Did my father do it?

C.H. Sisson

  • Elizabeth R.: A Biography by Elizabeth Longford
    Weidenfeld, 389 pp, £10.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 297 78285 1
  • Aristocrats by Robert Lacey
    Hutchinson/BBC, 249 pp, £9.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 09 154290 1
  • The Cult of the Prince Consort by Elizabeth Darby and Nicola Smith
    Yale, 120 pp, £10.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 300 03015 0

There is something to be said for the view that the subject of a biography should be dead. Death does not guarantee the truth, nor the disinterestedness of the biographer, but life surely puts some additional difficulties in his way. Certain kinds of evidence will be wilfully denied him, certain other kinds may be offered too profusely or inaccurately. The exact nature of these difficulties will vary with the biographer and with the subject. Why is a particular biography written? Is the pop star or the footballer being promoted by an advertising man or denigrated by a rival or his agent? Is the author anxious merely to sell a lot of copies of his book? Is he seriously concerned about football or pop music, and if so from what point of view? Why, if he is, does he think that a book on the player’s life will help? All these questions, or appropriate equivalents, arise in the case of a biography of a reigning monarch. The market is there – several markets indeed, and the name of Lady Longford is an indication that we are concerned with the upper end. She is not Crawfie – not so well informed on some matters perhaps, but better informed on many more. Moreover, she has come to us with the guarantees afforded by a biography of Queen Victoria, as well as a row of other studies from Jameson’s Raid to Eminent Victorian Women. She has met the Queen ‘on many occasions over the last thirty years’, so has a closer view than one who has merely been among the rabble at Garden Parties or has had to be content with what is to be seen on television. She is the daughter of a Harley Street surgeon and married to an earl, which gives a certain range of social perspectives, and both she and her husband have been active in public life, which no doubt gives others. She is a Roman Catholic, which has a number of consequences for her view of the monarchy.

A biographer of the Queen must be concerned rather with her life and character than with the throne she graces, but there is no separating one from the other. A sense of the possible significances of the life for the work, and vice versa, is essential, and Lady Longford has this. She has thought about the monarchy and what it is; she has some historical perspectives, largely determined by her 19th-century studies. It would be fair to say that she sees things broadening down from precedent to precedent until they are nearly flat. Her theory of monarchy is that of Walter Bagehot, the Victorian journalist and banker, still believed in by Mr St John-Stevas. She even refers in more than one place to ‘St Bagehot’, which I fear reflects the uncritical adoration this smart performer received in academic quarters in the Packenhams’ youth. The essence of Bagehot’s view is that the Queen is merely an Appearance, while he and others who spin coins in the city are the Reality. The rest of the population are more or less nowhere, except in so far as they are encouraged to gawp at the Queen and so to conduct their sordid occupations that the bankers come out on top. Time has a little sullied this fair picture. ‘The use of the Queen, in a dignified capacity, is incalculable,’ as Bagehot said, and it matters greatly to the rest of us by whom she is used.

The influence of Bagehot has been immense. At a time when academics were beginning to think they should explain the Modern World he must have been a godsend. Anyway, academics in the best places began to teach their pupils – naturally also the best – that it was in The English Constitution that the truth about the monarchy was to be found. ‘Walter Bagehot wrote in complete detachment from the magic he was describing’ – but not from the magic of the City, where his heart lay. He has become, Lady Longford says, ‘the patron saint of all royal biographers and journalists’. Plainly there is a lot of dead wood to be cleared away. According to Lady Longford, George V was given a diet of Bagehot by Professor J.R. Tanner, of St John’s College, Cambridge; George VI by J.R.M. Butler of Trinity College, Cambridge; and the Queen as Princess Elizabeth by Sir Henry Marten of Eton. Time for a change? Lady Longford gives us to understand that Prince Charles is an expert on the subject, as he probably needs be in self-defence; it is to be hoped that he has supplemented these studies by meditation on the appropriate bits of Blackstone. Mercifully, however, royal personages are dependent on books for only a small part of their education. That the Queen ‘hardly reads at all’ except in the way of business or horse-racing should distress nobody. She has no need to be impressed by ‘Margaret Drabble and other highbrows’ at informal Buckingham Palace luncheons. The monarch’s business is with practice and not with theory. It is we who have to get our ideas straight.

The notion of a ‘royal biography’ is itself part of the kit of ‘ideas’, not of Lady Longford in particular, but of our age. With whatever cautions and qualifications, it assumes the existence of a ‘life and character’ concealed under the public personage and capable of being exposed to view. That the Queen is a human being, like the rest of us, has never been doubted, nor was the like proposition ever doubted by any sane contemporary in relation to any preceding monarch. But the biographer, as distinct from the historian, is assuming something like the vulgar modern notion of a ‘personality’ – a notion which, however august its origins, has become so debased that it extends into all the intimate details which are the ordinary prey of the media in their sanctimonious and disingenuous hue and cry after ‘the truth’. Lady Longford, of course, is discreet, but it is no use saying, as she does, that the Queen is ‘Queen of a democracy’ and that ‘her own democratic rights as an individual, such as the right to some privacy, can never be steam-rolled.’ It is like trying to stop a revolution half-way because it has gone far enough for those who started it. ‘When I was gradually discovering the life and character of Queen Victoria from unexplored sources in the Royal Archives,’ she says, ‘my most intense relationships were with the diaries and letters. In writing about Queen Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter I have had to learn to do without written royal records except for those few published by Her Majesty’s relatives ... or included in the official biographies of King George V, Queen Mary and King George VI.’ It is as much as to say that the job she claims to be doing cannot be more than half-done.

About the early years there would in any case probably be little to be said, even if Crawfie had not scooped the pools. What we ordinarily ask of a biographer about this stage of his subject’s life is something about his family and their economic and social circumstances, so that we can know where we are starting from. In the case of a royal baby, there is little of this that will not be known by anyone likely to pick up this book. In fact, after a preliminary chapter called ‘Today’ we have one on ‘The World of Her Birth, 1900-26’, from ‘Good old Teddy’ with his ‘fast beautiful women and beautiful fast horses’ to ‘a vital Commonwealth conference’ with our present queen couched in her mother’s womb. Then with Chapter Two and a quotation from Yeats which reflects his ogling of great houses – to give it a certain pasteboard splendour – we get to the first four years of the Queen’s life and we are glad to learn that ‘she knew that bread had to be delivered, for she was given a baker’s van as well as carts and a garden truck called “Globe Express”.’ It is inevitable that a good deal of the succeeding chapters should be given up to things which must have mattered less to the child than much that goes unrecorded – as it would be with any other child, for even in a world in which children are heard and seen a great deal, what do we really know about what they are up to? There is a fairly extensive account of the abdication of Edward VIII, but here of course the historian takes over from the biographer. What really emerges from the early part of the book is, happily, a sturdy and energetic child, rather obedient than otherwise, with a marked ability for ingesting information. She received what by current standards must be regarded as a fairly sketchy schooling, happily topped up by Sir Henry Marten with The English Constitution under his arm and, more practically, including a thorough instruction in the French language at the hands of a refugee Belgian countess. What is important about the war years is that there was no question of the princesses joining the Dutch, Danish and Norwegian royalties in Canada. ‘To the Queen of England,’ says Lady Longford, ‘all this was a non-question. The public never dreamt of their King and Queen leaving under any circumstances and the King and Queen never dreamt of being parted, perhaps indefinitely, from their children.’ Of the rightness of this decision there can be no doubt. It was right too that, shortly before her 19th birthday, Princess Elizabeth should have become No 230873 Second Subaltern in the Auxiliary Transport Service, driving a heavy vehicle through rush-hour traffic and servicing it as necessary.

After the war, Prince Philip comes prominently into the picture. Lady Longford vouches for the fact that he proposed to the Princess and not she to him, and one can believe it. It is said that ‘the engagement was unwelcome’ to King George VI, although he regarded Prince Philip as intelligent and having a sense of humour and – surely most important of all – considered that he thought about things ‘in the right way’. It was merely that the King did not want to upset what he liked to call the ‘Royal firm’ of four which was about to visit South Africa. So the announcement of the engagement, if not speculation about it, was deferred. There is a good deal in the book about the character of the Prince, but little or nothing which is not a matter of public knowledge. And indeed all the main events of the royal life must be known to us before the biographer gets there, so that although the tale is well told it is hardly exciting. There is a touch of drama in the story of how the news of her father’s death came to her in Kenya and she came home as Queen. She entered upon her new duties as one would have expected. ‘I’ll be all right. I’m strong as a horse,’ she said in reply to those who worried that she might be asked to do too much at the Coronation, and: ‘Did my father do it? Then I will.’

The account of the new reign touches on all those events which one might expect would be touched on – the Commonwealth visits, the Suez crisis, the occasions when some pedantic point could be made about the exercise of the prerogative in the choice of a prime minister. As to this last subject, so much beloved of constitutional wizards and certainly potentially important, the truth is that despite some delicate situations nothing, mercifully, has so far happened since 1952 to produce more than a flutter. The sobriety of the Queen, her grasp of fact, her attentiveness to advice and her underlying resolution to do as her father did while keeping her eye on changing times, are the best guarantees we have of stability at the centre of things. It is generally admitted that she has a knowledge of Commonwealth politicians unrivalled by any prime minister she has ever had. Lady Longford quotes or uses without irony the bland words which have – most properly – been used at the various stages of the fading of the Commonwealth. The Queen’s personal authority has grown with her experience and she has played her constitutional role with propriety and aplomb, even charm. Her biographer does not allow herself or her subject any vivid expression of uneasiness as to the consequences of the process. There is not more than the faintest allusion to the changes brought about by entry into the Common Market. There is no mention of the changes which have taken place in the Church of England, and Lady Longford is almost entirely silent about the Queen’s historic position in relation to that body. Yet it is in these three areas – the Commonwealth, the EEC and the Church – that the major events of the reign, as they affect the monarchy, have taken place, and the Queen cannot be supposed to have been indifferent to them. Lady Longford’s no doubt proper silences – with some that cannot have been obligatory – bring the biography as a whole near to pointlessness.

The subject the biographer warms to, as she approaches the conclusion of her work, is the Bagehotian one of what the monarchy appears to be, not what it is. Of course the appearance is a part of the reality, and the excellence of the Queen’s performance is known to all of us. Lady Longford’s ante-penultimate chapter on ‘The System’ has something to say about changes in the Royal Household. She quotes Lord Cobbold, as Lord Chamberlain, describing his position as like that of ‘a part-time chairman of a large company with a single active shareholder’. It was perhaps the best his City-bred mind could do. This is the gentleman who really puts the show on the road! Of course shows have their importance, but if the monarchy is no more than that it will vanish with last night’s television programme. ‘Magic’, much talked of (Lady Longford’s penultimate chapter is called ‘The Spell’), is nothing but an illusionist’s tricks. ‘Personality’ is worst of all, particularly in the hands of the media. For Lady Longford, George VI, who felt that ‘the royal office was everything, and himself nothing,’ is out of date. ‘It is in fact the respect and affection’ in which the Queen ‘personally is held that upholds and underwrites the validity of the crown.’ All the best people think this way, it seems. Harold Macmillan is reported as saying: ‘the responsibilities of the UK monarchy had so shrunk that ... you might as well have a film star.’ It is what you might call doubling your standard of living in 25 years. ‘The executive power of the English nation being vested in a single person, by the general consent of the people, the evidence of which is long and immemorial usage, it became necessary to the freedom and peace of the state, that a rule should be laid down, uniform, universal, and permanent; in order to mark out with precision, who is that single person, to whom are committed (in subservience to the law of the land) the care and protection of the community; and to whom, in return, the duty and allegiance of every individual are due. It is of the highest importance to the public tranquillity ...’ Can Blackstone’s words be faulted now? All the strands of authority meet in the Queen’s hands, hardly a point to be overlooked in a generation which has had its troubles with disloyal servants. No sidelong glances at Rome, Moscow, Brussels or elsewhere can be allowed to detract from the supremacy, in all civil and military matters, of the Crown. Nor will the monarch, who is Anglican in England and Presbyterian in Scotland, become less Protestant, but rather more so, to take account of subjects of other denominations and religions and those of none. It is no more than saying, as Marvell did, that ‘the Country is the King.’ Lady Longford makes rather a lot of the social class of prime ministers and others in personal touch with the Queen, whether it is that of Home, who was aristocratic enough not to go to the Palace in his best suit, or that of those who have ‘worked their way up’ from various stations in life seen as humble. But for most of us the Queen is not an upper-class lady; she is just the Queen.

You would need a real taste for the upper classes as seen from a distance, and a capacity to be thrilled at the thought that a duke or duchess, or some foreign marquis or chuck-out princeling, really looks like that or has all those castles, for Aristocrats to be the perfect bedside book for you. Illustrated in gorgeous technicolour, it purports to answer such questions as ‘How have these dinosaurs survived in the age of the common man? What are the origins of their power and wealth? And what are their chances for the future?’ Not quite a daydream, perhaps, but that more sinister thing a television dream, worked up to impress and to turn an honest penny – if you call it honest. ‘The book tries to answer these questions through the history of the six families who formed the subject of the BBC television series Aristocrats in the autumn of 1983.’ How they shoot grouse and sell them to hotels, how they organise financial empires or avoid taxes. It’s a real yawn. Supported apparently by a battery of what are known in the trade as research workers, Robert Lacey has organised this rubbish and added to it some vaguely historical and cultural talk: he even manages to mention Plato. What emerges is less a picture of anything that could be called an aristocracy than the portrait of a Cambridge-educated historian and journalist (late 20th-century) with his mind softened by the media. It is softened to the point of extinction but the words still come, as always in that world.

The Cult of the Prince Consort is a different kettle of fish. It contains an immense amount of information about what is, admittedly, not everyone’s favourite subject, the ‘public and private tributes to the Prince Consort, from the elaborate and costly Royal Mausoleum to the still more extravagant National Albert Memorial to the commemorative belt clasps, hankies and photographs that proliferated after Prince Albert’s demise’. There are 110 black-and-white illustrations, mostly photographs of the statues and other memorials which sprang up all over the place, as well as reproductions of book-marks and a great variety of solemn toys. The compilers have done their work well and there cannot be many stones left unturned. Unfortunately the text does not rise much above the style of a thesis: what it offers is a considerable array of material about the origin and execution of the monuments large and small. The excess of the Queen’s grief can be pardoned, but the excesses of some of the designers can’t.