Royal Anxiety

Gabriele Annan

  • The Queen by Kenneth Harris
    Weidenfeld, 341 pp, £20.00, April 1994, ISBN 0 297 81211 4
  • Divine Right: The Inglorious Survival of British Royalty by Richard Tomlinson
    Little, Brown, 357 pp, £17.50, June 1994, ISBN 0 316 91119 4

My favourite recent book about the Queen is called The Queen’s Knickers by Nicholas Allan. It is a picture book for small children. The centre spread presents several rows of knickers for every royal occasion: Union Jack knickers for state visits, black knickers for state funerals, tartan for Balmoral, knickers printed all over with corgis for home, and appliquéd with real holly for Christmas, ‘which is why she keeps her Christmas message very short’. She gets into a terrible flap trying to decide which pair to wear for a visit to the child narrator’s school. The little girl ‘puts her at her ease’ by pointing out that it doesn’t matter because they won’t be seen anyway. After the visit the Queen sends her a bread-and-butter letter. It will actually have been written by a lady-in-waiting, though that is not explained in The Queen’s Knickers, which is a perfectly Queen-friendly book. It can be read as a variant on ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, except that it’s much less contemptuous: the attitude is indulgent, though, rather than awe-struck.

The two books under review approach their subject from opposite corners. Kenneth Harris trudges deferentially through his subject’s life, like one of those grey-haired guides in cardigans who steer tourists through National Trust houses. Until the Epilogue he takes elephantine care never to appear to intrude his own views, especially if they are unfavourable. Instead, he cites other people who shared these views – as many did and do. Take the Duke and Duchess of Windsor: King George VI and Queen Elizabeth knew, Harris writes, that the Duke ‘was irresponsible, insensitive, feckless. He never paused to consider the implications of what he said and did. They put nothing past the mesmeric influence on him of “that woman”.’ When it’s another royal duchess’s turn to be out of favour, Harris shelters behind an editorial in the Daily Telegraph: ‘But it is interesting and significant that the actions of the press’ – in publishing topless photographs of Fergie with Mr Bryan – ‘have aroused so little public indignation. It shows how low is the standing of the Duchess.’ Harris is fair to the point of paying tribute to Christopher Hitchens, but too much impartiality can be lethal: The Queen is a bore, even when it gets to Squidgy and Camillagate.

Divine Right, on the other hand, is relentlessly frisky and snide. Everyone is called by their Christian or pet name, if they have one: so you get two Berties (Edward VII and George VI), Georgie (George V), David (Edward VIII) and Lilibet. When it gets to the Windsors’ foreign cousins there are Willi, Nicky, Charlie (of Norway), Foxy (of Bulgaria), Missy and Mignon. The joke was exploited long ago in Cecil Beaton’s spoof My Royal Past, though Tomlinson’s account of pre and immediately post-war court life makes one think that Beaton hardly exaggerated at all.

Tomlinson’s chronicle starts around the turn of the century, when thrones began to totter at the start of ‘a grisly sequence of royal murder’: Elisabeth of Austria was shot by an anarchist in 1898 and another anarchist killed King Umberto of Italy in 1900. Three years later, the King and Queen of Serbia were shot in Belgrade. In 1906 in Madrid at least twenty people were killed by a bomb during the wedding procession when Queen Victoria’s grand-daughter Ena married King Alfonso of Spain; and two years later, the King and Crown Prince of Portugal were killed in Lisbon. In 1913 ‘Willi’ (King George of Greece) was shot dead in Salonika, and everyone knows what happened in Sarajevo the following year. Tomlinson throws in Alexander of Greece who, in 1920, ‘became the first king in history to be assassinated by a pet monkey’; it bit him and he died of blood poisoning. The British royal family (including Ena) was unscathed, but Tomlinson develops a theory that from about 1910 onwards they were obsessed by the fear of losing their lives – and their throne, as happened to many of their relations during and after the war. So the Windsors became ‘an incurably anxious dynasty’ (which would explain the Queen’s worry about her knickers), and everything they did from then on was with the object of hanging on, starting with George V’s refusal to give sanctuary to his first cousins the Romanovs, and culminating in the dire public-relations exercises of recent years.

Tomlinson’s technique is to turn his subjects into characters in a cartoon comedy and then fast-forward it. They caper about at top speed, which makes for better entertainment than Harris’s stately progress, but gets irritating. In any case, Tomlinson is a bit late off the mark. Send-ups of the royal myth are all around, in print, on the stage, on TV. Both he and Harris are journalists, and so they home in on the role of the media in creating the monarchy’s public image, and on the Royal Family’s efforts at public relations. The rot, according to Harris, set in with the Coronation. The public arrangements were organised by the Minister of Works, Sir David Eccles, who once referred to the Queen as his ‘leading lady’. Prince Charles’s investiture in 1969 was the next big public spectacle. Lord Snowdon designed the decor and costumes, including a zip-up bottle-green uniform for himself. Even Harris lets out a giggle here. The whole affair was soon overshadowed by Richard Cawston’s film Royal Family with its famous barbecue sequence. In the opinion of many monarchists, this went too far in making the Royal Family appear just like other people; or, in other words, trivialising it. The same critics, according to Harris, thought that in 1985 the Prince and Princess of Wales ‘had not acted in the best interests of the monarchy’ by inviting Sir Alastair Burnet to interview them and their children in what mediaspeak calls ‘the privacy of their own home’. The media mega-disaster came in 1987 when the Princess Royal, Prince Edward and the newly-married Duke and Duchess of York appeared in It’s a Royal Knockout. Harris, still impartial says: ‘Many people thought that the behaviour of the young royals who appeared in it was inappropriate, and that the Duchess of York’s was particularly undignified.’

There seems to be no way of striking the right balance between preserving the divinity that hedges kings and queens and makes them seem worth having; and, on the other hand, making sure they appear human and lovable to their late 20th-century subjects. (The Windsors have considered bicycles, and decided against.) Both these very dissimilar books give the impression that everything in the future hangs on the solution of this one problem. Harris and Tomlinson agree that the present Queen can hack it. They like her. Harris doggedly cites and quotes named and unnamed courtiers and public servants of his acquaintance to support the view that the court should remain exactly as it is: Byzantine and élitist though it may still seem, even after the reforms initiated by Lord Charteris when he was the Queen’s private secretary in the Sixties, Tomlinson disagrees, and then springs a surprise by waxing quite trumpet-tongued:

The aura which surrounds Elizabeth’s person is not a question of stage props. Silver Stick could retire to barracks, the Lord Chamberlain could walk forwards, the stage coach could be melted down, and she would still be recognisably a Queen. In some ways, the backdrop of ceremonial monoarchy is a distraction, for the heart of Elizabeth’s mystery is found away from the synthetic pomp and circumstance of Windsor monarchy.

Anyone Wanting to add only one more volume to their collection of royal books should choose Tomlinson’s; and not just because it’s more entertaining. It has some ideas and a theory: royal anxiety. It also has an index, a bibliography, a chronology, and a cast list; all of which are a help, if only for finding things to disagree with.