Something to Do
- Witness of a Century: The Life and Times of Prince Arthur of Connaught, 1850-1942 by Noble Frankland
Shepheard-Walwyn, 476 pp, £22.95, June 1993, ISBN 0 85683 136 0
Few reputations are so fragile or ephemeral as those of minor modern royalty – the brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, younger sons and daughters, cousins and more distant relatives of big daddy and the queen bee. By birth and by definition, they are lifelong occupants of the substitutes’ bench, permanent understudies for the starring roles which rarely if ever come their way, too near the throne to be ordinary people, too far removed to be right royally important. For the most part, their lives are a bizarre and unhappy amalgam of cosseted privilege, unostentatious dutifulness, peripheral appeal, honorific marginality, wearying ceremonial, resentful disappointment, embittered loneliness and – if they are lucky – occasional scandal. In death the best they can hope for is to be instantly forgotten, with no realistic prospect of later rediscovery. Who, today, knows anything about such defunct dynasts as the Duke of Cambridge, the Marquess of Carisbrooke or the Earl of Athlone?
Vol. 15 No. 21 · 4 November 1993
It is gratifying to find that David Cannadine, who thinks so little of the British royal family, has written at such length about my biography of the Duke of Connaught, Witness of a Century (LRB, 23 September). I am sorry, however, that the book has caused Cannadine to suffer such a nasty bout of prejudice and I hope that my soothing words will now help him to get over it before he loses his balance and topples off the historians’ rostrum.
Cannadine believes that because his contempt for the royal family is equally directed at them all, they are therefore all equal in the extent to which they are nonentities. (Even so did Senator McCarthy declare all academics to be Communists.) Who today, he asks, knows anything about ‘such defunct dynasts as the Duke of Cambridge, the Marquess of Carisbrook or the Earl of Athlone’? Obviously Cannadine doesn’t, but if he had even a smattering of the history of the British Army (surely not a wholly negligible subject) he would know a good deal about the Duke of Cambridge, defunct and dynast notwithstanding. Cannadine’s tunnel vision becomes even more acute in his perceptions of the history of the Second World War and its aftermath; here he equates Mountbatten’s uniquely demanding task as last Viceroy of India with the Duke of Windsor’s responsibilities in the Bahamas, the Duke of Gloucester’s in Australia and the Earl of Athlone’s in Canada! So I am not much distressed by his dismissive attitude to the Duke of Connaught.
All the same, if I understand correctly what Cannadine means by inferring that the Duke of Connaught had a ‘two-dimensional personality and a one-dimensional mind’ I think I agree with him. Such endowments did not qualify the Duke of Connaught to become a professor at Cambridge University but they were helpful to him and the public service in the important and responsible duties which came his way.
Finally, I find it odd that Cannadine thinks I should have written the biography of a man who died in 1942 not only in the perspective, but even in the idiom, of 1992. That, of course, was a good year for Cannadine, but there was nothing special about it for me or, for that matter, the Duke of Connaught, beyond the fact that it was the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Should I really have described Gladys Deacon as ‘sexy’, the stink of battle as ‘grotty’ and the coronation of Nicholas II as ‘brill’? I prefer to write, as I was taught at Oxford to do, in the general style of the period with which I am dealing.