A Most English Princess by Clare McHugh

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The idea for this was brilliant, the execution rather less so.  It’s the author’s first novel, so maybe allowances should be made, but do editors just not proof-read the books?  Using “England” and “Britain” interchangeably is a common problem in books by American authors, admittedly, but I’m pretty sure that no-one in the 1860s would have used the expression “golden ticket”!   However, the subject matter, the life of Vicky, the Princess Royal, later the Empress Frederick, is fascinating: there’s an excellent biography of her, but she’s been overlooked by novelists.

The style of writing is more suited to a young adult novel than adult historical fiction – don’t be expecting anything of the calibre of Elizabeth Chadwick or Sharon Penman – but the characterisation is accurate and the factual information’s all in there … Vicky’s childhood, her early marriage, her rather unhappy life in Berlin, and the tragic story of how the unification of Germany, which Prince Albert mistakenly thought would be a force for good, turned into a triumph for Prussian militarism.

The book rather strangely stops short in 1871, as the Franco-Prussian war ends and Vicky’s father-in-law is proclaimed Emperor of Germany, with Bismarck as Chancellor.  Maybe the author’s planning a sequel?  At that point, things could still have turned differently, if Vicky and her husband Fritz had had their chance … but they never did.  It’s one of the great “What ifs?” of modern history.

The rather childlike style of writing works quite well in the early chapters, when Vicky’s a young girl. However, it does become rather irritating later on, once she’s married.  The actual content is so interesting, though – the hostility she faced in Berlin, the conflict within the Prussian royal family, her son Willy’s disability and the weird and rather horrific treatments he was subjected to (would he have turned out differently if he’d not been put through all that?), the wars against Denmark, Austria and Prussia, and the triumph of reaction and militarism.

It’s historically accurate, which is always a huge plus point, and the characters do come across well.  It’s very biased towards Vicky, and against the Prussian court, but I’d have found it strange if it hadn’t been.  The name “Prussia” was wiped off the map after the Second World War, and survives only, in is Latinised version, in the names of football teams: that’s how negative the view of Prussia was, especially in Anglophone countries, and I think that that feeling still lingers, one way and another.  When you look at what went on, especially the attitude towards Catholics and Jews, it’s hard to find too much to praise in the regime of Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm I.  The causes of the Great War are more debatable, but that was after Vicky’s time.

We also see a lot of her family life – and it does give quite a positive portrayal of her relationship with Willy, which became so difficult later on.  Her sister Alice features quite a lot too, although it’s very odd that their brother Leopold’s haemophilia isn’t mentioned.  Again, it’s all very accurate, but the style of writing really doesn’t work that well in what’s meant to be a historical novel for adults, and includes so much about political history.

All in all, not a bad first effort, and a brilliant choice of subject, but the style of writing really could have been a lot better.

 

Queen Victoria: Love, Lust and Leadership – Channel 5

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This initially looked as if it were going to be same old, same old.  Yes, we know that Queen Victoria was a bit of a party girl in her younger days, and that it was Albert who wanted everything to be sober, solemn and studious.  Yes, we know that she struggled to cope with having so many pregnancies.  Yes, we know that they enjoyed getting away from it all at Balmoral.  But some of what was said was different to the usual contents of Queen Victoria programmes, and gave the viewer a lot to think about.

We know that Queen Victoria suffered from what would now be diagnosed as post-natal depression, but, from medical papers discussed here, it sounds as if she also suffered from post-partum psychosis: she was having hallucinations.  That would have been terrifying for anyone, and perhaps especially for Victoria, who’d always feared that she’d “lose her mind” as her grandfather George III had done.  And it sounds as if Albert, as with so many people when faced by mental illness, didn’t really appreciate that she couldn’t just pull herself together, because it doesn’t work like that.

We also know that she talked about Albert as being a “perfect angel” – but the programme talked about how she kept records of her own behaviour, and kept writing that she had to try to improve and be a better person, whereas Albert had no faults – and that she showed these notes to Albert, who went along with them and even made comments on her “improvement” or otherwise.  Even bearing in mind the different views of gender roles at the time, that is extremely creepy.  It sounded like some of those awful 19th century religious novels; and even those usually involve a controlling parent rather than a controlling partner, so you can hope that the child will get out of there when they grow up.

The programme then came up with the interesting hypothesis that it was the Crimean War which saved Queen Victoria – that, due to the crises of wartime, and in particular due to the introduction of the Victorian Cross, she became seen as the mother of the nation, and thus regained her confidence.

I’m not sure that I’d really agree with that.  The Crimean War was horrendous.  So many people dead, and for what?  Having said which, there was enthusiasm for the war at the time.  And look at all the Balaclava Terraces, Inkerman Streets and Crimea Streets (if anyone’s reading this and doesn’t get the reference, those are the names of streets close to Coronation Street!) around.  Even with the Charge of the Light Brigade poem, there was a definite sense of heroism.  Those poor men were heroes.  But did the war give Queen Victoria her confidence back?  Or was that more to do with the fact that Britain was largely unaffected by the 1848 Revolutions?  Or was it just that people change as their lives move on?

Did she get her confidence back in the 1850s?  She pretty much withdrew from public life after Albert’s death in late 1860.  Was it Disraeli who helped her to get her confidence back?  Or John Brown?   Whatever happened, something did, and I’m very glad about that.  The thought of those notebooks and all those comments about needing to “improve” … yes, the Victorians were very into self-improvement, and that was an extremely positive thing in terms of reading, evening classes, discussions at Athenaeums, and all that sort of thing, but, in the context of writing that your partner is perfect and you need to change … that is worrying.

The programme ended by going on about how important the partnership between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert was.  And, yes, they improved the image of the monarchy, and remade it, and Prince Albert did a lot of good in many aspects of his work.  But the thought of that notebook, and Albert reading it  … ugh.  That’s really quite upsetting.  Interesting programme.

Princess Alice: the Royals’ Greatest Secret – Channel 5

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I do wish that Channel 5 wouldn’t use such silly titles for their programmes.  Princess Alice isn’t a secret at all!  There’s been at least one previous documentary about her; there’s an excellent biography of her; she’s featured in dozens of other books and documentaries; and there was a lot of talk about her just two and a half years ago, when Prince William visited her grave during his trip to Jerusalem.

I always find her fascinating – partly because of her bravery in sheltering a Jewish family during the Nazi occupation of Greece, partly because of her Romanov connections, and partly because of the way she overcame severe mental illness and the really horrific “treatment” she was given for it, as well as coping with congenital deafness.  I always find the slightly mystical streak running through several members of the Hesse-Darmstadt branch of the family intriguing, as well.  I suspect that Prince Charles does too.

This didn’t say anything new, but it was all very interesting.  The combination of comments from “experts” and video footage from the time worked very well, although I could have lived without the references to “The Crown”.  Channel 5 have shown an awful lot of documentaries about the Windsors this year, and, whilst very watchable, they’ve got a bit samey.  This was something different.  What a fascinating woman!

As I said, it was nothing new to anyone who’s familiar with Princess Alice’s story, but what an amazing story it was!  Her birth in Windsor Castle, and her early years in Britain and Germany … although it didn’t mention her father’s naval career, for some reason.  Her marriage to Prince Andrea of Greece, adapting to a new country, her charitable and nursing work in Greece, and all the complexities of the Great War, the murders of her close relatives during the Russian Revolution, the political chopping and changing, the royal family being exiled and then returning, the Greco-Turkish War, and the military disaster which saw Andrea almost executed, and forced into exile.

Then their years in Paris, and Alice’s “religious crisis” and mental ill-health, and being bundled off by force to two sanatoria, where she underwent some really horrific treatment, at the behest of Sigmund Freud.  It’s like something from some horrible dystopian film, the idea of exposing someone’s ovaries to strong X-rays.  It’s a miracle that she ever recovered mentally from the treatment, never mind her initial illness.  And then one of her daughters was killed in a plane crash.

Then, after all that, she refused to leave Occupied Greece for safety in Britain or Sweden or anywhere else, and not only worked with the Red Cross but sheltered three members of a Jewish family in her home, saving their lives. She seemed to be being absorbed back into the British Royal Family at the time of Prince Philip’s wedding to the then Princess Elizabeth, but no, she went back to Greece, founded a nursing order of nuns, turned up at the Queen’s coronation in a nun’s habit, and then stayed on in Greece, despite financial problems, until the monarchy was overthrown again.  Then she lived out the rest of her life in Buckingham Palace … and was, eventually, buried on the Mount of Olives.

It’s an incredible story, and this documentary told it very well.  Thoroughly enjoyable watching.

And, going back to the irritating references to “The Crown”, maybe documentaries like this will remind people that royal families are actually real people, not soap opera characters.  How must Princess Alice have felt when that ridiculous 1950s Hollywood film was made about someone claiming to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, her teenage cousin who’d been brutally murdered?  Even the film version of Downton Abbey gave a very inaccurate impression of the relationship between Princess Mary and the future Earl of Harewood, which I don’t suppose their family were very pleased about.  Less soapy stuff, where real people are concerned, and more programmes like this one, please!

The Queen and the Coup (Channel 4) and King George VI: The Accidental King (Channel 5)

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The Queen and the Coup was very exciting in that it featured several interviews with my university personal tutor, whom I’m glad to see appears to have got over his penchant for wearing red and purple braces.  Lovely man.  It was very nice to see him on screen.   Other than that, the main point of the programme was to claim that the entire recent history of Iran, and of poor relations between Iran and the West, is down to American diplomats getting the Queen, our beloved monarch, mixed up with a luxury Cunard liner.  Right.  King George VI: The Accidental King was same old, same old – strict dad, stammer, Navy, supportive wife, wonderful dad, abdication of brother, war, death – but it was very watchable, and it’s so good to see George VI getting the credit he deserves.  It tends to be the flamboyant monarchs who get the attention, and they’re not always the ones who most deserve it.

The Queen and the Coup, then.  In the early 1950s, the Iranian government led by Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was planning to nationalise the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.  This was not good.  Not as bad as Nasser planning to nationalise the Suez Canal, but still not good.  The Anglo-Persian bigwigs were very cross.  So was Clement Atlee, who claimed to oppose British involvement abroad but was more interested in the oil money than his supposed policies/principles. The US also got involved, and it was decided to chuck out Mosaddegh and boost the power of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

However, there was a snag.  The Shah, being a bit of a wuss, wasn’t really up for this, and planned to scarper.  But then the Americans got a message to say that Queen Elizabeth thought the Shah was a jolly nice chap, and wanted him to stay.  This message was passed on to the Shah, who was so chuffed that he did, indeed, decide to stay.  Unfortunately, it turned out the Americans had got the wrong end of the stick.  The message was not from Her Majesty.  It was from RMS Queen Elizabeth, the Cunard liner, on which Anthony Eden (Attlee’s government having been ousted) was sailing to a conference in Canada.  They decided not to tell the Shah about this.  So he stayed.  And there was a coup.  And everything going on in Iran now, and indeed everything that’s gone on in Iran since 1953, is because of this.

Er, what about the 1979 coup?  And, seriously, the Shah stayed because he thought the Queen wanted him to?  I love the Queen, but that’s pushing it!  Was he after tickets for Ascot or the Royal Box at Wimbledon, or an invitation to a Buckingham Palace garden party, or something, and changed his mind about his own future and his entire country’s future because of it?   Come on!  But it was very nice to see my old personal tutor interviewed.

King George VI: The Accidental King was same old, same old, as I said, with the same team of gossips who’ve been around for all the new royal programmes which have been on Channel 5 recently.  But I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It’s so sad that he died so young, but it’s such an inspirational story – the big shot, glamorous, popular brother totally mucks up, and the shy, nervous brother, lacking in confidence but boosted by the love of his wife and children, takes over, and helps to lead the nation, the Empire and the Commonwealth through the darkest period in history.   Lovely, lovely programme.

I really am enjoying all these royal programmes.  Keep them coming!

Queen Mary: How She Saved The Royals – Channel 5

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I’m loving Channel 5’s royal season.  However, they will go for these rather sensationalist programme titles!   But, whilst I wouldn’t say that Queen Mary “saved” the Royals, she certainly played a very important role, especially at two very difficult times.  And she’s such a fascinating person – I sometimes wonder what such an intelligent, cultured woman really thought about all the huntin’, shootin’ fishin’, goings-on at Sandringham!   As the programme pointed out, she was also a very significant influence on our current Queen, making sure that she and Princess Margaret got a better and wider education that they might have done otherwise, and showing her the importance of duty.

Channel 5 tends to go for gossipy biographers rather than historians, I wasn’t impressed by all the references to “Mary” when she was always known as “May” – either say “Queen Mary” or “May”, but not just “Mary”! – and I dread to imagine where they found that American newsreel which got Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s name wrong, but this was generally a very enjoyable programme.  OK, it didn’t say anything new, but it was good to see a very under-rated Queen getting the attention she deserves.  It was also quite poignant to be reminded that her first fiancé, Prince Eddy, whose life and death tend to be overshadowed by all the gossip and speculation about him (the programme did resist the temptation to trot out the Jack The Ripper rumour!), died during the Russian/Asiatic flu pandemic of the early 1890s, which killed over a million people.  But back to Queen Mary …

We heard a bit about her early life.  It didn’t say much about her time in Florence, which was a shame, and I could have lived with fewer comments about her mother being embarrassing, but we did hear about her family’s financial problems and the dignified way in which she coped with them.  Then on to her engagement to Prince Eddy, and her eventual marriage to his brother, Prince George, and how well their marriage turned out.

They were criticised for being bad parents, and it’s hard to argue with that. To some extent they were products of their class and times, but not all parents were like that: we’re always told what a happy childhood their future daughter-in-law Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon had.  Having said which, I do think the programme was a bit hard on her in that respect.  But most of it was about her public role rather than her personal life.  It’s easy to underestimate what a precarious position the British Royals were in during and immediately after the First World War.  Thrones were toppling everywhere.  In fact, that started even earlier, if you look at Portugal.   There was also the issue of the Royals’ German links.

But they came through it so well.  The programme paid particular attention to Queen Mary’s work with women, and talked a lot about how hard she and King George worked to build ties with working-class communities.  As it said, they were both very conservative people, and it can’t have been easy for them to do things in such a different way, going on walkabouts, visiting coal mines, and so on.  It also made the point that she was quite a shy person, and so much going about in public and meeting different people must have been hard for her.  The same with her second son, George VI, and maybe even to some extent with our present Queen.  But they all did it, because of their sense of duty.

The one who didn’t share that, of course, was Queen Mary’s eldest son.  You can argue the rights and wrongs of the Abdication until the cows come home, but, in the world of 1936, it was not possible for the King to be married to a divorced woman.  It was another very dangerous time for the monarchy, and Queen Mary helped to pull it through.  Some very good points were made about how previous Dowager Queens had faded into the background (although I think that was rather simplifying things) but she kept on going, and broke precedents in doing so.

And then it talked about her influence on her granddaughter, our present Queen.  I think she’d be incredibly proud of her, and also of what a good job many other senior members of the Royal Family, especially William and Kate, are doing a this very difficult time.  As it said, in times of trouble, the Royal Family provide unity and stability.  Queen Mary was a part of that during the Great War, and behaved with such dignity during the Abdication Crisis which must have been so difficult for her personally.  She was a naturally conservative person who adapted successfully to changing times, and I find her particularly interesting as someone who was so well-read and cultured at a time when education for girls was not prioritised and in some circles was even frowned on.

Thanks again to Channel 5 for this series of royal documentaries.  They aren’t saying anything new, but they’re interesting, and they’re comfortable, and really we need that at the moment!  And they’re nice.  There’s way too much nastiness around at the moment, now that the “Spirit of the Blitz” of the early days of lockdown has faded.  This was nice.  Hooray for being nice!

 

 

 

Three Royal documentaries – Our Queen At War (ITV), Prince Philip (Channel 5), Princess Anne (Channel 5)

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Three Royal documentaries – Our Queen At War (ITV), Philip: the King without a Crown (Channel 5) and Anne: the Daughter who should be Queen (Channel 5).  None of them said anything we haven’t heard umpteen times before, but they were all quite interesting, especially so as I think they must have been filmed after lockdown – the first “lockdown era” documentaries I’ve seen which haven’t actually been about coronavirus issues.  The opinions of the “experts” were either just given by voiceover or else given over video links from their homes.  I think ITV had tarted theirs up a bit, but the Channel 5 ones were clearly home videos made on Zoom or Tik Tok or something similar.  And the ITV one used animated graphics, which was something different.   I’m not sure how the Queen’d feel about her teenage self being shown as an animated graphic, but I’d like to think she’d be quite amused by it!

With no live sport, soaps on ration, and no way of filming new episodes of most programmes until the end of lockdown, TV channels couldn’t be blamed too much if they just showed a lot of repeats – but they’d gone to the trouble of making these new programmes, and they deserve some kudos for that.

The one about Prince Philip was on first, and this really was largely just recycling old stuff.  Out came the video clips of Charles and Diana’s wedding, Diana’s funeral, etc etc, for the umpteenth time!  I’d really have liked to hear more about Philip’s early years, which aren’t discussed nearly as much – but, to be fair, the title of the programme made clear that it was about his role as consort.  The family stuff, whilst interesting, had been said a million times before, as had the sorry tale of his having to give up his naval career, but I enjoyed the discussions about his work, especially the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme.  It was an hour’s decent watching, anyway.

The one about the Queen’s wartime experiences followed a few days later.  Again, a lot of this was, whilst interesting, same old same old – the speech that she made from Windsor in 1940, and the bombing of Buckingham Palace, and she and Princess Margaret mingling with the crowds on VE Day.  I rather enjoyed all the romantic bits, though.  One of these days, history will see the Queen and Prince Philip’s relationship as one of the greatest royal romances of all time.  Walking round the grounds at Windsor hand-in-hand when he was on leave from the Navy.  Bless!   And, as the programme said, having a boyfriend (for lack of a better word) who was on active service gave the then Princess Elizabeth a greater understanding of what so many other women at the time were going through.

The general point of the programme was to emphasise the fact that the Queen, despite her privileged position, shared many of the wartime experiences that other people did, and how the war years shaped her; and it did a good job of that.  For one thing, we were reminded that she and Princess Margaret actually saw a flying bomb going overhead, before it landed very close by, at Windsor Racecourse. There were even some bits I don’t think I’d ever seen before, such as shots of evacuees from Glasgow on the Balmoral estate.  And I loved seeing the film clips of the Queen driving a truck whilst she was in the ATS!   Those clips aren’t often seen.  This was a very good hour’s TV, especially at the moment with the wartime generation proving such an inspiration during the coronavirus crisis.

Just as a slight aside, though, the fact that they’re now the oldest members of society means that the wartime generation have been hit very hard by this horrible virus.  It’s very sad to read about war veterans or Holocaust survivors, who’d come through so much, having their lives finally ended by this awful, awful thing.

Finally, we had the programme about Princess Anne.  I don’t know whether the title was just meant to attract attention or whether someone genuinely thought it was a valid statement.  I can’t imagine for one second that Princess Anne even wants to be Queen, and there’s certainly no “should” about it: she’s not the eldest.  And, whilst I think she’s amazing, it’s probably a job for someone a bit more tactful!  She is great, though!

One of the “experts” mispronounced everything from “primogeniture” to “governess” which was rather annoying, but it was a very good programme otherwise.  We went back through Anne’s early years, and how the media were quite negative about her in the early 1980s, and she was overshadowed by Diana and Fergie as well as by Charles, but how she earned huge respect because of her work with Save The Children and other charities.  There was also quite a lot about her equestrian career.  It didn’t mention A Question of Sport 🙂 , but it did mention her being Sports Personality of the Year in 1971, and competing at the Olympics on 1976.  It also emphasised the fact that she’s often been the first British Royal to make overseas tours to places which are sensitive for one reason or another, notably the Soviet Union – a very good point.

I remember the negative press she used to get, and was very pleased that this programme was almost entirely complimentary about her hard work and no-nonsense attitude.

She does a sterling job!   As do all the other senior royals – and they’ve been doing what they can in these difficult times.  Thank you to them, and thank you to ITV and Channel 5 for taking the trouble to make these new programmes.  I enjoyed all three of them.

Inside the Crown: Secrets of the Royals – ITV

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Watching this was like spending an hour reminiscing with old friends – some laughs, some sighs. They had a nerve calling it “Secrets of the Crown”, though. What secrets?!  At one point, they produced a document from the archives, and announced that … ta-da … it had cost £50 to hire all the chairs for the Queen and Prince Philip’s wedding. Hold the front pages!   And they must have spent a good five minutes discussing the creases in Diana’s wedding dress. I wasn’t really expecting any great revelations, though, and it was easy watching. And they kept going on about what a wonderful team the Queen and Philip make, and how theirs is the longest royal marriage in British history. Bless 😊.   Unsubtle use of “the Crown” in the title.  I haven’t got a Netflix sub, so I’ve never seen “The Crown”, but I’ve never been sure that I want to.  But I do like things like this.

This was supposed to be about balancing love and duty. A few bits had clearly been hastily shoved in at the last minute, after Harry and Meghan jumped ship, but I assume the rest of it had been filmed a while ago and that the timing was just a weird coincidence. Out came all the old stories! Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, and whether or not they sympathised with the Nazis. The establishment not being overly chuffed with Princess Elizabeth wanting to marry Prince Philip, and how she stood her ground. Was she ringing Philip from the telecommunications carriage on the train, during the 21st birthday tour of South Africa?  No idea, but I hope so. The much-told stories of how Queen Mary mistaking the traycloth that Gandhi sent them as a wedding present for a loincloth, and how people sent Princess Elizabeth their own clothing coupons – proving how wrong those grumpy MPs who said that people weren’t in the mood for a big royal wedding were. Never trust MPs!

The one part of the programme where they deviated from the traditional view of things was whilst discussing Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend.  Most people take the view that Princess Margaret decided she didn’t fancy giving up her royal status, but this showed documents agreeing that she could keep her royal status, and her Civil List income, and generally carry on as before, and that all she’d have had to give up was her place in the line of succession, which was irrelevant anyway because Prince Charles and Princess Anne were ahead of her. Their interpretation of events was that she just decided that Peter Townsend wasn’t Mr Right after all.   Who knows?  I don’t think anyone buys all that “mindful of the teachings of the church” stuff, though!

Then they brought up all the speculation in the late 1950s that all wasn’t well between the Queen and Prince Philip.  See, all the Royals get hassle from the press.  Remember all those headlines about “the Duchess of Pork”, “Sophie and the Fake Sheikh” and “Waity Katy”?  And it’s not just here – it happens to the royal families of other countries too.  How Harry and Meghan can be so self-obsessed as to make out that the media are picking on them in particular is beyond me.  Look at all the grief Camilla’s had to put up with.  It must be horrendous, but keep calm, be dignified, carry on, and it passes.

They were very even-handed, in this programme, with Charles and Diana, which I was impressed with – it annoys me when people try to vilify one or the other of them.  Can we just accept that it was a bad match?  They’re hardly the first people to have made bad choices of partner, and, if they’d been any other couple, they’d have split up very soon after the wedding.  It’s sad, though.  Easy to be wise after the event, but, looking now at the pre-wedding interviews, it was so obviously a disaster waiting to happen.  I’ve seen better chemistry between complete strangers.  Oh dear 😦 .

Finally, the latest generation of royal couples. High, and well-deserved, praise for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and especially for the Duchess. As for the Sussexes, enough’s been said about them over the last few weeks, and may they stay out of the headlines like they claim they want to.  But it was the Queen and Prince Philip who were the stars of the show.  As great royal romances go, theirs is right up there.

So, like I said, it was like reminiscing with old friends.  But there were definitely no secrets revealed!

The Queen’s Lost Family – Channel 4

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The title of this programme was very misleading – none of George V’s children were “lost”, with the arguable exception of Prince John, whom the programme never even mentioned – but it was quite an entertaining hour of serious talk about the changing role of the Royal Family, combined with a fair amount of gossip and scandal. OK, it didn’t really say anything new, despite making a big deal of having access to the newly-released letters and diaries of Princess Mary, Countess of Harewood, and it jumped around a lot; but still, I do love a bit of royal talk! It also made some good points about life in the Britain of the 1920s in general. It was too light on the gossip element, though: it never even named any of Prince George (the future Duke of Kent)’s alleged celeb lovers!

I’m not entirely sure what it was aiming to do, especially given the confusing title. Explore the relationships between George V’s children? It was lovely to see, from the letters, how close Mary was to her brothers, and especially to her eldest brother. She’s known to have been quite supportive of him over the Abdication Crisis. Make a point about how all George V’s children suffered from his strictness? I think he gets a bit of a raw deal, TBH. Many fathers of his class and generation were quite remote from their children – although he does, to be fair, seem to have been exceptionally strict. If they were trying to do that, they should really have said more about Bertie’s stammer: it wasn’t mentioned once. Nor was Prince John, which really was weird. There was just no reference to him at all, even in passing. Trace the lives of each of the children (well, except from John)? Maybe. Very little was said about either Mary or Bertie after their marriages, but I think it was focusing on the more glamorous and more scandalous siblings. It was a shame, really, because both Bertie and Mary did a lot of charity work, much of it in unglamorous places, and I think they deserved more attention than the programme gave them. But I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour. Minus adverts.

Or was it meant to be about the changing face of the Royal Family in the 1920s? That was certainly how it started. With the Romanovs murdered, and the Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs sent packing, the newly-renamed Windsors must have been more than a bit worried – and it’s to the eternal credit of King George V and Queen Mary that the British monarchy came through this period so strongly.  The programme made it sound as if the country had gone straight from the pre-1832 world of only the upper-classes being able to vote to the post-1918 world of all men and most women being able to vote, which was hardly accurate; but the general point that Britain in 1919 was a very different world to Britain in 1914 was fair enough. The independence movement in India was also covered, although, for some strange reason, Ireland wasn’t mentioned at all.

There were clips of the princes and princess carrying out royal engagements in all sorts of different places. Edward/David got to go on tours of the Empire: Bertie got to visit factories at home. There was also some interesting talk about Mary, and how she was stuck at home whilst her brothers were away at school or naval college, not really allowed to do anything and with no hope of escape other than marriage. Being a princess sounds so glamorous, but it really wasn’t … until Princess Margaret came along, and showed that princesses could go living it up on the town just as well as princes could! A good point was also made about how it was Mary’s wedding, the first time the daughter of a sovereign had married in Westminster Abbey since Edward I’s time, that set the tone for modern royal weddings, with huge crowds in the streets and widespread coverage in the media.

Edward/David missed it, because he was away on a royal tour. He came across as being incredibly annoying. There’s this image of him as the people’s prince, because of his “something must be done” talk after the famous visit to mining areas of the North East, but comments he made after the 1922 General Election and during the General Strike make it pretty clear that he wasn’t actually that keen on “the people” at all. And he did a lot of moaning about how hard his life was, but was quite happy to be a prince when it came to getting into all the best nightclubs and pulling plenty of attractive women. He even moaned about being expected to return from a tour of Kenya when his father fell seriously ill. Bertie, meanwhile, was living a life of eminent respectability, and genuinely trying to help the working classes by running his Boys’ Camps – which the programme didn’t mention.

Henry, Duke of Gloucester, is usually seen as the one who kept a low profile, but he created a bit of scandal of his own, getting involved with an unsuitable woman and installing her as his mistress in a house close to Buckingham Palace – whilst she was heavily pregnant with someone else’s child. He did make a career for himself in the Army, though. And then there was George, who ran wild. The programme was very unsympathetic towards him – OK, he did run wild, but saying that it was “irresponsible” to have homosexual affairs and get addicted to cocaine was a bit much!  “Irresponsible”?!

It was all very bitty, and the title was very silly, but there was some good stuff in it, both about the Royal Family and about the social and economic issues facing post Great War Britain.  Also, whereas the BBC would have spoilt this by shoehorning in their own political agenda and making a load of irrelevant references to modern political events, Channel 4 just talked about the period that the programme was about, and I appreciated that.   Not bad at all!

The Summer Queen by Margaret Pemberton

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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!

 

 

Victoria’s Palace – ITV 1

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Queen Victoria could eat a nine-course meal in half an hour. That’s pretty impressive. Prince Albert insisted that all leftovers from the Buckingham Palace kitchens had to be given to the poor. That’s even more impressive. Hopefully, none of this was until after the Palace kitchens had been tarted up to stop them getting flooded with sewage from the River Tyburn.  Parts of this programme felt like a genuine historical documentary, about the transformation of Buckingham Palace into both a centre of state occasions and formal entertainment and a working family home, and about Queen Victoria’s life in general.  Other parts of it made me wonder if I’d accidentally switched over to either a cookery programme or the ITV drama “Victoria” (how many clips from that did they show?!).  But it was all very watchable.  Hey, talking about food is always interesting!  And the presenters were very understanding about Queen Victoria’s struggles following the death of Prince Albert.

It started off covering what it said on the tin – the history of the Palace during the reign of Queen Victoria. We heard about how unhappy Queen Victoria was during her childhood at Kensington Palace, and how Buckingham Palace seemed like a glorious escape from all that. Then about how she and Prince Albert thought that Buckingham Palace was too small for their family (at a time when similar-sized families were all living in one or two rooms!!) and wanted a new wing built, but, to avoid putting too much of a strain on public finances, Brighton Pavilion was sold to fund the building work.

I’m not actually convinced that that’s right: I thought the money from the sale of the Pavilion was spent on the purchase of Osborne House. It was interesting to hear about how much stuff was brought from Brighton to Buckingham Palace, though, notably for the new Chinese drawing room, and even more interesting to hear about how this very lavish room was used on a day-to-day basis by the royals. You see these very ornate rooms in stately homes and wonder what it was like actually to live in them, especially with young kids, but I suppose it’s just what people are used to.

We also heard about the construction of the famous balcony, and saw a picture of Victoria, Albert and a load of others standing on it to welcome troops back from the Crimean War. I’m not sure whose idea the balcony was, but it was a stroke of genius! It’s been such a focal point on so many occasions, from royal weddings to VE Day. And it’s something that only the Royal Family can do. Would hordes of people turn up to see politicians stood on a balcony? I don’t think so.

However, after that, we were told that “food became the centre of Victoria’s life”, and the programme then wandered off into Mary Berry territory.  It was fascinating to hear about the conditions in the kitchens, and about just how much food was consumed.  It was nice actually getting to see the present-day Palace kitchens – although they were rather dull-looking, all stainless steel surfaces! – and it was even interesting to hear about how the old Palace kitchens, before Victoria and Albert’s renovations, regularly got flooded with sewage!  But I’m not sure that we really needed to see people making roast quails, or sitting at tables laden with food.  I wonder what ITV did with all the food afterwards!  I’m not sure that I really needed to know that eating so much rich food gave people flatulence, either, but never mind.

But then it was back to the more serious stuff, and we heard about Prince Albert tackling the inefficiency and corruption within the Royal Household, and his and Queen Victoria’s joint involvement in putting pictures from the Royal Collection on display and creating the Palace ballroom.  In a relatively short space of time, they really did do a very impressive job of turning a palace that hadn’t even been completed when Victoria first moved in, and that’d undergone a lot more work since then, into … well, one of the most important buildings in the world, a centre of politics and culture, the focal point of the nation.

As with the recent BBC 1 programme about the role of music in the lives of Victoria and Albert, the programme did a good job of showing just how completely everything changed when Prince Albert died.  I can’t believe they trotted out the idea that Prince Albert died because of the trauma of finding out about the Prince of Wales and Nellie Clifden, though.  OK, it didn’t help, but they didn’t half overplay its significance.  But they dealt very sensitively with the sadness of Victoria losing both her mother and her husband in the same year, and then withdrawing from public life … and, not unreasonably, they credited Disraeli with coaxing her back into it. Victoria does come in for a lot of criticism over what was seen as dereliction of duty, and it was touching to hear the programme explain that, in addition to her grief, she’d lost her self-confidence. It’s very hard to mix with anyone when you feel like that, never mind be the head of an empire.

Happier times lay ahead, with the opening up of the Palace for royal garden parties, and then the Golden Jubilee and Diamond Jubilee festivities, with Buckingham Palace and the Mall as the focal point for them.  The programme did have rather a feeling of one of those A-level history essays where you get off the point and then hastily shove in a reference to the actual essay question, with references to the Palace being shoehorned into talk about Queen Victoria’s life – I’m not sure that which room she met Disraeli in was really that relevant to anything! – but it did undoubtedly get across the point that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert transformed a palace which had only been owned by the Royal Family since 1761, and hadn’t really been used much until 1837, into one of the most important and best-known buildings in the world.

I recently went to see an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace and, even though it was early in the morning, and the Queen wasn’t even in residence, there were just hordes of people, from all over the world, standing outside, looking at the Palace, and taking photos.  The Gallery only opened in 1962, incidentally, and the main Palace only assumed its current appearance after building work in 1913.  It’s not all about Victoria and Albert!  But they were the ones who made it into a symbol of the nation and the monarchy, and, whilst this wasn’t the greatest historical documentary I’ve ever seen, it did explain that.

That’s two programmes I’ve seen about Queen Victoria within a few days.  Given how many programmes are being shown this month to mark the bicentennial of her birth, there will be lots more to come!