Saturday, 14 December 2013

Thoughts on a Walk with the late Queen Mary

Royalty has always fascinated me. This has a lot to do with genealogy. When I was relatively young, I had three favourite books - I, Claudius (Robert Graves), Lord of the Rings (J R R Tolkein), and Victoria R I (Elizabeth Longford), and they had one thing in common - in the back of each of them were extensive family trees, which I could copy and re-draft to my heart's content. The Roman Imperial family is so incestuous and multiply-married, that it is almost impossible to draft it on one (large) sheet without repeating names (although I did once manage it!). Tolkein's family trees lost a little by being made up. But royal family trees are manageable. They are not generally too incestuous, apart from the Habsburgs in the 16th and 17th centuries, and then they become absolutely hilarious (and finally concentrated genetic defects into the Spanish branch to such a degree that they died out, which is funny in itself - they were so grand that they could only marry other Habsburgs, and it was their own undoing).

The British royal family has never shied from cousin marriages, but has preferred not to repeat the process too closely over successive generations. It's as if someone is keeping quite a close eye on the quality of the bloodstock - in much the same way as I suspect Her Present Majesty pores over the bloodlines of her racehorses. As both the Queen and Prince Philip are descendants of Queen Victoria, it was immediately easy to see how. They are also, and more closely, descended from King Christian IX of Denmark, although in different generations, but as the Queen's great-grandmother was a Princess of Denmark, and Prince Philip before his marriage a Prince of Greece and Denmark, that too wasn't tricky to trace. What I wasn't expecting was that King George V and Queen Mary would be cousins. This was delightful, because I took a shine to Queen Mary from quite early on.

It began, I think, with a book of cartoons ("We Are Amused") published, no doubt, in the Silver Jubilee Year (1977), and a depiction of contrasts - Queen Mary and the new Queen Elizabeth (known for half a century in her widowhood as the Queen Mother). It is very simply drawn, but in a few lines the cartoonist has shown a difference in style - Queen Elizabeth is all curves and smiles and a gay tiara, Queen Mary is all stern lines and a severe toque. It is marvellously done. I instantly preferred Queen Mary. I have never been drawn to try drag, for which the world gives an intermittent sigh of thanks, but if I ever were, hers is the style I'd aim for. And that is what I wanted to learn something more about, so a little while ago I sent off for the official biography by James Pope-Hennessey.

To be honest, I wasn't all that hopeful. "Official" biographies are likely to be heavy on detail, and access to records, but thin on real critique, and I thought the book's only real merit would be some unfamiliar photographs. I was very happily disappointed in this expectation. The prose flows at a pace, and despite the author's obvious regard for his subject, he pulls no punches about her failings and weaknesses, complexities and contradictions, and I found myself being drawn in to her story, and drawn to her character. After quite a long time reading - it's quite a long book - I was left pondering why I had enjoyed it so much, and I think here's why.

Princess May of Teck was born as a poor relation to two royal families. Her father, Francis, Duke of Teck, was a scion of the royal house of Wurttemburg, but, because his parents' marriage was morgantic (the father royal, the mother merely noble), he was excluded from the succession. So, he wasn't much of a catch, and was on the look-out for someone else who wasn't, and he found her in Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge. Her father, the first duke of Cambridge, was a son of King George III, so Mary Adelaide was a first cousin of Queen Victoria, in that remarkably thin generation considering that King George and Queen Charlotte had fifteen children. She had an allowance for life from Parliament, but no capital, no prospect of ever inheriting her very fertile cousin's throne, was thirty years old, and more than merely buxomly overweight. In her kindly family, she was even known as "Fat Mary". But to everyone's delight, these two also-rans made a go of it, and had four children - Princess May, and then three sons. As well as eating all the pies, Princess Mary Adelaide was also a party animal, and a spendthrift. Prince Francis was an enthusiast for furniture and decoration. Within no time they were massively in debt, and on the brink of her teens, Princess May accompanied her parents into exile in Europe at the firm suggestion of Queen Victoria, and her mother's brother, Prince George, the second Duke of Cambridge. The Duke was head of the army, and the Queen was head of everything, so there was no arguing. I had had a hunch that the "poor relation" status was very important in the formation of Queen Mary's character, and Mr Pope-Hennessey confirmed this richly.

After their rehabilitation in England - and it can hardly be stressed how enormously popular Prince Mary Adelaide was - the family's star rose markedly when Queen Victoria was looking for a consort for her heir's heir. This was a new thing. Kings and Queens, well-upholstered though they were, didn't live so long in those days. Victoria had grown bored of German princes (whatever would Albert have thought?) and wanted someone closer to home for her grandson to marry. But she wasn't that keen on the nobility, either. Princess May of Teck was perfect - royal, British (born and raised, ignore the genealogy), and malleable. Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, although he had a certain debonair look, wasn't much of a catch. Half-witted, louche, and unpredictable, he would probably have made a less than indifferent king. Fortunately for England, the Grim Reaper played an early card, and Princess May was jilted some months before the altar. There then followed a fascinating grooming process, in which it is quite clear Victoria intended to hang on to May, and to fix her up with Albert Victor's brother, George, Duke of York. He was actually a much better bet. Less of a party animal, a bit solemn, but dedicated and devoted and dutiful. And grateful. Both of them took the bait, they married, and the Queen was delighted. They remained married for the next 42 years. Despite both coming from rather warm families, and having decidedly gushing and clinging mothers, George and May were personally diffident and emotionally awkward. Their expressions of love were made in letters, not face to face. King George told the BBC person about his broadcast of thanks to his people for their enthusiastic kindness in his silver jubilee year (1935) that they must move his words of thanks to the Queen to the end, because if he had to say them at the beginning, he wouldn't be able to continue.

HSH Princess May of Teck became HRH the Duchess of York, and settled herself into a most engaging new task - discovering, and re-inventing, the monarchy. She had a very strong sense of history (Mr Pope-Hennessey doesn't fault this, although he trashes her taste in art), and of her own descent from George III, and saw in the trappings of the various royal households models of how royalty can be lived. Her great-grandfather was famously nicknamed "Farmer George" and it is either fortuitous, or great good sense, that she chose this as the style on which her own royal family would be modelled. She and King George lived at "York Cottage" on the Sandringham Estate, not a cottage in the language that you or I might use, but a bagatelle compared to Buckingham Palace, or Windsor Castle, or even Sandringham itself. I don't think it was a plan, certainly not at first, maybe not ever, but its consequence was to make a domestic monarchy. Not, like the Scandinavian monarchies (which, like our own, all survived the wars and other tempests of the 20th century) one of riding bikes in public, but one which wore crowns in public, but sat on sofas having tea in private. And, just like the bicycling Scandinavians, we knew that, and she meant us to.

The reasons for this are interesting. There is her own family's financial disaster, but also an awareness which few British princesses will have had until then of what it was like to live poor. Princess Mary Adelaide, for all her taste for the high life, took her children not only to gawp at the poor, but into their homes. She, and her daughter, sewed and embroidered, for the sake of children whose mucky feet they had actually seen. Clearly she found something attractive about what we might think of as "normal" domesticity. I doubt she ever had to cook, but were occasion to demand, she would have risen to the challenge. She was content to spend night after night boringly at the palace with the increasingly ungregarious King, but on the other hand, when there was royal work to be done, she would be decked out in pearls and diamonds to impress the empire of which she was Empress. She regularly wore a brooch made from two of the smaller gems cut from the Cullinan Diamond. Her Present Majesty and Princess Margaret referred to them as "Grannie's chips". Together, they were over 100 carats of first rate gemstone. Yet, when the war of 1914 broke out, and she had rallied her sewing and embroidering forces for the troops - within two days! - she had a radical re-think the next week when she was warned that all this freebie knitware was putting women out of work. So, she re-drafted the operation. That I think is remarkable in English history - for a crowned queen to have an understanding of the economics of the poorest household, and wish rather to improve, than to undermine, its circumstances.

Queen Mary arrived at her throne with a very strong sense of what the monarchy could be, but also with a sense of how it must change with the times if it was to survive. Her own mother was popular in the 1860s, when her cousin Queen Victoria, in her self-indulgent widowed seclusion at Windsor, was lighting the fires of republicanism. She knew that monarchy had to be seen, had to be charming, had to listen. And it had to do its duty. In her husband, she found the perfect partner for her enterprise - George V was just about as dutiful a monarch as we have ever had. When he had to appoint a Labour Prime Minister and cabinet in 1922, for the first time, he wore a red tie for the occasion, in the hope that it would make his new ministers feel at home. He learnt to use the radio, and to do it well. And he and Queen Mary were seen from time to time as grandparents, mainly to our present Queen, and her sister Margaret. Queen Victoria was never a public grandmother - a mother of nine, she much preferred her Empire to her family.

Queen Mary also had a profound sense of needing to learn, which I found most endearing. Like most girls of even merely aristocratic class, she knew her education had not been a priority. She was fluent in French and German, but that was about as far as it went, but throughout her life she was a culture vulture, fascinated by galleries and paintings and sculptures, and by the theatre and productions both old and new. "The Mouse Trap", Agatha Christie's play, which is still running in London after over sixty years, was Queen Mary's idea. Every time she went on a foreign jaunt, in her youth for novelty, in later life, for duty, she brought books with her, and read them, to learn about the places she was going to, most dedicatedly about India, which she visited as Princess of Wales in 1905, and again in 1912 for the Delhi Durbar, where her husband became the only English monarch to claim his title to India actually in India, in person. And even then, she gained approbation in certain quarters for wanting to know not only what went on in the "purdah" of the gentlewomen, but also the lives of the ordinary women of her Empire.

She was no firebrand, of course, and her interest in change came up against inflexibilities, one of which was her elder son's abdication. She simply couldn't understand it. Here he was, a pampered boy, who'd had every opportunity, never had a worry for himself, nor for anyone he cared for, been to university, travelled the world, seen and done things she never could have, and all he had to do by way of repayment, was his duty. She had married a dead man's brother, and learnt to love him (and she never forgot her feelings for Albert Victor, however naive and slight we might think them from our lofty vantage point). And here was her son throwing away a crown and an empire for a woman so indecisive that she had been divorced twice. In her own writings there is heavy censoriousness for his dereliction of duty, but there is also a mother's concern that he has paid over the odds for damaged goods, who would never make him happy. The Duke of Windsor has described his mother as "icy", but he has also used fonder words, and he may not fully have understood, being a rather selfish man, quite the position he had put her in.

The abdication was a disaster, but one from which the royal family rose in triumph - thanks largely to the late Queen Mother, and her daughters. For years England had known a loyal and dedicated, but coughing and poorly, king, and now it had a family again. Like his mother, King George VI took on a role that was now expected of him, with no great relish, but with distinction. Queen Mary retreated to the background, although she broke convention by attending her son's coronation. And the Second World War made all things new, for everyone in the realm (if they survived). One victim was her nephew-in-law, the Duke of Beaufort, with whom she was billeted in evacuation during the war at Badminton House. She didn't like the ivy. So it was cut down. There were worse losses in the war.

She lived to see her favourite grandchild become Queen. She would far rather not have done. George VI was the third of her sons to die before her, and the famous photograph of her with the Queen Mother greeting the new Queen on her return from Kenya after the King's death, is hauntingly sad. She left the strictest orders, knowing that she was dying, that it must make not one whit of difference to the coronation festivities, which happened two months later in 1953. Duty, always. Even in dying.

I was wrong about Prince William's title. I had thought Cambridge wouldn't be used again so soon. I had reckoned without Queen Mary's towering influence on our modern monarchy, on the House of Windsor. Her elder brother was made Marquess of Cambridge. Her mother was Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge. Her Present Majesty was making a point - she's one of "granny's chips" off the old block.


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