- King George V by Kenneth Rose
Weidenfeld, 514 pp, £12.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 297 78245 2
George V has been as fortunate in his biographers as any monarch could be. Not for him the lachrymose sentimentality which, at the Queen’s behest and with her all-too-active co-operation, Theodore Martin lavished on the Prince Consort; still less the ‘feline skill’ of Sidney Lee who, disregarding the advice of Edward VII, ‘Stick to Shakespeare, Mr Lee, there’s money in Shakespeare,’ produced a double-decker biography of his late majesty; least of all the flippant irreverences of Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria, which caused George V to erupt with rage. On the contrary, the monarch whom the present Queen delighted to call ‘Grandpapa England’ received the very epitome of grave, tasteful and well-regarded biography. John Gore chronicled the inner man, his tastes, hobbies and friendships; and Harold Nicolson described his public life and times. Nicolson’s book in particular did as much to confirm George’s reputation as a good king as it did to confirm his own reputation as a good writer, and established a model for royal biography successfully followed by Lady Longford on Queen Victoria, Sir Philip Magnus on Edward VII, Lady Donaldson on Edward VIII, James Pope-Hennessy on Queen Mary and Sir John Wheeler-Bennett on George VI.
Now the wheel has come full circle, and we are back to George V again. Is there any need for this? If plain history does not repeat itself, is there any reason why royal biography should? In this case at least, the answer is an emphatic yes. When Gore and Nicolson wrote, George V’s widow was still alive, one son was king as George VI, and another was ex-king as Duke of Windsor. Not surprisingly, their books were masterpieces of tact and discretion – qualities necessary in a courtier, but inhibiting in a biographer. Although he was given full access to the relevant papers, Nicolson was explicitly instructed to omit things and incidents which were discreditable, to avoid descending to personalities, to produce the history of an institution rather than the biography of a person, and to submit the finished product to the Palace for approval. ‘The Royal Family,’ Nicolson rightly observed, ‘feel their myth is a piece of gossamer, and must not be blown upon.’
Nor was he exactly a sympathetic biographer. He had no mystic feeling for the monarchy, regarding it ‘merely as a useful institution’. He thought George V a ‘dull individual’ who ‘lacked charm’, while his own intellectual pretensions, Labour Party loyalties and homosexual proclivities would hardly have endeared him to the late King. George V disliked intellectuals (‘I am not a professor like my grandfather’), detested Socialists (‘His language about the Labour Party was as violent as ever,’ Neville Chamberlain recorded in 1923), and abhorred homosexuals (‘I thought people like that shot themselves’). On the other hand, he adored collecting stamps, which Nicolson dismissed as ‘mere scraps of paper’, and he was devoted to York Cottage, Sandringham, which Nicolson derided as ‘a horrid little house’, worse than an unseemly villa in Surbiton. ‘For seventeen years,’ Nicolson disparagingly recorded in his diary while working on the King’s early married life, ‘he did nothing at all but kill animals and stick in stamps.’ But taste and tact came to the rescue, as these astringent sentiments were clothed in the orotund platitudes of the official life: ‘These years succeeded each other with placid similitude. He lived the life of a privileged country gentleman, unostentatious, comparatively retired, almost obscure.’
Nicolson’s loyal and royal life was thus more a triumph of will than of empathy, of tact rather than tolerance. And although it was received with great acclaim as the first word on the subject, in the nature of things it could scarcely be the last. By contrast, Kenneth Rose’s superb biography will surely stand as the best and most interesting study of George V that we are ever likely to get. There is much greater understanding by the author of his subject, and the public and private lives are brought together with great skill and advantage. As a work of art, it is outstanding: beautifully proportioned, elegantly written, and abounding in memorable phrases, scintillating anecdotes and splendid set-pieces. As a work of scholarship, it is equally impressive, deploying material drawn from 50 archive collections to illuminate the King’s reign and personality far more vividly than Gore and Nicolson were able to do. And, as befits the well-connected writer of the ‘Albany’ column in the Sunday Telegraph, these researches are enlivened by recollections of the crowned and the coroneted.
The George V who emerges from a first reading of these golden pages is instantly recognisable as the familiar figure created by Gore and Nicolson: the symbolic king, standing for stability and continuity in a rapidly dissolving world; the human king, who brought an inspired common sense and kindliness to his work and reign; the family king, with a devoted wife and brood of children; the tolerant king, devoid of the prejudices of class, colour or race; the Sailor King, whose sporting activities endeared him to many of his subjects; the imperial king, who journeyed to India to crown himself at his own Durbar; the Patriot King, who embodied wartime fortitude at a time of unprecedented national trial; the constitutional king, who took the lead, with scrupulous propriety, in seeking an Irish settlement in 1914 and 1922 and a National Government in 1931; the impartial king, who gave a considerate, uncondescending welcome to the first Labour Government; the fatherly king, who made moving broadcasts at Christmas and enjoyed deserved if unsought apotheosis at the time of his Silver Jubilee; and the much-loved king, of whom it was said at his passing: ‘the sunset of his death tinged the whole world’s sky.’