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

King George V
King George V; drawing by David Levine

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…

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