Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsor 
by Anne Edwards.
Hodder, 462 pp., £12.95, September 1984, 0 340 24465 8
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According to Barbara Tuchman, quoted on the jacket, there is ‘a startling royal family scandal buried at the heart’ of this biography of Queen Mary. What steaming titbit can her fellow American, Anne Edwards, biographer of film stars, have turned up at this late hour? Can it really be that rather overworked rumour that identifies Prince Eddy, the Queen’s first fiancé, as Jack the Ripper? Indeed it can. James Pope-Hennessy did not find room to discuss this matter in his 685-page life of Queen Mary published in 1959, possibly because the hue and cry after Prince Eddy had not then gained its full impetus, possibly for other reasons. What can Anne Edwards tell us about this business? Unfortunately she knows no more than anybody else and can only ask a string of questions.

Eddy, first-born of Edward and Alexandra, the ‘dawdly’ flaccid prince with the long simian arms and the prominent collar and cuffs, armed with the potentially damning knowledge of how to disembowel deer, must be acquitted of the Ripper charge for lack of evidence. What else is known against this great under-achiever? Anne Edwards tells us that he was a crony of Lord Arthur Somerset, who was allowed to flee the country after being involved in a male brothel scandal, and a close friend of his Cambridge tutor, James Kenneth Stephen, a cousin of Virginia Woolf, who fasted to death in an asylum after Eddy died. Is that all the scandal, then? Well no, not quite. Eddy died in 1892 only weeks after he became engaged to Princess May (as the future queen was then known). We are invited to wonder whether his demise was deliberately accelerated by a doctor.

Was it just coincidence that the young man took a dramatic turn for the worse directly after the arrival of the Queen’s physician? Why was he in such agonising pain? Was pneumonia the true cause of his death? To this day there are those who are convinced that poison was administered to Prince Eddy under the very eyes of his family and without their knowledge. There can be no doubt that Prince Eddy would never have been capable of reigning and those at Court knew this. Could he have been deposed on the grounds of insanity when the Crown was finally placed on his head? Was there another way to remove him from the succession other than by death?

No expert is produced to answer the last two questions. It is easier to ask these things and move on. The Queensberry family had a ‘cannibalistic idiot’ who should have been the third duke, but who was passed over in favour of his more amiable younger brother. However, what is possible among dukes may not be possible among royals.

The nation was distressed at Princess May’s loss and so was her scheming mother, Princess Mary Adelaide of Teck (‘Fat Mary’). What of Princess May? She hardly knew Eddy, but when the Prince proposed to her, she had not hesitated. ‘Of course I said yes,’ she wrote in her diary. She was said to have waltzed round her bedroom with friends, in celebration. But May was a cool one, not given to sloppiness or crushes, according to the author, who says: ‘No comment exists in her diary of any fond feelings for Prince Eddy, or mention of her own happiness. Instead there is a sense of gloating, or a competition won.’ When Queen Victoria (‘Aunt Queen’) congratulated her on the engagement, ‘she could easily have had a moment of speculation as to how it might one day feel to receive such obeisance and to wear the Crown.’ So, for the pretty princess with the poodle hair-style, the switch to Prince Eddy’s younger brother, Prince George, was accomplished without perhaps too much pain. Had she married Eddy before he died, it would not have been so easy: there was as much feeling against marrying deceased husbands’ brothers as there was against marrying deceased wives’ sisters (the Act permitting such liberties was not passed until 15 years later). Princess May’s engagement to Prince George was approved by Queen Victoria, who had formed a good view of her.

The ambitious young princess had an upbringing hard to associate with the majestic, diamond-plated queen who, in the memorable words of Chips Channon, looked ‘like the Jungfrau, white and sparkling in the sun’; the queen who, in Anne Edwards’s judgment, became ‘the one constancy the English had’ in a sadly deteriorating world. At the age of 16 Princess May had skipped with her family to Florence to avoid the bailiffs, for the Tecks were notoriously hard up and May had the ‘unsavoury task of putting off their creditors’. Later her mother was to have much success in wheedling money out of Queen Victoria, to the annoyance of the other royals. Not only had Princess May been forced to face the realities of housekeeping: she had had to come to terms with another family problem, a wastrel brother Frank who gambled heavily and gave away family jewels to his women. This last was a heinous offence in the eyes of Princess May, who in later life was able to recover unauthorised gifts from various quarters. As a great lover of jewels, she must have been gratified at the glittering deluge which descended on her at her second engagement (more than a million pounds’ worth of gifts altogether, by the Edwards calculation).

The Princess was regarded as the intellectual of the family into which she married and she chafed against the lot which compelled her to watch her menfolk destroying wild life. John Gore, in his life of George V, suggested that her intellectual life might have been starved and her energies atrophied in those early years. George was not a man who lightly opened a book, other than a stamp album, but his bride read to him at length, pausing to comment and explain: ‘May appears to be educating Georgie,’ said a member of the family. She could speak French and German and had studied constitutional history. None of this made for an exciting court. Surprisingly, there is no mention of that mischievous ‘Ballade à Double Refrain’ (in which courtiers debate whether the King is duller than the Queen, or vice versa) written by Max Beerbohm in 1912, a jeu d’esprit supposed to have delayed his knighthood for more than twenty years.

Describing the pre-1914 years, Miss Edwards says: ‘Politicians were out of touch with the things that really mattered, but the King and Queen were doing what they could to redress the balance by giving the people greater access to the Monarch.’ Could taking tea with selected miners stave off revolution? Instead came World War One, when the Queen gained much esteem by her indefatigable touring of hospitals. The visits inspired ribald stories, of which we are given only one. Schoolboys of the Twenties treasured a supposed exchange on the lines of: ‘And where are you wounded?’ ‘If you were wounded where I’ve been wounded you wouldn’t be wounded at all.’ These anecdotes about the Queen’s supposed unworldliness circulated in all ranks. Yet, as we learn from these pages, she was capable of chuckling over La Vie Parisienne, doubtless introduced into Windsor Castle by her problem son David, Prince of Wales. The Queen disapproved of the Prince of Wales’s liaisons with other men’s wives. At one time she had the curious notion of installing Lord Louis Mountbatten in York House, the Prince’s residence, apparently in order to spread the suspicion when Mrs Dudley Ward was around. Perhaps we should not take Miss Edwards too literally when she tells of the night when the Prince and Mrs Ward ‘dined intimately on a table in front of the fire’.

The Prince’s friendships enable the author to comment on the game of cuckoldry. Earlier on, referring to King Edward’s affair with Mrs Keppel, she says that George Keppel was ‘unswervingly loyal to both of them’, but also that his acceptance of the King’s seigneurial rights was ‘downright feudal’. Writing of the Prince of Wales’s borrowed wives, she says: ‘To an Englishman honour existed in his wife being chosen as the Prince of Wales’s favourite.’ Americans, she indicates, tolerated such relationships only if they were wrapped in romantic gauze. All we learn from the detailed account of the Simpson affair is what we already knew: that the Queen was profoundly disappointed in a son with so little notion of duty as to walk out on the job. It is hardly true to say that the abdication crisis ‘catapulted the nation into immediate chaos’. As one recalls, there was no chaos: only indignation, hot air and then a new crop of funny stories.

Though her full-bosomed aspect suggested a maternal spirit, Queen Mary here earns the usual low marks as a parent. Pope-Hennessy commented on her ‘rather detached attitude to her children’ and said she had ‘no automatic or spontaneous understanding of a child’s mind or ways’. Miss Edwards reminds us that it took the King and Queen three years to discover that the tyrannous nanny Mary Peters was ill-treating the young Prince of Wales (meanwhile another nanny was giving him a Cockney accent). The Queen’s six children, with their stutters, knock knees, crying fits and nervous giggles, had to get on as best they could. The epileptic John, who died at 13, was segregated with a miniature household of his own on the Sandringham estate.

In World War Two Queen Mary cut an extraordinary figure. With a train of fifty-odd servants (too old for call-up?), she set off for the Duke of Beaufort’s home at Badminton, creating an astonishing domestic upset. Servants apart, she observed all the other sumptuary requirements, even travelling about the estate in a farm cart. There was a rule that, if the Nazis invaded, two dressers would pack a special suitcase with tiaras and other jewels, before the Queen emplaned to a secret destination. In the ducal grounds she organised notorious ivy-ripping parties, ivy being one of her pet hates. One has the impression of a good woman, a mother of kings, wasted and frustrated because she did not know what next to be at. Sir Osbert Sitwell, a frequent visitor to Badminton, detected many ‘Rumanian traits’ in the Queen (there were family links with Transylvania) and among these were ‘the manner in which she smoked cigarettes; her love of jewels, and the way she wore them; and the particular sort of film star glamour that in advanced age overtook her appearance, and made her, with the stylisation of her clothes, such an attractive as well as imposing figure’.

As an American, Anne Edwards remains neutral when telling how the United States Ambassador, Joseph Kennedy, declined to wear knee breeches to dine with Queen Mary, for fear of adverse comment back home, and was therefore not invited to Marlborough House. One suspects that the author is firmly behind Queen Mary on this one, as the people of Britain would have been if they had known of it. A touch of the Jungfrau was what the nation expected of its Queen. It is odd that the book does not contain even a passing reference to the great liner Queen Mary, which was almost as much a ‘constancy’ in the national life as the lady after whom the vessel was named: indeed, for years this majestic symbol of Britain’s recovery upstaged the Queen in the headlines.

Anne Edwards makes no claim to have unearthed new sources. Matriarch is simply a refresher course in recent royal history, written by one who, in earlier years, had wanted ‘to identify with strong women’. The narrative is easy to read, though the arrangement of material is sometimes odd. For instance, the Queen’s reputation for causing antique dealers to hide away their bijoux for fear she might too openly envy them is dealt with in a chapter on World War One, between an account of hospital visiting and the Last Push. To nag further: one wishes the author had been a little less thorough, or a shade more inventive, in describing ceremonial occasions. The eye quickly glazes over at phrases like ‘radiantly happy’, ‘resplendent in their vivid attire’ and ‘bedecked with gay bunting’. The Queen, incidentally, was never escorted by Lifeguards, who have bare chests, but by Life Guards. How Queen Mary would have relished the book is a wonderful field for conjecture. We are told that in 1922, when a purported biography said that she was easily bored, she wrote on the offending page: ‘As a matter of fact, the Queen is never bored.’ Here one pictures her writing, on (say) page 95, ‘The Queen was never prematurely queenly in her manner’; or, modestly, on page 309: ‘The Queen in her early days may have been a “quintessential fairy queen”, but surely not in her late years.’ As for the pages dealing with the rumours about Prince Eddy, might she perhaps have stripped them from the book like so much harmful ivy?

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Vol. 7 No. 13 · 18 July 1985

SIR: I was astonished to read a letter from a member of the notorious anti-Romanian lobby (Letters, 7 March). I had thought that Michael Titus had silenced them for good in The Magyar File. It is, of course, nonsense to say that Romanians ‘constituted a minority in Transylvania until World War 1’. Dacians, later Daco-Romanians, had lived in Transylvania for centuries before the Magyar-speaking tribes appeared in Europe at the end of the ninth century. The capital, Cluj-Napoca, was given the name Napoca by the Romans. Some Romanians ruled Hungary, it is true; perhaps the greatest king of Hungary was Matei Corvinul, and Nicolas Olhus was Primate of Hungary.

There are no Hungarians in Romania. There are Magyar-speaking Romanians. During the 11 years I was Secretary of the British Association for Romanian Studies, and in charge of the Unesco literary translations programme for Romania, I tried to get this message across when the Paprika Gang first got itself organised. I did not succeed in convincing some sub-editors that Romania is spelt like that – there never was a Rume, capital of a Ruman Empire. And, while we are at it, the BBC still pronounces the father of modern monumental sculpture Brankoosi, instead of Brancush (Brancusi), and I read only the other day that Tzara, founder of Dadaism, and Ionesco, pioneer of the Theatre of the Absurd, were French.

John Ryle’s article in the issue of 2 May on the coup in the Sudan misses the point. As Gordon (who kept order there for years) knew and said often, the Muslim Arab North of the Sudan and the Christian and animist South cannot form part of a viable state. One day or other they must go their separate ways. When he was murdered by the Mahdi’s troops, Gordon was planning to take the South with him to the Congo, where it would form part of a state ruled by him for King Leopold of the Belgians. It is misleading to write of the Umma Party as ruling the Sudan ‘in the 1890s under the Mahdi’. The man known as the Mahdi had been dead long since.

Denis Mack Smith must have been glad to have Jonathan Steinberg (author of Why Switzerland?) puffing his books in the issue of 23 May. His Cavour and Garibaldi did not cause an uproar, except in high-school staffrooms – university teachers in Italy had slopped churning out the old lies about both for years. There are two really good books on Cavour: one is the Cavour e il Suo Tempo, the definitive biography, and the other is Valitutti’s study of Cavour, Church and State. Mack Smith’s good luck was to be taken up by the dotty Left. Though my life of Mussolini has been a standard text in many countries for two decades, it never appeared in Italy because I do not get on well with the dotty Left. Enzo Biagi managed to get five instalments of my book published in L’Europeo, which was the first time millions of Italians heard some of the truth about their past, but then the curtain came down. The same is true of my history of the Fascist Militia. When I taught the History of Fascism in the Corso di Alta Cultura at the Italian State University for Foreigners, I was always being asked if he were not Denis MacSmith. That serves me right for mentioning him while teaching, in Italian, in a kilt.

Roy MacGregor-Hastie
Italian State University for Foreigners, Perugia

Vol. 7 No. 14 · 1 August 1985

SIR: General Gordon – who ‘kept order’ in the Sudan as a whole for just three years – could not, pace Mr MacGregor-Hastie (Letters, 18 July), have spoken of the ‘Christian and animist’ South since at his death Christian missionary activity had barely begun there and ‘animist’ had not yet become an odd-job word for tribes outside the influence of world religions. Also it was Equatoria and Bahr-el-Ghazal (provinces without fixed boundaries but including a good portion of what is now Uganda), not the Southern region as now constituted, that would have been attached to the Congo Free State if King Leopold had had his way. And by no means all the Northern tribes are ‘Muslim-Arab’; some are not even Arabic-speaking.

The North-South issue is, nevertheless, of great importance, as I think I made quite clear. There have been a few changes in the political situation since Gordon’s time, however. Gordon’s concern was to end the slave trade. Thus he administered the South for the high-principled Khedive Ismail until the Khedive’s deposition and the restoration of the old corrupt regime in Egypt in 1879. The Mahdist revolt and the collapse of Egyptian administration in the Sudan meant that the South was only accessible through Leopold’s domains. In the 1880s, therefore, Gordon’s best chance of achieving his objective lay in the service of the Belgians. But it was the separation of the Sudan from Egypt, not the North of Sudan from the South, that he envisaged. It was in fact the death of Gordon and the subsequent transformation of foreign policy under Lord Salisbury – whereby Britain resolved to stay in Egypt and keep the other European powers out of the Nile valley – which transformed Equatoria from a far-flung outpost of the Egyptian empire to a strategic zone, crucial to Anglo-Egyptian control of the Nile waters. Hydropolitics – still the most important underlying factor in the region – tied the fate of the South to that of the lands that lay down-river. Lumping the Southern Sudan in with the North at independence may have been a mistake – many British administrators in the South thought so. This does not mean it would not be a greater mistake to try and prise the two apart now. There is little talk of secession in the Sudan today, even among the Southern rebels. Given the history of failure among separatist movements in African countries, some of them with comparable ethnic-religious divisions, and the experience of the Southerners themselves during their first rebellion, between 1955 and 1972, this is a realistic position. In Gordon’s time other possibilities existed for North and South: today they really do not. ‘One day or other they must go their separate ways’ is a cruel sentence that obscures the reality of prolonged civil war, the burned villages, the untilled fields, the collapse of civil administration, the erosion of values, the destruction of human and animal life.

If an independent Southern Sudanese state ever did come into being this would, as I tried to explain in my article, itself be liable to further tribal fission. Or does Mr MacGregor-Hastie think the Southerners would be better off as citizens of Zaire, the most corrupt state in Africa? Or the Central African Republic, the poorest but one? Or Uganda, the most racked with civil war? The overwhelming priority in the Sudan at the moment is the establishment of an administration capable of saving the country from mass starvation. Neither the long-term nor the short-term problems of the region areliable to be resolved by creating a new country or readjusting borders. Would that they could. But North-East Africa is not the Balkans. It would indeed have been misleading of me to write of the Umma Party ruling the Sudan in the 1890s, as it did not exist until the 1940s. Writing, as I did, of the Ansar – the religious grouping that engendered the Umma Party – ruling in the 1890s ‘under the Mahdi’ was an error, though. I should have written ‘under the Mahdia’: i.e. the regime of the Mahdi and his successor the Khalifa (who ruled from 1885 to 1898).

John Ryle
London W11

Vol. 7 No. 4 · 7 March 1985

SIR: E.S. Turner in ‘Educating Georgie’ (LRB, 6 December 1984) wrote about Anne Edwards’s book on Queen Mary in which Sir Osbert Sitwell is quoted to the effect that he detected ‘many Rumanian traits in the Queen [there were family links with Transylvania] and among these were “the manner in which she smoked cigarettes; her love of jewels, and the way in which she wore them; and the particular sort of film star glamour that in advanced age overtook her appearance, and made her, with the stylisation of her clothes, such an attractive as well as imposing figure".’

Rumanian traits? Not a single one of those quoted is other than a human trait. And as to the family links: nothing Rumanian there at all. Queen Mary’s background was in part Hungarian; in fact, one of her ancestors, a member of the Rhedey family – Hungarian nobles – was a ruling prince of Transylvania, which was an independent principality for centuries. Rumanians constituted a minority in Transylvania until World War I when, under the Treaty of Trianon, the province was given to Rumania where is still is and where Hungarians now constitute the largest minority in Europe.

Andor Klay
Washington DC

E.S. Turner writes: I suppose we shall never know why Sir Osbert Sitwell thought Queen Mary’s style to be Rumanian. Oddly enough, at the time of Edward VIII’s abdication, the Queen is supposed to have exclaimed ‘Really, we might as well be in Rumania!’; presumably she was thinking of King Carol and Mme Lupescu. This, of course, is irrelevant to the point at issue.

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