Deborah and Gerald Strober
Hutchinson, pp550Robert Lacey’s Majesty, published 25 years ago to mark the 1977 Silver Jubilee, made its author a rich man. By obligingly reigning for another quarter century, the Queen has offered Lacey the possibility of becoming a very rich man indeed. His sequel has ‘bestseller’ written all over it. Royal sidesteps the challenge of turning a mere 25 years into a lengthy new tome by neatly including a well-paced, although selective, history of the royal family since the last major jubilee, to mark Queen Victoria’s 60 years on the throne in 1897. The coy deference that so many people – including, Lacey claims, an embarrassingly fawning Alastair Campbell – still show towards the royal family is nothing new. But neither is dissent. George Bernard Shaw, writing anonymously in the Pall Mall Gazette, complained just before Victoria’s half-century celebration: ‘Were a gust of wind to blow off our sovereign’s head-gear tomorrow, “the Queen’s bonnet” would crowd Bulgaria out of the papers.’ And when Victoria visited the East End, the celebration was marred by what Lord Salisbury called ‘a horrid noise’. It was known, an aide explained to Her Majesty, as ‘booing’ and was attributed to ’socialists and the worst Irish’. But mentions of such impoliteness are few and far between in Lacey’s decorous vista. ‘Tradition’ is the idol that justifies the Establishment’s sclerotic attitude toward the monarchy. But Lacey reminds us inadvertently that much of that surrounding the monarchy is entirely fabricated. Victoria chose the sobriquet ‘diamond’ for her sixtieth jubilee, inspired by a wedding anniversary concept dreamt up by greetings card manufacturers. And it was Edward VII who invented a catalogue of almost bizarre traditions now regarded as sacrosanct. The opening of Parliament, which Victoria considered so unimportant that she delegated it to her son for the last four decades of her life, was reinvented by Edward. ‘He never tired,’ wrote Wilfred Scawen Blunt, ‘of putting on uniforms and taking them off.’ He introduced Black Rod knocking on doors and the practice of courtiers walking backwards. Lacey doesn’t remind us that, when the current Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine suggested five years ago that walking backwards was perhaps incautious in a legislature full of elderly people, he was lampooned by traditionalist peers for ‘defiling history’. He had, of course, a much better sense of its very temporary nature than his detractors. And even the Queen was happy to curtail the ‘hallowed’ state opening ceremony last summer, days after the people had expressed their democratic will in a general election, so that she could hurry off to an afternoon’s racing at Ascot. That also appears to have passed the author by. Some of Lacey’s aperçus are inadvertently subversive. Camilla Parker Bowles’s great-grandmother Alice Keppel was not the first member of her family to provide sexual favours to royalty. Sixteen-year-old Arnold Joost van Keppel came to Britain from Holland in 1688 as the lover of William III. He was duly rewarded with the earldom of Albemarle. Other titbits are bashfully restrained. Lacey acknowledges the incorrect rumours – fleetingly peddled by Daily Mail gossip columnist Nigel Dempster – that the royal racing manager Lord Carnarvon might have been Prince Andrew’s father. But he doesn’t mention, or is not aware of, the discreet house party observations of some close to the Queen that the Duke of York also shares a remarkable similarity in physiognomy with another, rather more senior, peer. The years since the Silver Jubilee should have provided a rich opportunity to analyse the most embattled period the royal family has suffered since the abdication crisis. The extra-marital dalliances of the Prince and Princess of Wales are just one rich seam, alongside a catalogue of toe-sucking, drug use and ‘fake sheikhs’ which makes a series of Dynasty look improbably contrived. But a pacy guided tour of these events provides no new insight. Despite diligently trawling secondary sources, Lacey failed to spot the doorstopping tomes of Woodrow Wyatt’s Diaries . The Queen Mother’s reported concern that the Tories should stay in power, the revelations that she has ‘reservations’ about Jews and that in private the Windsors ‘often drink a toast at dinner to Mrs Thatcher’ were shattering stuff, unless you don’t like to frighten the monarchist horses. And Lacey fails to offer any new understanding of why the royal family behave as they do. When 20-year-old Prince Charles returned one evening to Windsor Castle after his first, successful, tour of Wales in 1969 he was mortified to find that his family had all already gone to bed, his efforts unrecognised. A more courageous biographer might have observed that this curious dysfunctionality between members of the royal family offers far better an explanation of today’s ‘battles between the palaces’ than the mere personalities of the here-today, gone-tomorrow courtiers involved. For sharp-eyed loyalists, however, a far more damaging howler will be the author’s recollection of Princess Diana’s funeral. ‘As the gun-carriage came past the Palace, Elizabeth II slowly and deliberately bowed her head,’ Lacey reports. ‘A trifle less readily, her sister and mother repeated the gesture.’ It was certainly not obvious to anyone else that Princess Margaret bowed her head. And the Queen Mother was not there at all. Lacey does not offer the constitutional or personal perspectives of Ben Pimlott or Sarah Bradford, probably the most penetrating biographer of the Queen. He certainly doesn’t offer the gentle humour of Theo Aronson. But he provides a rose-tinted, genial tour d’horizon of the history of the Windsors in which, diplomatically, the only real criticism is made of the dead. On hundreds of thousands of middle England coffee tables, it will sit very nicely. The Monarchy, An Oral History of Elizabeth II, is just as carefully timed as Royal but offers more satisfying illumination. It is an assiduously compiled narrative of the Queen’s reign from the view both of public figures and ‘ordinary’ people. From a stud farm manager at Newmarket to Nelson Mandela, criticism is still limited in scope, but candour is not in short supply either. The only impediment the book’s American authors do suffer is that, as outsiders, they fail sometimes to read the nuances of our endlessly complicated social hierarchies. Lord Archer must have appeared a splendidly serious catch when he agreed to an interview. He claimed solemnly: ‘The Queen will say “Lord Archer”, where all the children say “Hello Jeffrey”.’ In a newly discovered world of gold sticks and pursuivants-in-waiting walking backwards, it must have seemed all too plausible at the time.