Be­hind the Palace Doors: Five Cen­turies of Sex, Ad­ven­ture, Vice, Treach­ery, and Folly From Royal Bri­tain by Michael Far­quhar, Ran­dom House, 307 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Craig Smith

When this is­sue of Pasatiempo meets your eyes, dear reader, the April 29 wed­ding of Prince Wil­liam of Wales, KG, FRS (aka Wil­liam Arthur Philip Louis Wind­sor) to Miss Cather­ine El­iz­a­beth “Kate” Mid­dle­ton will be over.

The pomp-and-cir­cum­stance pa­rades to and from Buck­ing­ham Palace and the nup­tials in West­min­ster Abbey will have been trans­mit­ted world­wide. Cap­tains and kings, not to men­tion a bunch of bish­ops, will have done their bits and de­parted. Cho­ris­ters, state trum­peters, and the Abbey or­gan­ist will have sung and played their best. And any dung dropped by the Royal Hanove­rian Creams — car­riage horses to you and me — will have been whisked off the street.

Given the fren­zied, months-long race to make, mar­ket, and sell wed­ding com­mem­o­ra­tives, I can’t help won­der­ing if the horse ap­ples might not be mounted in crys­tal and join the lineup. Tea co­zies, guest tow­els, and snow globes fea­tur­ing the happy pair’s im­ages are now on sale, as are gen­uine faux im­i­ta­tion knock­offs of the en­gage­ment ring that be­longed to Wil­liam’s mum, the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Don’t for­get bis­cuit boxes (U.K. talk for cookie tins), ei­ther.

The oc­ca­sion has also brought on an out­pour­ing of print, from mag­a­zine and news­pa­per ar­ti­cles to books, some new and some reprints. This par­tic­u­lar ef­fort by Michael Far­quhar is a de­li­cious, sala­cious, and of­ten sad look at the hu­man foibles of those who have sat on the throne — or in some cases, sat on the laps of those on the throne.

Even though it’s pre­sented in an ul­tra-con­densed man­ner, rather like pick­ing the best nut­meats out of a tasty his­tor­i­cal spread, the re­search be­hind Be­hind is solid, the writ­ing is flu­ent, and the con­ven­tional ap­proach seems de­signed for a ca­sual reader rather than a se­ri­ous stu­dent of his­tory. That’s no sur­prise, for the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based au­thor, a for­mer

Wash­ing­ton Post staffer, has writ­ten four light­weight vol­umes on sim­i­lar themes: royal scan­dals, great Amer­i­can scan­dals, and scoundrels and de­cep­tions in his­tory. Of course the naughty bits in a life al­ways make bet­ter gos­sip than the good mo­ments, and roy­alty is no ex­cep­tion to the rule.

Far­quhar be­gins his sur­vey with the House of Tu­dor (1485 to 1603). He then hop­scotches in time through the Stu­arts, Hanove­ri­ans, and Saxe-Coburg-Gothas up to the cur­rent House of Wind­sor. Given the huge amount of his­tory packed into that time, it’s a rea­son­able ap­proach. It might have been fun to read about ear­lier kings — John the au­to­crat, Ethelred the Un­ready (whose mother is said to have beaten him with a can­dle­stick so badly he couldn’t bear them near him ever again), and Ed­ward II, the gay — but it would have turned a page-turner into a tome.

You do know the Tu­dors, right? Henry VIII, a gor­geous young man who be­came a fat and leg-ul­cer­rid­den grouch, is the one who had six wives — two di­vorced, two be­headed, one died in child­birth, one sur­vived him. His bril­liant but sickly son Ed­ward, fic­tion­al­ized in Twain’s The Prince and the Pau­per, reigned for just six years be­fore pop­ping off and giv­ing way to step­sis­ter Mary — who in try­ing to re­store Ro­man Catholi­cism to Eng­land, caused the deaths of thou­sands and gained the ep­i­thet Bloody.

Her step­sis­ter El­iz­a­beth, a bril­liant blue­stock­ing who dan­gled her vir­gin­ity and coun­try for decades as a lure for royal suit­ors, was one of Eng­land’s great­est mon­archs, as well as be­ing quite a char­ac­ter: her fre­quent “com­mand” vis­its to wealthy nobles of­ten left them far from wealthy and reel­ing from the amount of adu­la­tion, par­ty­ing, and praise Glo­ri­ana de­manded. In­ci­den­tally, Far­quhar also lugs in Lady Jane Grey, who was ac­claimed queen dur­ing a pe­riod when a fac­tion tried to keep Mary from the throne. For Lady Jane it was queen nine days, off to prison, and good­bye, head.

Far­quhar goes through the suc­ceed­ing kings and queens in the same man­ner, cov­er­ing high points and in­ter­est­ing oc­cur­rences rather than go­ing into great de­tail. Still, that’s a strength in a book like this; and if it gets read­ers in­ter­ested in pur­su­ing more thor­ough study, the short but ad­e­quate bib­li­og­ra­phy is a good place to start.

Did Queen Vic­to­ria re­ally like whiskey with Apol­li­naris wa­ter? What caused the death of Princess Char­lotte, Ge­orge IV’s daugh­ter, af­ter her de­liv­ery of a still-born son? Was it right to call Ed­ward VII “The Ca­resser?” (OK, it’s a play on words on his pre­de­ces­sor, Ed­ward the Con­fes­sor.) And is the story of Ge­orge VI’s stam­mer in The

King’s Speech true or false? Read on and find out. Side note: If, af­ter en­joy­ing Far­quhar, you’d like a very dif­fer­ent take on roy­alty, con­sider the 2009

Queen Vic­to­ria — De­mon Hunter by A. E. Moorat. Based in the brand of such re­cent pas­tiches as

An­droid Karen­ina, Lit­tle Vam­pire Women, and Pride and Prej­u­dice and Zom­bies, it mixes his­tory, slash­er­flick con­cepts, hor­ror, and de­monology in a way that will ei­ther an­noy you tremen­dously or keep you very much amused.

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