Hm, hm and that was all
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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Vol. 40 No. 24 · 20 December 2018
Rosemary Hill, in her piece on Queen Mary, mentions Prince Albert Victor, Victoria’s eldest grandson, known in his time as Prince Eddy, in the usual unflattering terms and in the usual context of the unsavoury scandals that continue to be associated with him (LRB, 6 December). It is perhaps worth pointing out that there was rather more to him than scandal.
In 1881, Prince Eddy along with his younger brother, the future King George V, visited Japan as midshipmen on board the warship HMS Bacchante. At the time Eddy was 17 and he seems to have acquitted himself well in handling the demanding protocol of the Japanese imperial court. At an audience the two boys had with Emperor Meiji and his consort, Eddy acted as spokesman, telling the emperor that a portrait of Queen Victoria was on its way to him as a gesture of friendship, and presenting the empress with two wallabies, which he had acquired during their earlier stay in Australia.
Andrew Cook, in Prince Eddy: The King Britain Never Had (2006), argues that there is no evidence to substantiate any of the rumours that swirled around his name long after his death. Prince Eddy’s diary and papers were destroyed by his aunt, Princess Beatrice, it seems, after his death, but Prince George’s diary, which is in the Royal Archives, and the private writings of others who accompanied them, such as the diary of Sir Ernest Satow, suggest that they behaved creditably in Australia and Japan, though their interests were rather juvenile for their guardian’s taste and George did insist on getting tattooed.
Prince Eddy was certainly not academically gifted, and it seems that the two boys served in the Royal Navy together because George was known to have a good influence on him. I do not want to suggest that he lived a blameless life, for he did not, but is it not going too far to give credence to the Duchess of Devonshire’s claim, many years after his death at the age of 28 in 1892, that he was ‘mentally deficient’, or to suggest that his death ‘came as pure relief to most people’? Perhaps it did in retrospect, after George had ascended the throne, but Gladstone wrote in the privacy of his diary at the time that his death was ‘a great loss to our party’, for Eddy appears to have had liberal views on the question of Home Rule for Ireland.
Rosemary Hill wonders if Queen Mary’s practice of asking for objects that she took a fancy to on visits to people’s houses could simply be a rumour. John Grigg in Lloyd George: War Leader (2002) describes how the queen, on learning in 1917 that Arthur and Ruth Lee proposed to offer Chequers to the nation as a country residence for the prime minister, asked if a portrait of Charles II at Chequers could be sold to her ‘for the Royal Collection’. As Grigg says, there was only one response open to the Lees in these circumstances, so the portrait was presented to Her Majesty with the Lees’ ‘humble duty’. In return she gave them a signed photograph of herself, framed in Benares brocade.