The Summer Queen by Margaret Pemberton


I feel vaguely guilty for having enjoyed this, because it was mostly just a lot of historical royal gossip. Maybe I’m being a bit of an academic snob here, because I never feel guilty about reading historical royal gossip when it’s in academic book format – Theo Aronson’s written loads of books like that, and so have Carolly Erickson and various other people, and I assume that Margaret Pemberton’s been reading some of them!  Or maybe it’s because I feel vaguely uncomfortable about reading fictionalised accounts of the lives of people who seem so close: the book runs from 1879 to 1918, but some of the main characters were still around as recently as the 1950s. I haven’t got Netflix, so I didn’t watch The Crown!  Anyway, I did enjoy it – and I suppose it wasn’t all fluffy stuff, because it covered the build-up to the First World War and the Russian Revolution, focusing mainly on Princess May of Teck, later Queen Mary, Princess Alix of Hesse, later the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, and Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany, later Kaiser Wilhelm II.

There are an awful lot of cousins, who have relationships with and marry each other. If you’re used to royal family trees, it will make perfect sense. If not, you might get confused! It’s all been said umpteen times before, but it’s still entertaining. I’m not sure what the King of Norway would make of the suggestion that his grandmother, the then Princess Maud, had a full-blown affair with Prince Francis of Teck: it’s known that she was interested in him, but I’m not sure about the rest. And I’m not convinced that Princess May had always been in love with the Duke of Clarence. He comes across as a very romantic figure here, but, whilst the rumours that he was Jack the Ripper are more than a bit OTT, a romantic figure he was not! But I quite like the idea that Ella of Hesse went into her marriage with Grand Duke Sergei knowing full well that it was a lavender marriage, and actively chose that because it was the nearest she could, at that point, get to being a nun … rather than finding out after the ring was on the finger, as her sister-in-law Victoria Melita of Edinburgh did.

I’ve heard it all a million times before, but it’s still quite fascinating how there were all these cousins and second cousins marrying each other. Or not marrying each other, in the cases of Maud and Francis, “Eddy” (the Duke of Clarence) and Alix, Wilhelm and Ella, etc etc.

What about the three main figures? The book revolves around the fictional and possibly rather silly idea that May, Wilhelm and Alix recognised each other as “Kindred Spirits”, all being outsiders for one reason or another, and swore an oath of friendship. The blurb on the front cover says “Her broken oath would cast an empire into turmoil” … and I don’t actually know to what that’s supposed to refer! It makes no sense whatsoever. Does it mean something to do with Alix and Wilhelm’s supposed childhood friendship? And who’s “The Summer Queen”? Queen Victoria? May? That doesn’t make much sense either. Anyway, I think all the “oath” stuff is best ignored: it just seems to be there to try to justify the focus on three different people, and link them together.

Alix’s story has been told in both academic books and fiction umpteen times, and is therefore very well-known, but she seems remote in this book. We don’t really get a sense of her concerns about changing her religion, her fears for her haemophiliac son’s health, or what was going on with Rasputin. The book also suggests that it was Wilhelm who convinced her to marry Nicholas, which doesn’t make much sense either but is presumably to tie in with the “kindred spirit” idea.

Queen Mary’s story, on the other hand, has rarely been told. She’s usually seen as the epitome of dignity, and, because of that, as being a bit cold, so it was nice to see a book reminding us of her difficult childhood, as the descendant of a morganatic marriage, and the time her family spent living in Italy and the freedom she enjoyed there, as well as how difficult it must have been for her when the Duke of Clarence died. She comes across really well here.  I’m glad about that.  She’s an admirable figure who coped well with some very difficult times.

“Willy” comes across well too. He’s such a hate figure in the English-speaking world, because of the First World War, and also the appalling way in which he treated his mother. If Queen Mary is seen as the epitome of dignity, he’s seen as the epitome of Prussian militarism – but the author is quite sympathetic to him, reminding the reader of all the horrific treatments he was subjected to in order to try to cure the damage done to his arm by a difficult birth. He certainly didn’t have it easy, but I’m not sure why the author’s quite so sympathetic towards someone who was undoubtedly very militaristic, and had some very unpleasant attitudes. She shows him as being an Anglophile, when he was anything but, and ignores some of his extremist views. On a more positive note, she touches on the interesting Harden-Eulenberg affair, when his closest friend and advisor fell from power amid a lot of talk about homosexuality, then a taboo subject in the German Empire.  It’s something that’s increasingly attracting attention from historians of the period, many of whom link its effect on the Kaiser to an increase in militarism.

There’s the odd blunder – notably saying that the previous Queen Mary had been Mary Tudor! – and the author annoying refers to “England” rather than “Britain” all the way through, but it’s generally accurate.  In fact, it generally reads as if it most of it was taken from books by Theo Aronson or Justin Vovk, and fictionalised, but maybe I’m doing the author a disservice there.  Even though a lot of the subject matter is pretty “heavy”, especially that relating to Russia, the story’s fairly light, and it’s not a bad choice for holiday reading.  Something about it vaguely annoyed me, but I think that was just because it felt weird that the lives of people who lived so recently, and whose lives, at least in the cases of May and Wilhelm, are well within living memory, had been turned into easy reading.  And, as I’ve said, that’s probably just me being an academic snob!   Given that I knew all the factual royal gossip in this already, I am clearly a total hypocrite … 😉 .  And I did really enjoy it!



20 thoughts on “The Summer Queen by Margaret Pemberton

  1. Chris Deeley

    All very interesting! I think a lot of Germans may have been Anglophiles in the past – in the sense that they admired the British Empire, the Royal Navy and many British accomplishments (except, of course, musical composition). Not many ‘academic snobs’ misspell ‘adviser’! PS: how was Switzerland? Please do tell!


  2. “Advisor” and “adviser” are both accepted spellings, but advisor with an o is more commonly used when referring to someone whose job is giving advice, e.g. a financial advisor, and I’d say that applied to someone whose “job” was to advise a monarch or politician. It looks nicer, as well, like “judgement” looks better than “judgment” even though both are correct! Switzerland was lovely, thanks – I was there the week of the heatwave, but I’m not complaining because it meand we got lovely clear views from the top of the Jungfrau and Mt Pilatus. Too expensive to stay long, but it’s a gorgeous country!


    • Chris Deeley

      I just think it’s sensible to have common spelling; e.g. program rather than programme. (And isn’t an adviser someone who offers advice?) Glad to hear that Switzerland was lovely. I haven’t been there recently, but have many happy memories; e.g. sitting in a bay window on the Golden Pass Express. Not many trains have bay windows!


      • Programme, please. I can’t stand “program”! We get some horrible forms at work which say “program”, and they annoy me so much that I have to change them all to “programme” manually. Switzerland’s got so many lovely mountain trains – they’re a real treat. I’ve never been on the Golden Pass Express, and I haven’t yet made it on to the Glacier Express, but they’re both on my wishlist :-).


      • mrsredboots

        “Program” for computers (although they seem to be called apps these days) , “programme” for everything else. When I’m on my laptop later I’ll add a couple of books I’ve loved about that era.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. mrsredboots

    I don’t read chicklit, either! First recommendation is Christina Croft’s “Queen Victoria’s Granddaughters 1860-1918”, (non-fiction, but easy to read) which I found fascinating, and then Laurie Graham’s “The Grand Duchess of Nowhere” which is a fictionalised version of Ducky’s (Victoria Melita’s) story. She’s also done some wonderful 20th century historical novels, one about Wallis Simpson and one about the Kennedy family…. and several other novels.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Chris Deeley

    I don’t have a great mind, but I’m fairly sure that ‘program’ is traditional English and that ‘programme’ is a French corruption – of the type so much despised by the likes of Lord Palmerston. The idea that ‘advisor’ and ‘adviser’ are different words with different meanings seems plausible. Are they also homophones – like ‘forgone’ and ‘foregone’? I’ve no idea. Less than two weeks to go now for you-know-what: how Manchester and Merseyside led the charge towards Parliamentary Democracy as we know it, etc. etc. PS: I’ve been on the Glacier Express, which has a loop-the-loop; also the Myrdal-to-Flam railway in Norway, which is equally spectacular. I wonder what are our favourite European places to visit? I like Lake Como, the Bay of Naples and the Isle of Capri, and (of course!) St Tropez. Pity I now live in Wagga Wagga!


    • There are various events planned for the 200th anniversary, but it’s on a Friday so not very helpful for those of us who are wage slaves!! I love Lake Como as well – if I ever win the lottery, I’m getting a villa there, like George Clooney! Venice too. And Russia.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Chris Deeley

        Oops! Apparently 16 August 1819 was a Monday, not (as I had previously believed) a Sunday. I had also previously thought that many of the crowd were mill-workers. Now I have no idea who they were. I wonder whether you may be planning a special ‘blog’ (if that’s the correct term) for the bicentenary? Some of us (especially me) might benefit from insightful enlightenment!


      • Thames Lass

        You might be interested in listening to the Prom tomorrow evening (5th August) with Ben Gernon conducting the BBC Philharmonic.
        The programme opens with the Malcolm Arnold’s dramatic ‘Peterloo Overture’ in the 200th anniversary year of the massacre in the orchestra’s hometown.
        The piece was commissioned by the TUC in 1968, and there’s a little more about it (in its brass band arrangement) at
        Malcolm Arnold is possibly better known for his music for ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Chris Deeley

    I think it’s a pity the commemorations are not scheduled for Sunday 18 August instead of Friday the 16th. After all, the actual event was on a Sunday. Part of the tragedy was that it was such a bright sunny day and, IMHO, a lot of the mill workers may have just thought it was a great day for an outing, without being over-concerned (or even aware) that they were so poorly represented in the House of Commons. Whatever one’s point of view, it was a very sad day in English history; worthy of solemn reflection and an appreciation of what was subsequently (if not consequently) achieved. PS: very much hope that you win lotto!


  6. Keren

    Read this on your recommendation.

    It really did need a proper family tree attached, with the nicknames translated to full names and showing all the relationships.

    I wonder if anyone read it who didn’t know that the Russian royal family were going to be killed?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Karen

    I would like to add to the list of recommendations in the comments here “The last Grand Duchess ” by Bryn Turnball,
    Not being an expert in history I couldn’t tell you what they got wrong, but would love to hear your opinion of this book. It is about Olga. I also just read a book I did not like at all called Daughters of a dead empire.

    Liked by 1 person

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