The Quest for Queen Mary by James Pope-Hennessy edited by Hugo Vickers — the hilarious battiness of life with the royals
By Max Hastings
A commission to write an official royal biography is the literary equivalent of an invitation to whitewash an exceptionally grand sepulchre, for which the author is rewarded by their grateful sovereign with a CVO or occasionally a KCVO. Thereafter, to mix figures of speech, relevant skeletons are returned to locked cupboards in the Windsor archive.
In 1958, James Pope-Hennessy wrote the official life of George V’s widow Queen Mary, who had died five years earlier. His work was justly praised, but said nothing about, for instance, her habit of exercising droit du seigneur over artefacts she glimpsed in other people’s houses and happened to fancy for her own. In the course of his researches, however, he interviewed a galaxy of royals and courtiers, who spoke freely in the knowledge that their indiscretions would be omitted from his published volume.
Pope-Hennessy was murdered in horrible circumstances in 1974. Hugo Vickers, a fellow royal biographer, has now had the inspired notion of editing and publishing Pope-Hennessy’s unexpurgated interview notes for the Queen Mary book. The result constitutes arguably the most riotously funny volume published this year.
The book conveys, in a fashion that no republican could improve upon, the tedium, ghastliness and sheer battiness of life around monarchs. For instance, in 1940, amid the Blitz, the widowed queen was evacuated from London to become a guest of the unfortunate Duke of Beaufort at Badminton. She arrived with a household 50 strong, whose presence obliged the hapless Beauforts to spend the rest of the war confined to two rooms. The queen, bored and accustomed to her own way, amused herself meanwhile by listening to incessant records of military bands and ordering the felling of trees she felt Badminton would be better without, while her unhappy hosts wrung their hands.
On one occasion, the duchess recalled, she was suddenly awakened in the middle of the night and told that the Queen wanted her in the air-raid shelter: “There I was with my hair all anyhow and in a filthy old dressing gown; and there in the shelter sat Queen Mary, perfectly dressed with her pearls, doing a crossword puzzle.
“On one side of her was her Lady [in-waiting], who had taken a sleeping pill and kept sagging over to one side whenever the Queen said, ‘High life in six letters beginning with a T, Constance’ — she’d just grunt ‘huh-huh-huh’ and flop over again; on the other side of the Queen was her maid gripping two jewel-cases grimly.” The duchess’s summons, it turned out, was a mistake, though of course nobody said sorry.
The Queen enjoyed being read to, sometimes for up to seven hours at a stretch. Seven hours. When her hapless lady-in-waiting Maggie Wyndham flagged at this task, instead of being reprieved she was given throat lozenges and ordered to continue. Indeed, she was eventually sacked for lacking fortitude as a forerunner of Audible.
It was not that the Queen was nasty, save perhaps in treating her own children with systemic froideur. She simply displayed a selfishness and egotism that has infected most occupants of thrones through the ages.
Pope-Hennessy’s account of his interviews with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in their Parisian exile is a small comic masterpiece. The latter displayed her disdain for Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, mentioning that she had once made the mistake of employing a lady’s maid who had been in the QM’s service. The duchess said contemptuously: “I thought that, after all those years with the Queen Mother, if she hadn’t learnt to iron a crinoline, then what had she learnt?…I had to get rid of her.”
Pope-Hennessy vividly describes the horrors of Sandringham and Balmoral, which he was permitted to explore during his researches. He spent two grisly nights with the Duke of Gloucester (another of Queen Mary’s sons) at Barnwell Manor in Northamptonshire. The duke revealed: “There’s only one thing worth seeing on television — the Children’s Hour. I never miss The Lone Ranger on Saturdays.”
The duke let himself go on the subject of his sister-in-law: “Mrs Simpson? Bloody bitch… We none of us ever thought [the Duke of Windsor] was going to marry the woman. He had always had such nice friends before. Mrs Dudley-Ward was the best friend he ever had, only he didn’t realise it. But that Simpson woman! No, I didn’t read her book…Why would I want to waste 18 shillings?”
The long-suffering Wyndham noted Queen Mary’s habit of continuing to do her woolwork on autopilot, with her eyes closed: “When she awoke I had to take out all the stitches she had done in her sleep — oh, they were all over the place, believe me.” She noted her employer’s ferocious temper, which exploded in 1936 during her son’s abdication: “This might really be ROUMANIA!!”
Pope-Hennessy observed during his stay with the Gloucesters: “It suddenly struck me like a thunderclap halfway through luncheon that I was not frightened, but was terribly terribly bored.”
This is a plight that overtakes many half-intelligent people who find themselves for more than a few minutes in royal company. Pope-Hennessy’s narrative is boundlessly entertaining, yet also scary in its portrayal of slavish, endlessly put-upon royal servants and more or less potty aristocrats and princelings, European and home-grown.
This book represents mere jottings, and is thus devoid of coherence or literary grace, but I have not recently enjoyed a read more. Had Meghan Markle read it in time to learn a bit about the realities of palace life, prudence might have suggested to her that the Hollywood kind is cosier.
God Bless you for this, I want to read this! Sound like so much fun. MM should have done her real homework instead of watching Cinderella and her wicked stepsisters, LOL.
Thank you, Heaven, I do appreciate this and you 🌹🌹🌹🌹