Downsize, Your Majesty

David Cannadine

  • The Royals by Kitty Kelley
    Warner, 547 pp, $27.00, September 1997, ISBN 0 446 51712 7

‘A family on the throne,’ observed Walter Bagehot, in one of those honeyed phrases which may mean more or less than they seem to, ‘is an interesting idea.’ Indeed, it is. But during the past two hundred years of British royal history, it is an idea which has embodied itself in two very different human forms. The first version, which has generally been preponderant, has been the ‘happy family on the throne’. Think of George III and Charlotte, with their large, playful, gurgling brood, immortalised in Zoffany’s delightful conversation pieces. Think of Victoria and Albert, happily ensconced at Osborne, all Gemütlichkeit and Christmas trees, with Landseer and Winterhalter conveniently to hand to paint them. Think of George V and Queen Mary, an inseparable couple, who did so much to uphold decent family values in the rackety era of the Bright Young Things. Think of George VI, Elizabeth and the two young princesses, ‘we four’, as the King observed with characteristic precision, ‘the royal family.’ And think of Elizabeth and Philip, whose domestic felicity was proclaimed to the world in the BBC documentary which was inevitably entitled Royal Family.

At first glance, it might seem paradoxical for Britain’s kings and queens, inheritors of one of the world’s most stable and magnificent thrones, to project an image of monarchy which has often been deliberately bourgeois and literally non-majestic. But it has clearly resonated successfully down the generations, and part of the reason for this success is that it has resonated at a variety of different levels. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, when homely, suburban middle-class values were increasingly thought to be in the ascendant, it seemed altogether appropriate that the monarch should both reflect and embody them. At the same time, the Crown was losing its traditional, public, masculine functions of warrior-king and law-giver, and one of the ways in which it resourcefully reinvented itself was by projecting an image of exemplary domesticity which matched and mirrored its evolving Constitutional impartiality. All this made it easy to elide the royal family into the national family: George III was regarded as the ‘father of his people’; on Victoria’s death it was noted that ‘mother’s come home’; and George V was known as ‘Grandpapa England’. And from there it was but a step to seeing the whole of the British Empire as a great global family, with the monarch at its head – a monarch who, from the Thirties, made this sense of family and of headship real by speaking to his subjects every Christmas on the wireless.

But as Bagehot was perhaps hinting, interesting ideas do not need to be right or true, and the idea that the British monarchy has been for the best part of two centuries a long-running Balmorality play is at best inadequate, at worst misleading. Far from inhabiting some idealised form of middle-class suburbia, royal life is carried on in vast palaces, with scores of servants, which makes any sort of comfortable intimacy or confidential closeness virtually impossible, while allowing the quirks, oddities and indulgences of individual character to flourish and luxuriate like hot-house plants. Most monarchs and their consorts have been badly educated, are not used to thinking or talking about their feelings, tend to bottle them up and bury them deep, and occasionally give way to explosions of towering rage, in which hair brushes and crockery are thrown. Not surprisingly, royal relationships across the generations have often been strained and distant, rather than close and affectionate. When Victoria and Albert married off their children, it was with dynastic considerations in mind rather than emotional fulfilment or personal happiness. Most eldest sons, forever waiting to become king, have not been on the best of terms with the sovereign to whose death they looked forward with a debilitating combination of anxiety and anticipation. And younger sons (and daughters, too) have often found their lives empty of purpose: cut off by their royal status, but unable to find anything rewarding with which to fill the time.

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