Hm, hm and that was all

Rosemary Hill

The present queen was not the only person to feel, when her grandmother Queen Mary died in 1953, that she ‘could not imagine a world without her’. The ‘old queen’, as she was generally known to the public, had become a totemic figure, rigidly upright in her toque and pearls, a grandmother to the nation. Her daughter-in-law, the queen mother, later fulfilled the same role, but in an entirely different way. Where the ‘queen mum’ was, or appeared to be as long as nobody let her speak in public, twinkly and friendly, fond of gin and jewellery, Queen Mary was cast as grandparent in the severe Victorian mould, a living reminder of an age gone by and not very fondly remembered. For the generation who were in their twenties during the Second World War, which included my parents and their friends, to say that someone ‘sat there like Queen Mary’ was to indicate that a terminal blight had been cast over the occasion. James Pope-Hennessy, born in 1916, belonged to that generation. He came from a distinguished Catholic and literary family and was a friend of many of his most interesting contemporaries, Cecil Beaton and James Lees-Milne among them. He loved female company, was ‘much sought after by hostesses for his sparkling conversation’ and by 1953 had established a reputation as a biographer. Two volumes on the life of Richard Monckton-Milnes, the late Georgian politician and socialite, were followed by a life of Monckton-Milnes’s son, Lord Crewe. The latter was the quid pro quo for access to the archives and was, Pope-Hennessy admitted, ‘less than inspired’. Its appearance in 1955, however, started a train of thought in the mind of Crewe’s daughter Lady Cynthia Colville, who had been a lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary. She spoke to Owen Morshead, the royal librarian, and shortly afterwards Pope-Hennessy was surprised and annoyed to be asked to write the official biography.

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