple layering of interests in civic celebrations, Orange versus Green, Canadian versus English, and Newcastle against just about everybody. Through these moments of confrontation, Radforth is able to peer into the perceptions of the throngs of journalists covering the events and, reading carefully, divine some understanding of how the crowds understood these issues.

But what we find, like many of Radforth's conclusions, is not really new. It turns out that journalists depicted the same events with the same [End Page 118] crowds differently, depending on how they were disposed to see these events. For some, American crowds were enthusiastic, representing the generous hospitality of a free people; for others, the same unruly behaviour showed the dangers of democracy taken too far. Similarly, American women at the balls held in the prince's honour compared favourably and unfavourably to the young women of British North America, depending on who was doing the comparing. But this is not to disparage the whole book. Radforth does hint at further insights than his explicit conclusions reveal. One might be particularly interesting to modern day students of royalty: Edward Albert was, on this tour in particular, one of the first British royals to deal with a key tension within the modern monarchy. Radforth describes that tension succinctly: 'The heir apparent was made to seem both utterly special – the focus of everyone's gaze – and...


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