Alexan­der Waugh

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The Quest for Queen Mary by James Pope-Hen­nessy, edited by Hugo Vick­ers

The Quest for Queen Mary by James Pope-Hen­nessy, edited by Hugo Vick­ers. Lon­don: Zuleika, 335 pp., $40.00

Queen Mary, oth­er­wise known as Mary of Teck (1867–1953), was the pa­ter­nal grand­mother of Queen El­iz­a­beth II. It is sur­pris­ing how many Bri­tons of the present day are ig­no­rant of this fact. She was born in Eng­land but typ­i­cally for a Bri­tish royal of her pe­riod was pre­dom­i­nantly Ger­man by blood. Ge­orge III, the Hanove­rian king of Great Bri­tain, was one of her great-grand­fa­thers, so she was con­sid­ered “royal,” but her fa­ther’s fa­ther, Alexan­der, Duke of Würt­tem­berg, had mar­ried be­neath his sta­tion, as a con­se­quence of which his chil­dren were for­bid­den to in­herit his ti­tles and royal sta­tus. Thus Mary, in her maid­en­hood, was con­sid­ered too royal to marry into the Bri­tish aris­toc­racy and not royal enough to marry into any of the royal houses of Europe. To make mat­ters worse, her fa­ther was clin­i­cally in­sane and her mother, by an in­sa­tiable ap­petite for lux­ury, had bankrupted the fam­ily and driven it into ex­ile.

Mary was no beauty—“very Ger­man-look­ing. And frump­ish” is how one of her as­so­ciates de­scribed her—and had it not been for Queen Vic­to­ria’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to over­look the in­san­ity, poverty, and mor­ga­natic dis­ap­point­ments of her line, she might have re­mained a spin­ster for the rest of her days. One of Vic­to­ria’s rea­sons for pro­mot­ing the mar­riage was that her wholly un­sat­is­fac­tory grand­son, Prince Al­bert, Duke of Clarence, the sec­ond in line of suc­ces­sion to the Bri­tish throne, was in des­per­ate need of a bride. This ami­able but in­de­ci­sive and densely stupid princeling was ru­mored to have fa­thered an il­le­git­i­mate child by a mar­ried wo­man, to have taken an ac­tive part in an orgy at a ho­mo­sex­ual brothel in Lon­don, to have con­tracted gon­or­rhea, and (ac­cord­ing to one fan­tas­ti­cal the­ory) to have been the elu­sive psy­cho­pathic butcher of Lon­don pros­ti­tutes known as “Jack the Rip­per.” Pre­vi­ous at­tempts to marry this dud duke off to for­eign princesses had failed, so Queen Vic­to­ria was heartily re­lieved when, in 1891, Mary of Teck, who was in love with some­one com­pletely dif­fer­ent, found the prospect of be­com­ing queen of Eng­land ir­re­sistibly at­trac­tive and ac­cepted the duke’s re­pu­di­ated hand with­out a mo­ment’s hes­i­ta­tion. This plan, how­ever, had to be aban­doned when the duke died of pneu­mo­nia six weeks into his en­gage­ment. In his death throes he cried out for a pre­vi­ous lover to be brought to his bed­side. A year later Mary was en­gaged to his brother, the Duke of York, who in 1910 was crowned King Ge­orge V and she his queen con­sort. Queen Mary died in March 1953, just ten weeks be­fore the coro­na­tion of her grand­daugh­ter. She had lived to the grand age of eighty-five and had wit­nessed the ab­di­ca­tion of her old­est son, Edward VIII, on ac­count of his un­yield­ing re­solve to marry a not un­sleazy Amer­i­can di­vor­cée. News had been re­layed to her by tele­phone of the deaths of three of her sons: her sec­ond, “Ber­tie” (Ge­orge VI), who died of lung cancer in Fe­bru­ary 1952; her fourth, Ge­orge, Duke of Kent, who was killed in a plane crash in 1942; and her fifth, Prince John, who, aged thir­teen, suc­cumbed to a fa­tal epilep­tic seizure at his nanny’s cot­tage in Nor­folk in 1919. If the haste with which Queen El­iz­a­beth com­mis­sioned a bi­og­ra­phy of her grand­mother was un­usual, so too was her choice of au­thor, to whom she gave free run of the royal ar­chive and ac­cess to her royal re­la­tions. Her ad­vis­ers may have in­formed her that James Pope-Hen­nessy was work­ing on a re­spectable bi­og­ra­phy of the lib­eral politi­cian and peer Lord Crewe, but did they tell her, as his friend the au­thor James Lees-Milne later wrote, that “the devil got a firm grip on him in his twen­ties and early thir­ties”? Did they in­form her that he was a bank­rupt spend­thrift who took large sums of money from gullible rich women and never re­paid them? Did they men­tion that he was a rick­ety Catholic, an al­co­holic, and a com­pul­sively in­dis­creet gos­sip? Pope-Hen­nessy was never shy to ad­mit that he found “the gut­ter over-pow­er­ingly at­trac­tive.”

While the royal fam­ily, liv­ing in its own air-tight chrysalis, ap­peared to know noth­ing of this, the chat­ter­ing classes were com­plain­ing of the un­suit­abil­ity of al­low­ing such a fox into the royal hen coop. They knew that Pope-Hen­nessy was reg­u­larly en­ter­tain­ing two sorts of friends at his apart­ment in Lad­broke Grove—rich, high-born (of­ten old) so­ci­ety gos­sips and poor, low-born (al­ways young) male pros­ti­tutes, known as “Dilly boys.” Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was not de­crim­i­nal­ized in Eng­land un­til 1967, but Pope-Hen­nessy in­vited both sets to­gether; they quaffed cham­pagne bought on credit and eyed one an­other in dis­gust from op­po­site ends of his draw­ing room. In Jan­uary 1974 he rashly and un­truth­fully boasted to the Dilly boys that a £150,000 ad­vance he had re­ceived for a bi­og­ra­phy of Noël Coward was be­ing kept un­der his bed in cash, tempt­ing three of them to re­turn to his flat in the mid­dle of the af­ter­noon, tie him up, stuff a hair­net into his mouth, and bash him to death. Pope-Hen­nessy’s large cir­cle of friends loved him for his wit, open­ness, eru­di­tion, and de­light in con­ver­sa­tion. Though once capri­ciously en­gaged to Lady Ebury, het­ero­sex­ual as­pi­ra­tions never en­tered his mind. To my grand­mother, Lady Onslow, he once re­marked, “If it weren’t for Len and Jimmy and the sailors, I would marry you.”

Al­though the royal cen­sors ex­er­cised a dele­te­ri­ous right of veto over any­thing that dis­pleased them, Pope-Hen­nessy’s Queen Mary was pub­lished in 1959 to fan­fares of pop­u­lar and crit­i­cal ac­claim. Hugo Vick­ers, the royal his­to­rian and ed­i­tor of The Quest for Queen Mary, de­scribes it as a “work of pure ge­nius” and “one of the best royal bi­ogra­phies ever to have been pub­lished”; the writer Peter Quen­nell called it a “daz­zling tour de force,” while King Ge­orge VI’s re­tired pri­vate sec­re­tary, Sir Alan Las­celles, read the first draft over and over in tears of emo­tion. Many failed to ap­pre­ci­ate the raised eye­brow and the sub­tle tongue-in-cheek with which Pope-Hen­nessy lav­ished praise upon his sub­ject and sup­posed that, how­ever lu­cid and art­fully writ­ten, his book was com­pro­mised by its en­forced sym­pa­thy for a wo­man who was not wholly lik­able. Yes, Queen Mary had some pos­i­tive at­tributes: she was oc­ca­sion­ally amus­ing, some­times mag­nan­i­mous, a good and du­ti­ful pa­tron es­pe­cially of the arts, etc., but her faults were le­gion, out­weigh­ing her qual­i­ties by a fac­tor, let’s say, of ten to one. The Quest for Queen Mary—an in­tox­i­cat­ing, frank, and of­ten hi­lar­i­ous an­thol­ogy of in­ter­views that Pope-Hen­nessy un­der­took with ser­vants, friends, courtiers, and mem­bers of her ex­tended fam­ily while re­search­ing his bi­og­ra­phy be­tween 1955 and 1958—re­veals all. She was stiff and cold and dis­tant, awk­ward in con­ver­sa­tion, of­ten stand­ing silent and rigid, clean­ing her teeth with her tongue, wait­ing for oth­ers to talk. She was a rot­ten and un­sym­pa­thetic mother who ex­iled her four-year-old on ac­count of his epilepsy; she was par­si­mo­nious, so that her din­ner guests left un­sated from her ta­ble; she gave cheap and gaudy presents made of plas­tic to her fam­ily for Christ­mas. She was ego­cen­tric, avari­cious, bad-tem­pered, and in­con­sid­er­ate. “The truth is she was damned selfish,” her ex­tra equerry, Lord Claud Hamilton, told Pope-Hen­nessy. “One of the most selfish hu­man be­ings I have ever known.”

When she vis­ited other peo­ples’ houses, she cov­eted their pos­ses­sions with such in­ten­sity that they felt obliged to make her a gift of them. She was a

bully. She de­manded that her wo­man of the bed­cham­ber, Mar­garet Wyn­d­ham, read aloud to her for up to seven hours at a sit­ting. “Mag­gie is so stupid,” she said; “she gets hoarse and then her voice gives out,” and so Wyn­d­ham was dis­missed “as though [she] were a gramo­phone need­ing a new nee­dle.” Ac­cord­ing to mul­ti­ple sources Queen Mary was a “moral coward.” She never dared dis­cuss the ab­di­ca­tion with her own son, the ab­di­ca­tor, Edward VIII. She was bossy and un­sym­pa­thetic, or­der­ing ser­vants for the sake of or­der­ing ser­vants, hat­ing in­valids, and dis­miss­ing sick chil­dren as “tire­some.”

These are just a few of the com­plaints that emerge against her in The Quest for Queen Mary. Of course Pope-Hen­nessy un­der­stood the value of the ma­te­rial he had col­lected, know­ing full well that the cen­sors would never al­low him to in­cor­po­rate the half of it in his forth­com­ing bi­og­ra­phy. With an eye to pos­ter­ity (for which he must be thanked) he care­fully pre­served the mem­ory of his in­ter­views as per­fectly pol­ished es­says, re­plete with in­ti­mate de­scrip­tions of clothes, houses, dec­o­ra­tions, man­ners, smells, food and drink, fa­cial ex­pres­sions, per­sonal prej­u­dices and tics—any­thing, in fact, that caught his at­ten­tion or amused him. He took no notes and of­ten im­bibed sen­sa­tional quan­ti­ties of al­co­hol dur­ing the course of the in­ter­views. As soon as they were con­cluded he found a quiet spot to write up all that he could re­mem­ber while it was fresh in his mind.

With this rou­tine Pope-Hen­nessy blithely flit­ted across Europe from one royal palace to the next, pre­serv­ing count­less in­dis­cre­tions, of­ten coyly or drunk­enly gab­bled to him “off the record.” The fas­ci­na­tion of his find­ings can­not be un­der­es­ti­mated. His orig­i­nal in­ten­tion was to de­posit the manuscripts in the Bri­tish Mu­seum with an in­junc­tion that none be pub­lished for at least fifty years, but this em­bargo, which should have run to 2009, was ig­nored by his friend Peter Quen­nell, who, on the stated grounds that “none of them need nowa­days give of­fence,” pub­lished a small num­ber of the in­ter­views at the end of a book he edited called A Lonely Busi­ness: A Self-Por­trait of James Pope-Hen­nessy (1981). In The Quest for Queen Mary they are at last pub­lished in full for the first time along with a help­ful in­tro­duc­tion and co­pi­ous foot­notes by Hugo Vick­ers. Vick­ers is thick with the Wind­sors, and un­til the manuscripts can be re­ex­am­ined, we must take it on trust that noth­ing has been re­moved from the present edi­tion to save royal blushes.

The in­ter­views are ar­ranged in chrono­log­i­cal or­der, start­ing with Lady Colville and an old “Mr. Hough,” whose Chris­tian name nei­ther Pope-Hen­nessy nor Vick­ers is trou­bled to re­veal. Mr. Hough served as a “room-boy” to the stew­ard of Queen Mary’s par­ents, the Duke and Duchess of Teck, in 1893. From Mr. Hough, our quest­ing bi­og­ra­pher moves to Oslo to interview King Haakon VII of Nor­way, who was mar­ried to Queen Mary’s sis­ter-in-law, Princess Maud, but Haakon is ill so Pope-Hen­nessy in­ter­views his son, Crown Prince Olav, in­stead. From the royal palace in Oslo he takes a plane to the royal palace in Stock­holm to see King Gustaf VI and Queen Louise of Swe­den, find­ing him “very hewn-look­ing, with a high, thought­ful head like a Rodin, and spec­ta­cles; and hair like an old ne­gro,” and her “stooped and some­what wiz­ened; they both look se­vere in re­pose but light up quickly and have a funny sense of hu­mour.” And so the “quest” con­tin­ues from one great royal palace to an­other, Pope-Hen­nessy re­port­ing on the pe­cu­liar­i­ties of royal mem­bers of the Rus­sian, Ger­man, Dan­ish, and Bri­tish courts, al­ways with hu­mor, pre­ci­sion, and a healthy ap­petite for the pe­cu­liar. His jour­ney ends with a fas­ci­nat­ing visit to the ex­iled Duke of Wind­sor in France. The com­mon opin­ion of this man—one shared by the present queen and her late mother—is that he was pa­thetic and selfish to ab­di­cate the throne for love of Mrs. Simp­son, that he spent too much time cry­ing into women’s laps, and that he treach­er­ously con­nived with Nazi au­thor­i­ties to over­throw his brother and re­in­state him­self as king of Eng­land in the event of a Ger­man vic­tory in World War II. Pope-Hen­nessy, who was no syco­phant, gives a star­tlingly sym­pa­thetic ac­count:

He is not only the one mem­ber of the Royal Fam­ily for whom one needs to make no al­lowances what­ever, but . . . he is ex­ceed­ingly in­tel­li­gent, orig­i­nal, lib­eral­minded and quite ca­pa­ble of ei­ther lead­ing a con­ver­sa­tion or tak­ing a con­struc­tive part in one. He is also one of the most con­sid­er­ate men I have ever met of his gen­er­a­tion.

Oth­ers with whom Pope-Hen­nessy finds an easy affin­ity are the big drinkers—Prince Henry of Glouces­ter and Prince Axel of Den­mark in par­tic­u­lar—but he is crit­i­cal of courtiers, “that nu­mer­ous and obeisant throng of snobs which flour­ish like fungi in the shadow of roy­alty.” “It is courtiers,” he writes, “who make roy­alty fright­ened and fright­en­ing.”

When in­vited to write the life of Queen Mary, Pope-Hen­nessy was con­temp­tu­ous and se­ri­ously con­sid­ered turn­ing it down. Had it not been for his brother, the distin­guished art his­to­rian Sir John Pope-Hen­nessy, writ­ing to him that “roy­alty... were an en­dan­gered species, and this was an oc­ca­sion to es­tab­lish, through close in­spec­tion of a sin­gle life, the na­ture of the phe­nom­e­non,” the book would never have been writ­ten. It is com­mon among Bri­tish in­tel­lec­tu­als—even those who are loud­est in their praise for the in­sti­tu­tions of monar­chy—to de­ride the royal fam­ily on ac­count of its per­ceived vul­gar­ity and Ger­manic stodgi­ness. Pope-Hen­nessy em­braced these prej­u­dices and ap­proached all wit­nesses (with the ex­cep­tion of Queen El­iz­a­beth, with whom he was un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally ner­vous) in a breezy spirit of lofty de­tach­ment.

It is true that the queen’s great coun­try man­sion at San­dring­ham in Nor­folk is not the sort of place that any cul­ti­vated gen­tle­man would wish to make his home. Pope-Hen­nessy found it “pre­pos­ter­ous . . . ho­tel-like . . . tremen­dously vul­gar and em­phat­i­cally, al­most de­fi­antly hideous and gloomy,” while the small church at the end of the drive with its royal plaques and mon­u­ments is “not, as the books say, like an or­di­nary coun­try church in the least, but more like the pri­vate chapel of a fam­ily of ail­ing mega­lo­ma­ni­acs: the shrine of a clique.” The “vir­u­lent ma­genta chintz” so­fas in the Duke of Ed­in­burgh’s boudoir re­veal, ac­cord­ing to Pope-Hen­nessy, “ev­i­dence of a pos­i­tive but some­what vul­gar per­son­al­ity.” If Pope-Hen­nessy’s snob­bery about the roy­als—their tastes and their man­ners—tick­les the reader, so too will the royal fam­ily’s navel-gaz­ing snob­bery against its own mem­bers. Be­cause they find them­selves at the clois­tered apex of all Euro­pean so­cial hi­er­ar­chies, the snob­bish­ness of royal per­sons takes un­usual forms. A fre­quent term of dis­dain is “poor,” not in the sense of “cash-strapped” or “in­sol­vent,” but “pitiable.” Thus Mary’s mother, the Duchess of Teck, though of­ten cash-strapped, is for­ever de­scribed as “poor Mary” on ac­count of her fat­ness, while Princess Au­gusta, Dowa­ger Duchess of Meck­len­burg-Stre­litz, re­marks of her daugh­ter-in-law, “Yes she does en­joy be­ing a Grand Duchess! Poor dear, I am glad she does, for I never did, I was sat­is­fied with what I was and am still.” When King Edward VII’s daugh­ter the Duchess of Fife was an­noyed with Queen Mary, she would say of her: “Poor May, poor May, with her Würt­tem­berg hands.” She and her mother, Queen Alexan­dra, would con­stantly re­mind each other that Mary was not “com­pletely royal,” while Mary’s el­dest son, the Duke of Wind­sor, set­ting this con­sid­er­a­tion aside, blurted sud­denly to Pope-Hen­nessy: “You re­alise there are only three com­pletely royal per­sons alive now? My sis­ter, my brother and my­self.” Even his niece El­iz­a­beth II is down­graded on ac­count of her mother’s be­ing the daugh­ter of a Scot­tish earl. Of the Bat­ten­bergs, a mor­ga­natic branch of the Hesse-Darm­stadt fam­ily from which Lord Mount­bat­ten de­scends, Princess Arthur of Con­naught tells Pope-Hen­nessy that they are “a sketchy lot... I be­lieve the first one was a hair­dresser or some­thing. But what does that mat­ter so long as they do their job?”

Pope-Hen­nessy’s long re­searches into the life of Queen Mary did not en­dear him to her and, un­sur­pris­ingly, his in­ter­views are at their fun­ni­est and psy­cho­log­i­cal best when the sub­ject of con­ver­sa­tion is fur­thest from the sub­ject of his work. His abil­ity to cap­ture the royal way of talk­ing is scin­til­lat­ing. In the fol­low­ing pas­sage he bril­liantly re­counts a bizarre ex­change about oys­ters and mince pies held over din­ner at Barn­well Manor with him­self, his host, Prince Henry, Duke of Glouces­ter (Queen Mary’s third son); his wife, the Duchess of Glouces­ter; and the Duke’s aunt, Princess Alice, Count­ess of Athlone, grand­daugh­ter of Queen Vic­to­ria:

Later in the meal Princess Alice be­gan talk­ing about oys­ter poi­son­ing. The Duke said he had never tasted an oys­ter.

“When I was young the smell of an oys­ter made me sick. It’s bet­ter now, I can just stand the smell but I never ate one. You see,” he said to me, “I never touch food I think I’m not go­ing to like. Why should I? I’m sure I should dis­like a mince pie, so I’ve never tried one. I don’t know what’s in­side a mince pie. What is there?”

“Cur­rants, Harry,” said the Duchess, “and peel and things.” “I think the con­trast be­tween the pas­try out­side and the heavy things in­side is rather un­pleas­ant,” I contributed.

“I wouldn’t know,” said the Duke (a favourite phrase), “be­cause d’you see I’ve never tried one and I’m not go­ing to. Why should I?”

One rea­son why re­pub­li­can­ism has never taken much of a hold in Bri­tain is be­cause the Bri­tish—who may oc­ca­sion­ally ex­press their envy or re­sent­ment of those born to greater wealth and priv­i­lege than them­selves—are as­tute enough to re­al­ize that the royal fam­ily, be­ing prac­ti­cally a dif­fer­ent species, can­not be en­vied or re­sented. To those who get this—and the ma­jor­ity do—Queen El­iz­a­beth II is beloved, in spite of all her in­her­ited lux­u­ries and priv­i­leges, for the great Bri­tish pub­lic re­al­izes that she is as dis­sim­i­lar to her sub­jects as a queen bee is dis­sim­i­lar to the work­ers and drones of an apian hive. Since when did hon­ey­bees be­grudge their queen her su­per­se­cure cell, her royal jelly, or her dis­tinc­tively large tho­rax? As Pope-Hen­nessy ar­gues, “Taken neat like whiskey,” the roy­als “are per­fectly all right. This does not mean that they are as oth­ers, but you can get on to plain terms with the species, like an or­nithol­o­gist mak­ing friends with some rare wild duck.” What this fine book demon­strates, with wit, can­dor, and unas­sail­able force, is that royal per­sons are not at all like or­di­nary peo­ple, and de­spite the best ef­forts of Net­flix to as­sure view­ers of The Crown that they are just plain folks, no one (at least no one in Bri­tain) is fooled. That is how it should be, for when these ex­otic in­ter­bred Ger­man wax­works are even­tu­ally made “or­di­nary” by the ge­netic in­fu­sion of a hun­dred Meghan Markles, Kate Mid­dle­tons, So­phie Rhys-Jone­ses, and Mike Tin­dalls, only then will the roy­als them­selves be per­ceived as “or­di­nary.” Only then will they suc­ceed, with all their ser­vants, palaces, en­ti­tle­ments, and hered­i­tary priv­i­leges, in mak­ing other “or­di­nary” peo­ple very re­sent­ful in­deed, and that, sadly (or not?), will be the end of that.

The fu­ture Queen Mary (right) with her mother, the Duchess of Teck, circa 1891

A Player’s cig­a­rette card of Queen Mary, in a se­ries of kings and queens of Eng­land, date un­known

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