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