AN UNHAPPY childhood is no guarantee of a miserable grown-up life. If it were, how could one explain the case of Albert Edward, an eldest son who woefully disapponited his parents? The trouble was he took after his mother -- short, unlovely, and tempestuous -- instead of his handsome, sober-sided, brilliant father. "He is my caricature," Queen Victoria lamented. At five he could hardly speak intelligibly, stammering baby talk (admittedly in two languages); he hurled his books about the room, tore his hair, banged his head on the wall, screaming shrilly until he fell nto semicomatose states. Unluckily his parents had little instinct for dealing with so wayward a child. When he asked, "Mama, is not a pink the female of a carnation?" she sneered at his stupidity.

Concluding, not without reason, that public schools were barbarous, Prince Albert drew up a plan for Bertie's education. At the hands of tutors, the 7-year-old prince unwillingly began to devote his day to a demanding mixed curriculum.He was "anti-studious," moody, bad-tempered, insolent, sometimes at the verge of "mental collapse," one nice tutor observed, at the same time commending the boy's affectionate good nature, alert observation, and good memory.

As Bertie grew older, his father was not surprised to note that he cared more about clothes than anything else: "Even when out shooting he is more occupied with his trousers than with the game!" Yet he certainly had "remarkable social talent," and was "lively, quick, and sharp when his mind is set on anything, which is seldom," Prince Albert observed. "But usually his intellect is of no more use than a pistol packed at the bottom of a trunk if one were attacked in the robber-infested Apennines."

His companions were hand-picked for their accomplishments; he was surrounded by distinguished churchmen and professors in hopes something would rub off. He was sent briefly to three universities, always under close surveillance to see that he studied and avoided "the Balls etc, etc." His father had never seen such a "cunning lazybones," though Dean Liddell of Oxford declared him "the nicest fellow possible, so simple, naive, ingenuous, and modest, and moreover with extremely good wits."

At 19 he was confided his first opportunity -- and almost his last for 40 years -- to deputize for his mother on a tour of Canada and the U.S., where he exhibited the exuberant energy, charm, tact, and ability to listen as if enthralled that were to make him welcome anywhere the rest of his life. But the next project was a disaster. Ten weeks training as a soldier (he was expected to master the duties of every rank up to colonel) demonstrated that he had no more talent for the army than for poetry, though uniforms entranced him and during his lifetime he collected and wore hundreds from every possible country and service, while he rejoiced in giving, receiving, and wearing orders (and reproving people who wore them upside down or on the wrong side). Worse than his poor showing on the parade ground during this stint was the first of a lifetime of sexual scrapes. When his father heard of Bertie's "fall" he was crushed. His death shortly afterwards was pure coincidence, but the Queen blamed her son for it. "I can never see Bertie without a shudder," she wrote, though in later years she came to think him the cosiest, kindest, and most companionable of sons.

To salvage him, an early marriage to a lovely Danish princess was arranged, and as marriages go, it wasn't a bad one. Alix had a lot to put up with, but she prided herself on minding her own business and he remained for all his womanizing her "beloved hubby." As Prince and Princess of Wales they ruled society with dignity and charm for 38 years; but beyond society, nothing. The Queen had fair reason to think him indiscreet, but though she herself, in perpetual mourning, refused to make official public appearances, she would not countenance his making them for her. He was kept out in the cold and obliged to read the newspapers to find out what was going on. He bore the humiliation and check to his large energies with good grace and got on with the life that was allowed him, killing time in an annual cycle of pleasures that took him all over England, Scotland, and Europe: shooting, yachting, deerstalking, going to parties and giving them, taking the cure, attending family weddings and funerals, and setting fashions.

Had his idea of fun been confined to these rituals and the practical jokes he relished -- concocting mustard mince pies or pouring champagne over someone's head -- he might have been spared embarrassment, but baccarat and women were risky business. His mother was one of the most copious letters writers of the age; Bertie was not far behind though he was as jejune as she was vivid. This epistolary mediocrity, and all the trouble his letters caused him, didn't stop his wide correcspondence with the ladies. Tender notes signed "A. E." kept showing up during divorce proceedings and were used in blackmail attempts. The Prince emerged technically blameless from his court apperances, but the publisbed fact that he took hansom cabs at night and carried his own crested gambling counters with him on weekends was disturbing; that Jews, Americans, merchants, actresses and other "female notorieties" were his best friends was worse. Only his neardeath from typhoid (picked up at a stately home) restored his reputation.

Eventually the Prince found a few outlets for his sense of a larger duty. During the '90s he sat on a commission on working-class housing and went so far as to declare, "We are all Socialists nowadays," but the truth was, as a friend wrote, he was "a strong Conservative and a still stronger Jingo." He thanked heaven the Suffragettes, "those dreadful women," did not have the vote, but knew in his bones that the red flag would fly over England some day, and his grandson would never be king. His pessimism about the future was exacerbated by his nephew William, the German Kaiser. This pompous, arrogant man was bent on having not only as big an Empire and Navy as England's, but -- almost as bad -- a bigger yacht than his uncle's. A running quarrel persisted between them, continually provoked by the "mad and malicious" William (Bertie's epithet) and damped down by the Prince of Wales, whose greatest talent was for pouring oil on troubled waters.

His relations with France were far happier. He did not create the Entente Cordiale -- the ground was laid by others -- but he coined the phrase and his graceful appearances, speeches and impromptu remarks ("Paris, ou je me trouve toujours comme si j'etais chez moi") filled the French with a frenzy of good fellowship.

He was almost 60 when his mother died in 1901. He went through fusty palaces that had not been altered for 40 years, letting in daylight, rehanging pictures ("I don't know much about Art," he'd say in his deep, gruff voice with Germanic r's, "but I know something about Arrangment"), laying on plumbing, electric light and telephones, filling the stables with Daimlers and Mercedes Benzes. His nine-year reign was glorious to the eye and stimulating to the spirits, an unflagging parade of pageantry and ceremony, himself at the center, holding glittering courts in the evening; insisting on tiaras at dinner, opening Parliament with panache, creating a modern monarchy. He delighted in asking questions, in listening with keen attention, in knowing everything, opening his mail, signing photographs, in expressing his views to his ministers about European diplomacy, of which he had so deep, almost intuitive an understanding, and, at home, on matters concerning army and navy: his stromg backing helped get through broad reforms in both services. His last effort was to stop the House of Lords from rejecting Loyd George's reform budget, little as he liked its revolutionary new taxes that doomed the way of life he loved. It wasn't only his own failing health that lowered his gay spirits but the certainty that a European war was waiting in the wings and the whole grand show was coming to an end.

He had never been a drinking man, though he liked to help himself from a jug of champagne, while he put down course after course of rich food. In 1910 too many cigars and too many opulent meals killed him, though during his dying days he insisted on receiving friends while seated in a chair, fully and correctly dressed. His wife tried to cheer him by summoning Mrs. Keppel, the last, loveliest, and wisest of his mistresses, to say goodbye; his son brought him the good news that his horse had won a race and after the King died a few hours later, said, heartbroken, that he had lost his dearest friend. Many people felt that sense of loss. Years later, Admiral Fisher wrote, "He wasn't clever, but he always did the right thing, which is better than brains.... There was something in the charm of his heart that still chains one to his memory -- some magnetic touch!" -- this in spite of the fact that the angry, frustrated child had never been wholly absorbed in the personality of the man. Even his closest friends were afraid of him, yet for his unassuming, brave, and lovable "human" side forgave him everything.

King Edward is a monarch whose time has come. Several biographies have appeared lately: a fine one by Sir Philip Magnus (King Edward VII, Peguin, $3.95), an even better on by Christopher Hibbert (The Royal Victorians: King Eward VII, His Family and Friends , Lippincott, $12.95; Berkley, $2.25). Giles St. Aubyn's excuse for raking over well-tilled soil is a hitherto unavailable cache of correspondence belonging to the King's secretary, Francis Knollys. It adds documentation but doesn't change anything, though St. Aubyn makes what use of it he can to demonstrate that the King was more influential in public affirs than was supposed. He discards a straight chronological line after the King's youth (in which he does a jocular, and irresponsible, demolition job on Prince Albert), and discusses him under various rubrics: Society, Trouble, Diplomacy, Politics. It is a confusing way to write the life of a man whose interest lies almost wholly on the human level.

With Mobil's sponsorship of the current TV dramatic series based on Edward's life, the King is bigger business than he has been since his funeral. The paperback book of the "showcase drama," available in two volumes, follows the shooting script pretty closely, while the script itself is based on Magnus' biography. Much of the dialogue parrots sentences people really uttered or wrote -- one seems to have wandered into a waxworks wired for sound. The "novelist," David Butler, allows himself to cut loose now and again (the subject affords him maximum opportunity) in leisurely passages like this from a two-page description of Mrs. Keppel undressing: "Alice slipped her silk drawers down and the maid crouched, holding them as she stepped out of them and over the crumpled ring of her petticoat...." That no one knows for a fact whether the king ever actually slept with Mrs. Keppel is beside the point.