It’s Mummie

Jenny Diski

  • The Little Princesses by Marion Crawford, introduced by A.N. Wilson
    Duckworth, 128 pp, £14.99, November 1993, ISBN 0 7156 2497 0

‘It was not ever thus in England,’ says A.N. Wilson, stilting his prose in deference to the text he’s introducing. He’s speaking of the deluge of intimacies we can expect these days in the press about the Royal Family. The ‘mystique of kingship’, Wilson explains, was restored in the late Thirties by George VI and Elizabeth, who, even before they moved into Buckingham Palace, erected a wall of silence around the House of Windsor, as soundproof as the walls of all those castles they processed around. Who knew of David Windsor’s dereliction of duty in favour of love (or whatever it was) until a week before the Abdication? Well, quite a lot of people actually, but not the readers of the popular (as in lower orders) press. Marion Crawford, governess to Lilibet and Margaret Rose, started the rot by ratting on her employers in 1950. Which means that, like liberated and consequence-free sex, the period of royal mystery was brief, helped by the fact that a large war was going on for much of the time, when the intimate doings of the royal family may not have been uppermost in people’s minds.

Reading the reissue of The Little Princesses, a simpler explanation for what Wilson calls the ‘cocoon of unknowability’ comes to mind. The life of the House of Windsor in the days when it wasn’t ever thus, was like the soup of the day, so appropriately named after them, ladled out by truculent landladies and waiters in chilly boarding houses and cavernous hotels right through the Fifties and into the early Sixties: watery, dun-coloured and without the slightest hint of spice. If it’s interesting you’re after, you could see the waiters thinking as you stared glumly into the brownian motion, you’d better live Abroad.

Once disgraceful Uncle David was shipped off into exile and never spoken of again (are the palace walls imprinted with his anguished whispers: ‘Wallace, I long to be your tampax’?), royalty and impeccability became synonymous, at least for a while. So says Crawfie, and she should know. She spent 25 years governessing her charges, beginning when Lilibet was five and her mother ‘the little Duchess of York’.

Read Crawfie and you have to adjust to diminutives. Margaret is still described as a little girl when she’s 17. On the other hand, she’s very helpful on history, explaining about Glamis Castle: ‘Here dwelt Macbeth, who is reputed to be by no means the entirely vicious character Shakespeare makes him out to be in his play. The real Macbeth, though said to have murdered Duncan, was otherwise a good enough king, as kings went in those days ... and he gained the respect of his people.’ Respect and respectability are what counts. Crawfie, for all the scandal of the publication of her book, was no scandalmonger, and wouldn’t hear a word said against royalty, not even the 1lth-century variety. A bit of a Shakespearean tragedy herself, she devoted her youth to the Windsors, flung herself over her young charges at the sound of a doodle-bug, and put off her own marriage to a bank manager beau until she was 38 in order to see Princess Elizabeth through her wedding and Margaret beyond it.

The Queen kissed me and wished me great happiness, but added: ‘I do hope you won’t think of leaving just yet. It is going to be such a busy time.’ Once again I made my promise that I would remain as long as I was needed, though I realised this meant postponing still further the real start of my married life or making a home of my own. We then had tea.

There’s no mention of Crawfie having any children of her own when she did finally get permission to marry, and you wince as a pregnant Princess Elizabeth waltzes into Crawfie’s room with the heirloom pram, cooing, ‘Look, Crawfie, I’m getting my hand in.’ Well behaved, the Windsors might have been, thoughtful they were not. Still, best not shed too many tears for the childless governess, she was where she wanted to be, and George the banker, invited to the Abbey for Elizabeth’s wedding, had to kick his heels outside Buck House while Crawfie attended the wedding supper.

She didn’t start at the top, however. She trained to be a teacher in Edinburgh in what she describes as the poorer part of the city, where she saw, she says, a great deal of poverty and children who were not very bright because they were undernourished. Fired with ‘the crusading spirit’, she developed a sense of vocation and the ‘feeling I had a job to do in life’. This misbegotten vocation was quickly sorted out and she went to work, first for the Countess of Elgin, and then the little Duchess of York. Poverty is never mentioned again, and the undernourished children of Edinburgh were left to manage as best they might. Destiny beats powerfully in Crawfie’s breast, and her prose is littered with ‘Little did I know then’s and ‘Fate was marching up on me’s.

Once she enters the employ of the Duke and Duchess of York, you are pitched into a world of ineffable middle-class vapidity that reminds you of cloud fluff. Mr and Mr Darling lived there before Peter Pan came and troubled things, and later Celia Johnson and Cyril Raymond lived there before Trevor Howard chuffed along and briefly encountered them. It’s a mauve sort of world, and worn to this day by the Queen Mother like a flag of remembrance.

To Crawfie, at their first meeting, it was obvious that the Duke and Duchess ‘were devoted to each other and very much in love, and I remember thinking they looked just as a Duke and Duchess ought to look, but often don’t.’ Crawfie knew how things ought to be. Things like English nursery tradition, whose death in the Fifties she so regrets – a world in miniature with Nanny as the head of state – and then the princelings’ banishment to boarding school before returning to take up their rightful place as masters of the universe.

The Duke and Duchess, before being kicked upstairs to monarchy, were a pair of stay-at-home lovebirds, sitting on either side of the fireplace, the Duke at his petit point (Crawfie obliged by filling in the background while he got on with the more amusing part of the design) and the Duchess apparently just gazing devotedly at her needleworking spouse. Everything was nice. Little Lilibet stabled her toy horses and Margaret Rose enchanted everyone with her singing and dancing.

Oh, very well, if you must know, Little Lilibet was a compulsive obsessive, Margaret Rose was a screaming creative talent who was crushed by the demands of respectability and the mauve mother and father floated around in some other ether, incapable of making decisions on behalf of their children. And what of old Queen Mary, who wore gloves when toasting muffins on the fire with a silver toasting-fork, because she never allowed food to touch her bare hands? They are the modern royals in the making, and much as Crawfie paints sunshine over the canvas, the clouds are discernible. When Margaret sees her mother go by in a car, she shrieks, ‘It’s Mummie,’ and waves wildly even though the car has sped past. ‘I really don’t know what we’re going to do with Margaret, Crawfie,’ says Lilibet. And, says Crawfie, full of pride for her maturer charge: ‘How often ... have I heard her cry in real anguish, “Stop her, Mummie. Oh, please stop her,” when Margaret was being more than usually preposterous, and amusing and outrageous.’ Oh dear.

Even Crawfie admits anxiety about Lilibet’s fads, however, describing her behaviour as ‘almost’ too methodical and tidy. At 13 the Princess was given to jumping out of bed several times a night to get her shoes arranged quite straight, and her clothes precisely laid out. The Princess is mother to the Queen. At her marriage Crawfie lyricises about her childhood in ‘a home in which no door banged, and voices were never raised in anger, and a little girl had grown to womanhood with natural good manners and a charm peculiarly her own.’ Perhaps a little too peculiarly her own. Our dutiful monarch’s charm seems frequently to have been subsumed by a rigid sense of obligation and propriety, as Princess Margaret was to find out.

It’s little Margaret Rose who is the most poignant. Crawfie obviously adored her and suggests repeatedly that she had remarkable musical and dramatic talents. Even if that’s putting it too strong, Margaret was clearly her own person, with energy and ability that had no real outlet. ‘Highly-strung’, she’s called, and in all the photos has a heart-stopping beauty with eyes that are focused and alert, too focused perhaps for the Windsors’ world of misty mauves. If Laing and Co were right, there’s no doubt who was the scapegoat of the House of Windsor. She hit the headlines, of course, a tentative Fergie of her day, too outspoken, seen about town, and berated by the press for being out seven nights in a row. Austerity-conscious Britain wasn’t going to stand for that – she was ordered to stay home at least two or three nights a week. But she was the only one of all of them who showed the slightest interest in anything other than horses and dogs, and could be seen actually enjoying herself at the theatre and taking an interest in the arts. She was always in Lilibet’s severe shadow, and was livid not to be allowed to join the ATS when her sister did. ‘I was born too late,’ she fumed. Wrong. She was born too early.

Lilibet remained obedient, waiting for months while her parents failed to attend to the fact that she was in love with Philip, being whisked off to South Africa while she really wanted to stay home and moon to the sound of ‘People will say we’re in love’ on the gramophone. ‘Poor Lil,’ says Margaret. ‘Nothing of your own. Not even your love affair!’ Later, Lil was to display less understanding of her younger sister.

Finally, of course, the marriage was allowed, to the young Greek who Crawfie persists in referring to as ‘the Viking’, and the governess was at last allowed to buy her curtains and crockery and marry, though she was still living in and taking care of Margaret, while hubby George lodged in a hotel in South Kensington. There are those (the Queen Mother, apparently) who say Marion Crawford went public because she was given a paltry honour – nothing more than Commander of the Royal Victorian Order – and felt she deserved better. A.N. Wilson rejects this, claiming Crawfie’s only motive was that she was a ‘compulsive blabbermouth’. But beside the sycophancy and the desire to tell the world whose shoulders she rubbed, there is an undertone of resentment. With the wedding over, the King and Queen went about their royal duties, and Crawfie still had not got the Queen to agree to her retirement. She succoured the solitary Princess Margaret, left behind while Princess Elizabeth sent happy postcards of the honeymoon. ‘It was nice to know that somebody’s married life was beginning full of peace and sunshine. My own was not.’

It’s OK, Crawfie, it didn’t last. It’s ever thus in England.