Deference to royalty in this country is enforced by a judicial and popular savagery which is always there but only occasionally glimpsed. The glimpses are instructive. In 1937 the diplomat Geoffrey Dennis wrote a Coronation Commentary for Heinemann. This was a reasoned defence of the monarchy – then in a very rocky state. Dennis repeated, and deprecated, the widespread gossip that Mrs Simpson had been the Duke of Windsor’s mistress before marriage and that England’s recently abdicated king sometimes drank too much. A writ was served and the action heard before the Lord Chief Justice, who declared in court that ‘these particular libels, a jury might think, appear almost to invite a thoroughly efficient horse-whipping.’ Author and publisher escaped the lash and merely had to pulp their book and pay huge damages. The episode served notice on the book trade to tread very carefully in matters royal, which they duly did.
Twenty years later, in July 1957, the young Lord Altrincham wrote an article ‘The Monarchy Today’ in the National and English Review, a journal he owned. It is doubtful whether any other editor in the country would have touched the thing. Altrincham called the Queen ‘a pain in the neck’, ridiculed her fatuous ‘my husband and I’ locution, and alleged that she was the mindless mouthpiece of a set of court nonentities ‘of the tweedy sort’. He concluded: ‘The personality conveyed by the words which are put in her mouth is that of a priggish schoolgirl, captain of the hockey team, a prefect, and a recent candidate for confirmation.’
Eden had been kicked out six months before and Macmillan was busy dismantling an empire which the country no longer had the stomach to rule. Monarchism might have seemed as lost a cause as imperialism in summer 1957. As it turned out, the British people could live quite serenely with being a second-rate ex-colonial power, but they would not stand for Altrincham’s mild lèse-majesté. He was subjected to even more abuse from the British press and public than Nasser or John Foster Dulles. In a widely photographed incident, Altrincham was physically assaulted. His assailant shouted to the pressmen he had summoned to watch: ‘This is for insulting the Queen!’ The papers – except the Times, which on advice from the palace kept a ‘dignified’ silence – joined in the hounding. The whole country became a horsewhip.
That autumn, the Queen made a state visit to the United States. Her mission was delicate, in view of America’s treachery over Suez. Fences needed mending. To coincide with the royal visit, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote a piece for the Saturday Evening Post entitled ‘Does England really need a monarchy?’ Muggeridge’s article mixed irreverent barbs with some Bagehotian conclusions about the Queen being better than the alternative. The House of Windsor, he was probably the first to note, ‘has become a kind of royal soap opera’. It was hardly high treason. But in passing, Muggeridge noted that aristocrats with any pretension to style found Queen Elizabeth II ‘dowdy, frumpish and banal’.
The epithets – and Muggeridge’s disloyalty abroad – were picked up by the English press and he joined Altrincham in the pillory. They received some 2200 letters, the majority anonymous and vile – many of them from evidently respectable sections of society. Altrincham was sent a human turd in an OHMS envelope. Muggeridge, who had lost his son in an accident eighteen months earlier, received one letter saying: ‘With reference to your son who was killed ... it was all for the best. Eventually he would have found out that not only did you not know who his father was, but neither did his mother.’ The two anti-royalists were accused monotonously of being ‘bastards’ (literally and loosely meant), homosexuals, communists and Judases. Never believe it when they tell you it’s unfair to attack the royals because ‘they can’t answer back.’ The royalists will.
Altrincham gave up his title and as John Grigg retired from public notoriety. Muggeridge took refuge in the last resort of the anti-monarchist, and became the country’s court jester. Jesters are licensed to mock the monarch. Indeed it is their appointed duty to mock and in so doing ritualise and defuse criticism. The anti-monarchic cap and bells have been worn variously in the 20th century by Bernard Shaw, Muggeridge, Willie Hamilton, Sylvie Krin and Spitting Image. Their jests have served to make the institution stronger than ever.
Christopher Hitchens – although he can poke fun with the best of them – offers an unjestingly rational argument for abolishing the English monarchy. He begins with a perplexed description of the country’s convulsion on learning as the lead item on the ten o’clock news that the Queen Mum got a fishbone stuck in her throat while eating her supper. The obstruction, a grateful nation was informed, had been easily removed – on to famine in Ethiopia after the break. ‘What is this?’ Hitchens asks, and decides that it is ‘an embarrassing sign of underdevelopment’. One by one, he demolishes the standard arguments for a modern monarchy and concludes:
A people that began to think as citizens rather than subjects might transcend underdevelopment ... Only servility requires the realm (suggestive word) of illusion. Illusions, of course, cannot be abolished. But they can and must be outgrown.
Must we grow up and put away all the Buckingham Palace toys? Do we really want to? Probably not, if The Prince is anything to go by. As fiction Brayfield’s romance is as bad and overhyped as everyone says. But it will probably make a lot of money in the long run and will covertly be devoured by many of the people who now sneer at it. And for all its appallingness, The Prince discovers an ingenious way round a problem which has always hampered English romance: how to exploit the public’s insatiable appetite for royal soap without emigrating to Ruritania or risking the Lord Chief Justice’s horsewhip.
The idea for The Prince must have originated in Andrew’s affair with Koo Stark. This prince-and-sexy-commoner plot was ready-made for fiction. But frustratingly, the novel cannot easily (unlike the tabloid press) get in on the action. The problem lies in the uniqueness of the English Royal Family. It is impossible to write a roman à clef about them, as one can about other enormously famous people. In 1974, for example, Pierre Rey did very well with a roman à clef called The Greek which was transparently about the loves and feuds of Aristotle Onassis. But Rey could hide behind the defence that there was more than one rich, libidinous, Greek ship-owner with a taste for opera singers, and that any resemblance was coincidental: he was, of course, thinking about one of the others or all the others. No one can write a novel about the Queen of England or the Prince of Wales and claim that they meant the other one(s).
Brayfield solves the problem by borrowing a device from Science Fiction. She imagines a parallel universe identical in every respect to ours except that Queen Elizabeth has borne five children, the extra one being the second-born Prince Richard, Duke of Sussex. Now that he has grown up, who of his three differently-unsuitable ladies will Richard marry? The aristocrat with the mad mother, the American who takes drugs or the black one?
Unlike the Prince of Wales, Richard is not required by English law to marry a virgin. Brayfield’s descriptions of her hero’s premarital bouts with his intendeds reach a pitch of romantic sublime that one would like to think is tongue in cheek but is probably not. I am struck by the significance Brayfield finds in the House of Windsor’s well-known love of the horse. For instance, ‘sinuous and deliberate, she arched her back and presented herself; she had firm, high, muscular buttocks like a polo-pony.’ What scion of Windsor could resist? There are interesting possibilities here: ‘He reared himself over her, his naked haunches quivering like those of Knobknocker, the Queen’s three-year-old in the starting gate at Goodwood.’ Or: ‘It was the fourth time she had presented her all-too-willing loins to him that night; he could rise no more. He slumped – his flanks as lifeless as those of Strongbow, the beast whose back Anne had broken the week before point-to-pointing at Sandringham.’ Or: ‘Richard gazed down at the rumps of the four filles Madame Jeanne had procured for him. Insensibly his left hand twitched an imaginary rein and his right hand clenched an invisible whip. For the first time in his life, he felt he knew his father.’
Most telling are the occasional moments when the real royals appear in The Prince’s narrative. Brayfield curtsies all over the page in her desire not to offend. The Queen Mother is lovable, the Queen is firm but warm underneath, Philip is wise and manly, Charles is the best of fraternal chums. Charlotte M. Yonge could not invent a nicer family than these Windsors. Brayfield, not to put too fine a point on it, is just as terrified as anyone else by the horsewhip and the punitive libel suit. She has every right to be. One of the many obnoxious aspects of the Salman Rushdie affair is the complacent assumption that we Britons – those of us with white faces, that is – would never be so barbarous about a mere novel, whichever of our sacred cows it attacked. But I can imagine a combination of elements which would provoke a British fatwa: a Last Exit to Balmoral or The 120 Days of Sandringham. It might not mean letter bombs, but I bet it would bring out the traditional turd in an envelope from the royal-loving British public.
When he finally tired of heavy-handed references to himself as ‘the 14th Earl of Home’ the then Prime Minister retorted that he supposed that the leader of the opposition must be the 14th Mr Wilson. It was a shrewd sarcasm. The Labour aristocracy are as jealous of their descents as any blue-blood. And it seems that in a few years we shall all know a lot about the House of Hattersley. We are told that The Maker’s Mark is ‘based on the true story of a real family and is the first of a trilogy’. Written by Roy Hattersley, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, the narrative opens at Christmas 1931, with a chapter about ‘Father’ Frederick Roy Hattersley, a Catholic priest about to leave orders and marry Enid Brackenbury. Who’s Who informs me that these are the names of the author’s (b. 1932) parents. Father Hattersley is apparently Hattersley’s father embarked on the great business of changing his life so as to make little Roy a possibility. Novelists feign and politicians fib: when you put the two together it seems they cancel out and you get the truth. Or perhaps there is more than one kind of plot in this novel.
We do not spend more than an introductory chapter with Father Hattersley. The narrative promptly hops back in time to the 1860s, and the irresistible rise of Sheffield steel-master (and great-grandfather) Frederick Hattersley. A maker of spades, this patriarch aspires to be one of the élite band of Sheffield cutlers, with his own maker’s mark. By will, ruthlessness, intelligence, thrift, sobriety, liberal radicalism and primitive Methodism, he succeeds. But in making his mark, Frederick ruins his two sons – both of whom fail in different ways – and leaves an empty bequest. Following the lusts and unsteadiness of the two young Hattersleys, the family line deviates by marriage into alien Irish Catholicism. Drunkenness and poverty is one outcome, intellectual refinement the other. The clever son – Roy’s father, I innocently assume – goes on a Bishop’s scholarship to Ratcliffe, the English College at Rome, and ordination. By the end of the volume, we are back where we started, in 1931.
At first sight The Maker’s Mark shapes up like a mixture of Buddenbrooks and The Cloggies. In fact, after the clever-clever ‘is it a bird, is it a plane, is it a novel?’ prelude, the Hattersley saga becomes addictively readable. The television rights will be snapped up. But unlike other post-Forsyte sagas, this one appears to be unusually honest in matters where it is conventional to sentimentalise. If – as one must believe – he is writing about his own flesh and blood, Hattersley is commendably unsentimental. One wonders if the family lore was handed down to him in this harsh form. Was he told, or did he invent, the episode in which Frederick starts his rise to wealth with the unfair dismissal of a forgeman and the cheating of his rich, middle-class partner? Who told him about his grandfather’s boasting about being an old soldier, when in fact his service amounted to a drunken twenty-four hours in the guard-house before being bought out? All the Hattersley men are in their different ways repulsive: the strong are self-righteous bullies, the less than strong are dishonest, hen-pecked and ultimately wholly seedy men. The resourceful Hattersley women come out much better, and I fancy that the novelist may have had his view of things from some grandmother, or aunt. The story has a sharp edge of sexual spite to it. Similarly unsentimental, and presumably all his own, is Hattersley’s analysis of British industrial decline in the late 19th century. It is ascribed to the pig-headed complacency of working-class heroes like Frederick Hattersley who would rather destroy their factories than collaborate with rivals: men like Frederick Hattersley cannot even unite with their own sons. Hattersley does so much here that there must be a risk that he won’t have time for the next two instalments. If God likes a good read, he’ll give Mrs Thatcher a fourth term.
Melvyn Bragg’s latest effort is a claustrophobic study of male infatuation. A 54-year-old, retired bank manager and Rotarian falls in love with an 18-year-old secretary with a dubious Irish Catholic background (some things haven’t changed in a hundred years). They are, it seems, physically compatible – Bernadette being stunningly beautiful and he having kept his body in fine trim by walking in the local Lake District hills. They copulate on the same Lake District hills. As the amazed bank manager puts it:
You uncovered a talent I had no notion that I possessed but that night, bare on the bare hillside, you found it and by the end I was above you, propped up on my arms, and you were truly, no dissimulation, as I truly was, in a thrash not of sex – love is the word – abuse it as you may – love. I could do it – with you, only you: and do it like this, like this...And for this long.
His wife (with whom his marriage has been long but his sexual encounters evidently short) conveniently exits with cancer, leaving her adulterous husband very rich. There is some misunderstanding about Bernadette’s baby, which she aborts, in her desire to spare anyone embarrassment. Unable to contact her, he takes to whisky and neglects to shave. He writes the tormented journal which makes up the main narrative of A Time to Dance. It is supplemented by the dead wife’s journal in which she bids her husband be happy. Eventually there arrives Bernadette’s journal, making all clear. The novel ends hopefully with the promise of blissful reunion between the bank manager and his ‘darling Bernadette’.
Bragg handles his ultra-romantic theme economically and with great skill. It will sell like hot cakes. But A Time to Dance leaves an odd aftertaste. One does not have to be a feminist to perceive a radical unfairness in the story’s assumptions. Would the plot work if the woman had been 54 and the man 18? No, it would not work. Bragg’s novel takes as axiomatic that men retain their sexual charm and potency longer than women. As the advertisement puts it, they don’t get older – they get better. They can have their best and longest orgasms in very late life, after they are free of the distraction of gainful employment. For a woman – particularly one past child-bearing age – to make the same claim would seem unwomanly. Traditionally, the old man who becomes besotted with a girl young enough to be his granddaughter has furnished bitter comedy (as in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale), tragedy (as in The Blue Angel) or a mixture of the two (as in Lolita). In A Time to Dance the old fool is glamorously reborn as super stud. This is a book for the early-retired professional man to wallow in, lying on the sofa with the Black Magic to hand and the dishes unwashed in the sink. Mills and Boon, take note.