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Life at the Top

King George V

by Kenneth Rose
Knopf, 514 pp., $19.95

Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsor

by Anne Edwards
Morrow, 527 pp., $18.95

Posterity suspects with some justice that commemorative biographers never tell the truth about the dead. Too many people have to die before they can get at it and, even if they could, they have to avoid libel suits, appease the literary executors who can withdraw permission to quote from letters or journals; they have to wheedle other owners of copyright, placate the family, and soothe friends each of whom is convinced that he or she alone understands the “real” person who has just died. But the official biographers of royalty are faced with an even more exacting task. To perform it they have to become morticians. Massage removes disfiguring scars and injections of Formalin waft away the unpleasant odor of a decaying reputation.

Sir Sidney Lee, the coeditor of the Dictionary of National Biography, was a master of the art. Of the seven deadly sins the one to which Edward VII was most prone was gluttony. Beginning the day with two cigarettes and a cigar, the king sat down to a hearty eight-course English breakfast and displayed no alarm when faced with a substantial luncheon. Then there was tea at which the king would eat a boiled egg or two before attacking the muffins, crumpets, clotted cream, jam, and cakes. Dinner, at which soups, fish, roasts, and game were separated by entrees and during which, halfway through the profusion, the appetite was revived by a sorbet, preceded a session at the bridge table. There whiskeys and soda followed the wines and brandy that had accompanied the meal. But this was not the end. A supper of deviled bones might well be served or, if not, the king expected to find a cold fowl in the anteroom to his bedchamber. Such a regime took its toll, and not for nothing was he known behind his back to his intimates as Tum-Tum.

How did Lee deal with this? The king, he wrote, “appeared somewhat shorter than he really was owing to a tendency to stoutness…. He had a splendid appetite at all times, and never toyed with his food.” This example was not lost on Harold Nicolson, when he came to write the biography of Edward VII’s son. “In private conversation King George was not wont to hide or understate his views: the language he employed had about it the tang and exuberance of the salt sea waves…. The King was not by temperament an equable man.” The resultant biography was not exactly dull—Nicolson wrote too well to incur that criticism—but it did not sparkle.

Few writers could have had less fellow feeling for the king’s personality and foibles. Protocol, orderliness, the punctilious observance of customs and conventions, obsession with what should be worn and how to wear it on every conceivable occasion, in other words the panoply of English upper-class life in those days, were things that Harold Nicolson regarded with weary disdain and his wife with loathing. How was someone who had given up the life of a diplomat to become a writer, and who relished the gossip of the House of Commons, the clubs, and literary and homosexual society, to depict the life of a man whose first thought every day was the level of the barometer? The king cared for none of the arts and spoke no foreign language passably and his principal sedentary interest was stamp collecting (regarded by Nicolson as a deplorable pastime). His enjoyments were racing, yachting, and above all shooting—the king was a superlative shot, invariably killing his birds or stag stone dead.

Here was a man with the interests and prejudices of a pre–First World War naval officer and country squire who, having spent three years as a boy sailing round the world, determined to see as little of it again as he could and hated abroad. Harold Nicolson was far too much a man of public affairs to believe like Strachey that politics was a degrading pursuit which distorted true values; and he retained more of the snobberies and prejudices of his class than he imagined. But for all his admiration of George V’s solid virtues and unshakable adherence to constitutional monarchy, the king embodied just that oak-bottomed conservation of a former age which Nicolson found unendurable.

Kenneth Rose’s biography is in a different class. It is not just that he has been able, of course, to draw on the memoirs and indiscretions of the past thirty years. Unlike Nicolson he talked to members of George V’s family, notably Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and the king’s cousin, Princess Alice, who died well into her nineties, chipper to the last. As a result the king steps out of his coffin and one hears his guffaw and tone of voice. Rose is an incomparable chronicler of aristocratic life in the first half of this century. During the war he served in the Brigade of Guards and he has been for years the principal columnist on the conservative Daily and Sunday Telegraph newspapers. How the establishment reacts and how each part of it regards the other is his specialty. He is on too good terms with this world to question the existence of hierarchies and no doubt reassures himself that in the next, so we are assured, seraphim and cherubim are succeeded in the angelic host by thrones, dominations, virtues, and powers. His English prose embellishes his subject. Not for him the homespun cross-stitch of academic prose or the knitwear of so many worthy biographers. He writes in brocade and to read him is like eating turtle soup laced with sherry.

But there is more to it than that. “The world,” wrote Horace Walpole, “is a comedy to those that think and a tragedy to those that feel.” Like Disraeli writing to “The Faery,” Rose sees the court and the political world as a comedy of manners; and like Disraeli he stands a little to one side of it and is amused by what he sees. His two previous books, on Curzon and on the later Cecils, are uproarious. He does not mock the eccentricities of these aristocrats, he rejoices in them. His amusement springs from his delight in the spectacle of such ininhibited spontaneity, self-confidence, and reckless disregard of the opinion of others. He does not adulate the court or twit the politicians who come into conflict with it. Similarly, having piled up instances of the king’s testy bourbonism, Rose produces a story or a sentence that shows how the king’s sense of decency saved him from his own nature. So inspired is his choice of words that no anecdote ever seems superfluous. It is a disarming book.

George V accepted Bagehot’s contention that there are arguments for not having a court and that there are arguments for not having a splendid court, but no arguments for having a mean court. The scale on which the king lived was fabulous. Even at Balmoral, the Scottish summer castle retreat, there were eight footmen and five pipers for a small dinner party, and when the house party picnicked on the moors or by the river, Daimlers with gold-plated radiators delivered baskets of food and wine served by footmen. When the king went there by rail from London, seventeen locomotives on the way would wait with steam up in case the one hauling the royal train broke down. When the king and queen visited friends, two hundred people would sleep in the house. But the queue of willing and able hosts was consequently on the short side.

At the palace there were one hundred upper and four hundred lower servants and the upper servants sat down each day to a four-course meal with white wine and sherry. To his servants the king behaved like the good squire in fiction. He once helped one of the boys on his estate with his mathematics homework and was somewhat put out when the boy declined a second offer of help. “You got it wrong last time,” explained the boy to the king’s intense enjoyment. His courtiers were treated no differently from his servants. If something went wrong there was an explosion. They worked long hours and had to bear with his temper. One of his private secretaries recalled: “We had a rare rough and tumble, and the roof of the whole castle nearly cracked from the violent vibrations of the Monarch’s voice.” “That’s right, break up the bloody Palace,” he said to a terrified footman who dropped a tea tray. “Good God, you can’t come like that, you’re in the wrong clothes,” and the offending equerry was sent back to change from trousers into knee breeches.

But the footman was not sacked and an equerry who had been struck by royal lightning would be told the next day, “I fear I was somewhat irritable, but you know it means nothing.” To a discomfited wellborn courtier who complained of rough treatment the king’s secretary explained: “We are all servants here, although some are more important than others.” Yet when a colonial governor retired the king said to him, “I know what you are feeling. You have been away a long time, trying very hard to get things done. You have not succeeded as you hoped, but no one seems to realize that you have even tried, or that you have been having a hard time, or bothered to say thank you. Well, I say thank you.”

When he came to the throne the smart set were soon saying how dull the court was. Gone were the Edwardian mistresses, the financiers, there was no bridge, and early hours were kept after dinner. The king, who was not as tactful as his father, left no one in any doubt what he meant. Nor was he a good European. What mattered to him was the empire. After 1923, he declared he would make no further state visits abroad. Certainly not to Holland. “Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and all the other dams. Damned if I’ll do it.” He refused to go to a warm climate when convalescing after an illness that had nearly killed him and went instead to a south coast resort called Bognor. There a deputation of its citizens waited upon the king to request that henceforth the town might be known as Bognor Regis. “Bugger Bognor,” said the king. On this occasion his secretary thought it wise to mediate the message and informed the delegation that His Majesty had been graciously pleased to grant their request.

To Sir Robert Vansittart, the head of the Foreign Office, whose communications he thought verbose and over-elaborate, he said, “I have read your memorandum, not all of it, of course.” When Lindbergh was presented to him, Nicolson tells us that the young aviator was “immediately comforted by the breezy questions the King put to him about the details of his solitary flight.” Kenneth Rose tells us what one of the breezy questions was: “Now tell me,’ he began, echoing the thought that must have crossed the minds of so many of his subjects, ‘there is one thing I long to know. How did you manage?’ ”

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