Rose’s Rex

David Cannadine

  • 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.’

If this was all the book had to say, it would be tempting to conclude that tact and discretion had triumphed again; that courtly civilities had once more prevailed over biographical candour; and that the royal gossamer still remains unruffled by the wind. But only the most cursory reading by myopic and fervent monarchists could sustain such an unappreciative conclusion. Courtly, tactful and well-disposed though the book undoubtedly is, it is also a remarkably candid and frequently critical account, which presents George V far less favourably than the pages of Gore and Nicolson. Time and again, the evidence Rose gives subjects the royal gossamer to some healthy and sceptical gusts. Ironically, a more well-disposed author has produced a less well-disposed book.

Take, for instance, Rose’s account of the late 19th-century royal family in which the future George V was brought up, which marshals an array of personalities so eccentric and bizarre that they could only have flourished in the hot-house atmosphere of a royal court. There was the aging Queen, still in her widow’s weeds, and still insisting that all Albert’s male descendants must bear his name until the end of time; the future Edward VII, a cosmopolitan roué, successively ensnared in the Mordaunt divorce cause and the Tranby Croft card scandal; and the ravishing Princess Alexandra, who smothered her children in excessively mawkish and possessive affection, and retained to her death the mind of an adolescent. Then, among the younger contingent, there was George’s elder brother, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, congenitally listless, almost illiterate, vacant and effete. For a time, he and George shared the same girl in St John’s Wood. ‘She is a ripper,’ George recorded. Some, of course, felt the same about Clarence. His intended consort was Princess May of Teck, a royal in a million, who it was hoped would pull him together. On his premature (and extremely fortunate) demise, she married Prince George instead.

The rest of his life was a succession of such fantasy worlds. Both Alexandra and her daughter Victoria were highly jealous of May and spitefully conspired against her until the end of their days. And, as marriage heightened the tensions of family life, so accession enhanced the tyrannical trivialities of the Court. In George’s court (all courts?), endless hours were lavished on matters of dress and protocol, precedence and honours, even in the darkest days of the war. Should the King ride into Delhi on a horse or an elephant? Could the Governor-General of Canada have an embossed red crown on his official stationery? When Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, George successfully dissuaded him from calling a ship HMS Pitt, because the name was ‘neither euphonious nor dignified’, and the men might invent ‘nicknames of illconditioned words rhyming with it’. And opulence and privilege only enhanced this sense of unreality. There were servants by the hundred, courtiers by the score. At Balmoral, a small dinner would be six courses, with a minimum of eight footmen and five pipers in attendance. And when the King left to travel south by train, there were 17 reserve engines waiting along the route from Ballater to London, all with steam up, in case the royal locomotive should break down.

Even Kenneth Rose’s patience is worn thin by such ‘persistent mummery’ and George V, who endured, and came to love, this unreal and suffocating atmosphere, was much affected by it. His formal education was limited, and was effectively over by the age of 12. To the end of his life, he wrote with painful slowness; he always had trouble with his spelling; he was indifferent to science, culture and the arts; and he spoke no foreign language with even halting fluency. He was sent into the Navy, which made him both homesick and seasick, and reinforced his mental indigence, his impatience with qualifications and subtleties, his mistrust of imagination and intuition, and his obsession with dress and deportment. By his late teens, he was less well-educated than the average public schoolboy; he had few friends of his own age; and he hated London society and foreign travel. He shouted at servants, swore a good deal, and rarely smiled. After his marriage, he stagnated at Sandringham. As Rose candidly admits, in 1910 few could regard his accession ‘with enthusiasm or even confidence’.

Nor did he get off to a good start as king. As Prince of Wales, he had needlessly antagonised his father’s Liberal ministers by trumpeting his disapproval of them like a loud, stupid, overgrown schoolboy. He thought Asquith ‘not quite a gentleman’ (which was true, but hurtful, and hardly to the point), described Lloyd George as ‘that damned fellow’, and found Churchill little better. With good reason, the Liberal Government viewed his accession with alarm: there were real and justified doubts about his discretion, his competence and his impartiality; he formed his opinions of politicians too much on the basis of class-bound likes and dislikes; and he identified himself too closely with Conservative prejudice and aristocratic excess. At a time when Asquith was wrestling with the crisis over the House of Lords, with a Conservative Party obstructive to the point of irresponsibility, with Irish Home Rulers insistent on a settlement, and with Ulster Unionists on the brink of rebellion, the new incumbent of the throne was at best an added irritant, implausibly accusing Churchill of being a socialist, and obstructively opposing the return of Fisher to the Admiralty.

This is a much less flattering picture than that painted by George V’s official biographers, and Rose’s account of the King in the war is equally critical. Of course, his duty, patriotism and dedication were beyond doubt, but not everyone knew that, and there were blunders. He was slow in ordering the removal of the German Emperor’s Garter banner from St George’s Chapel, and hasty in changing the royal family name to Windsor (though he did thereby provoke one of the Kaiser’s few jokes, which was that he looked forward to the next performance of that well-known opera, ‘The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’). Taking the pledge made the Court look ridiculous; visiting the ships made the King seasick; and on one visit to his troops he was painfully thrown from his horse. On the eve of the Passchendaele offensive, the Court’s main concern was whether or not women workers in munitions factories should remove their gloves when presented to the Queen. In the latter stages of the war, the King supported Haig and his strategy with inflexible stubbornness; he opposed the removal of that Blimpish nonentity Robertson as CIGS; and he was reluctant to recognise that Lloyd George was the only man who could win the war. His only successful initiative was in overturning the views of his ministers by insisting that the Tsar (his cousin) should be denied asylum in Britain. But even that shrewdly selfish move did not altogether allay the growing mood of republicanism (about which it would have been instructive to hear more).

In many ways, then, the King did not have a good war as a constitutional monarch. Rose’s treatment of his remaining peacetime years offers fewer new insights, some but not all of which modify the traditional picture. It still remains unclear whether, in 1924, the King chose Baldwin in preference to Curzon as Prime Minister because the latter was a peer or because he was a Curzon. The descriptions of the King’s handling of the first Labour administration and of the formation of the National Government largely confirm Nicolson’s account, but during the General Strike, at least in some moods, the King was clearly more belligerent than Nicolson leads us to believe. It is impossible to be clear whether he abhorred the dictators or not; he rebuked the Mahatma with the memorable words, ‘Remember, Mr Gandhi, I won’t have any attacks on my Empire’ and he seems to have left no lasting mark on foreign policy; Of all his prime ministers, he liked MacDonald the best, which hardly inspires confidence in his political judgment.

Most politicians, in fact, found George V very difficult to deal with. His obsessions with the trivia of courtly life meant that he rebuked ministers who were working twenty hours a day to win the war because they were wearing the wrong hats. At official meetings, they were treated to a lengthy and often stentorian royal monologue, usually ill-ordered and thought-out, which permitted them no time for a question or comment. Asquith thought a royal audience on a par with having a tooth out; Churchill felt the King’s comments on Naval policy were stupid and silly; Curzon called him ‘the little man’; Fisher dubbed the King and his Queen ‘futile and fertile’. Lloyd George, at his most charitable, thought the King ‘a jolly chap’, yet felt that there was ‘not much inside his head’. But then, as Arthur Balfour asked him, ‘whatever would you do if you had a ruler who had brains?’ The condescension was unkind, but the criticisms were not without their substance.

It is not quite clear whether Kenneth Rose is happy with the direction in which this evidence leads. In an effort to turn the tables on the King’s critics, he subjects the politicians to a sustained onslaught of pejorative adjectives, harsher than those which the ministers used about the King. Asquith is supine, silent, complacent, immobile, dilatory and self-indulgent. Churchill is insensitive, tactless, wilful and impossible. Bonar Law is unamiable, curt, dour, abrasive and disrespectful. Lloyd George is nonchalant, graceless and spiteful. Fisher is venomous, Baldwin is slothful, Balfour is irresolute. And the Webbs, who so criticised MacDonald for selling out to the Establishment, are lambasted for their cruelly doctrinaire minds, and for being too self-impaled upon their rectitude to have any fun. There is, no doubt, some truth in these disparaging descriptions. But such sustained belittling of so many public personages smacks slightly of special pleading on behalf of the King.

When it comes to discussing the King as a man, Rose tries even harder to rebut familiar criticisms, when in fact he largely substantiates them. For instance, he suggests that there is ‘much evidence’ to ‘disprove’ the ‘hurtful legend’ that George V was a harsh father, and devotes several sledge-hammer pages to refuting the oft-quoted statement attributed to George V that he was afraid of his father and, by God, his children would be afraid of him. But even if that statement is suspect the circumstances it summarises are not. When young, one of the King’s sons was ill-treated, another had his digestion ruined for life, and all were forced to wear splints to prevent them being knock-kneed. They were lamentably ill-educated, and all showed signs of nervous tension which stemmed from parental scolding and distance. Queen Mary was remote and cold, and was pitifully blind to her shortcomings as a mother. The King was anxious, overbearing, exacting, heavy-handed, stern and unreasonable. He cursed and criticised too much, and enthused and encouraged too little. He made no effort to understand his eldest son, whom he constantly took to task over trivial matters of dress and deportment. As father of his people, George might have been an unexpected success; as a father of his children, he was little short of disastrous.

Nor was his record much better as a husband. Rose assures us that George’s married life was ‘idyllic’, and that ‘no couple more epitomised the virtues of a Christian marriage’ than did the King and Queen. That he loved her and was aware of how much he owed her is plain; that he was utterly faithful seems equally beyond doubt. But, as Mr Rose admits elsewhere, the reality of the Queen’s position was one of ‘dignified slavery’. She was obliged to wear old-fashioned clothes because the King liked her that way; to endure the tedium of shooting at Balmoral because that was his wish; to curb her youthful high spirits in the graver atmosphere of his Court; and to neglect her interest in the arts because he did not share it. They did not find it easy to talk to each other with feeling or intimacy, and the King frequently shouted at her. As Rose admits, the Queen’s servitude (which he implausibly describes as ‘self-imposed’) was ‘absolute’. Only after the King’s death did she really blossom. This may have been an ‘idyllic’ marriage for him: it is hard to see how it was for her.

By the time he reaches the King’s well-known insensitivity to aesthetic matters, even Rose’s mellifluous patience is wearing a little thin, as he unconvincingly condemns the ‘disdain of the sophisticated’ (surely Mr Rose is sophisticated?), with their ‘little whinnies of despair’ at the King’s lack of culture. But the disdain and the despair seem all too apt. George V ‘did not care’ for King Lear, and had never heard of Thomas Hardy. He thought Fidelio ‘damned dull’ and believed Turner was ‘mad’, waved his stick at a Cézanne and, on seeing the French Impressionists in the Tate Gallery Extension, trumpeted to the Queen: ‘Here’s something to make you laugh, May.’ Nor is the King’s boorishness excused by arguing that Queen Mary’s own cultural interests were less broad than is popularly supposed. In near despair, Mr Rose bravely concludes that ‘some of the king’s subjects were doubtless disappointed by their sovereign’s near indifference to the fine arts; many more were heartened by his patronage of sport.’

Of course, it would be highly anachronistic to condemn George V by the exalted latterday standards of Dr Spock and the Women’s Movement, to say nothing of Animal Liberation and Gay Rights. But it is difficult to resist the more measured conclusion that, as a constitutional monarch, George V was often difficult, irritating or just plain wrong, and that as an individual he was at best a lovable ogre. And this in turn makes it impossible to accept the fundamental argument of Mr Rose’s book, that the King himself deserves the credit for the survival of the monarchy because the nation ‘recognised virtue in a humble heart’. Of course, there is some truth in this, but it is not the whole of it, and it is not the major part of it. The most powerful explanations for the survival of the monarchy during the reign of George V are probably sheer good luck, and the sustained endeavours of others on its behalf. If, for instance, Britain had lost the First World War, the monarchy would surely have gone, along with much else. It would have been condemned as the apex of a discredited social and political system; the German blood of the King and Queen would have been a fatal disadvantage; and the King’s support of Haig and obstruction of Lloyd George would only have increased the force of the criticism. As Lloyd George later put it, ‘I owe him nothing. He owes his throne to me.’

For the rest of his reign, the survival and efficient functioning of the monarchy depended largely on those loyal, patient and resourceful officials who made up for his shortcomings, protected him from himself, and safeguarded him from the world. Without his ever-vigilant private secretaries, who drafted and handled all his official correspondence, it is difficult to see how a monarch of such limited, untrained intellect could actually have coped. Indiscreet servants and courtiers, who repeated the King’s more inane or ill-advised remarks, were dismissed; and high society, although individually critical of the King, was corporately discreet. The generous coverage in the press, about which the King didn’t give a damn, was partly the result of deliberate endeavours by Wigram, his private secretary, and partly a consequence of what the press chose to print. The Christmas broadcasts and the Silver Jubilee celebrations, which did so much to bring the King popularity at the end of his reign, were dreamed up in Whitehall. Above all, much of the popularity of the monarchy in George V’s reign is to be explained, not in terms of Grandpapa England, but by the sensationally successful tours and appearances undertaken by the Prince of Wales. Faced with most of these circumstances and developments, George V was more often than not passive, uncomprehending and even unco-operative. It would be too harsh to say that the British monarchy survived despite him rather than because of him, but the amount of credit which he personally deserves is probably not all that much.

On the basis of the evidence he deploys, it is hard to believe that Mr Rose would dissent from this view. Indeed, the most intriguing and baffling aspect of this book is not its subject, who is made far more real and credible than ever before, but its author. What, exactly, does he make of all this? In his prologue, he quotes approvingly Violet Markham’s words: ‘In the end, it is character not cleverness that counts; goodness and simplicity, not analytical subtlety and the power to spin verbal webs.’ But it cannot be said that this quite masterly book lends much support to such a view – partly because, without Mr Rose’s cleverness, analytical subtlety and power to spin verbal webs, the King’s character, goodness and simplicity would shine forth less luminously than in fact they do, and partly because, even allowing for all of this, they shine forth less brightly and more intermittently than they did in the pages of Gore and Nicolson. So what, precisely, is this book all about? Did it begin as another well-disposed work of tact and discretion in which, to the author’s embarrassment, these courtly attitudes have been remorselessly overwhelmed by the weight of contrary evidence? Or was it conceived as a work of sceptical re-evaluation, brilliantly disguised to resemble the earlier, admiring studies, so as to get past watchful royal eyes? It is hard to be sure. Has George V again been fortunate in his biographer? Or is his luck beginning to run out?