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The Quest for Queen Mary

13 February 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

After the death of a king or queen, a royal biography is duly commissioned. It appears, appropriately reverent, its subject cleansed of blemishes and imperfection. Such was the case in 1959, six years after Queen Mary, the wife of King George V and grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II, had died at the age of 85. That year a 43-year-old writer, James Pope-Hennessy, published Queen Mary’s official biography, a work of 654 pages, to high acclaim.

Pope-Hennessy’s three years of exhaustive research had taken him all over Europe to interview members of royal families—among them Mary’s German relations—and their entourages. He kept copious notes, much of their contents not included in the official biography, and insisted that they not be made public for 50 years. He died in 1974, the victim of an attempted robbery on his apartment.

The Quest for Queen Mary,” edited by Hugo Vickers, is a collection of the author’s notes and essays. The result is a delightful and highly indiscreet account of the sheer craziness of royal life. Pope-Hennessy had a novelist’s ear for dialogue and a keen eye for the absurd. The Princess Pauline of Württemberg, a cousin of Queen Mary, was “enormously fat, with a huge red face like an old baby, one tooth in her top jaw which she kept coyly covering with a potelée [plump] hand, clipped white hair like cotton wool (shaven at the neck like a general) and an expression of delighted benevolence; jammed against her table she looked like a greedy child on a high chair.”

The nobility, Pope-Hennessy observes, are self-absorbed and have short attention spans. “They usually forget what they have asked you when you are in the midst of a reply, and you find they have moved on to a discussion of flying-saucers or drinking habits in Zanzibar.” Moreover, they have to stand all the time. When he asks why, a lady-in-waiting explains this was so as not to embarrass people when the royal walked away. “Royalties,” she noted, “have very good legs.”

. . . .

The Queen of Sweden is an example of how disconnected from the real world the royals were. She was extremely modest and when in London stayed at the Hyde Park Hotel, always carrying a note in her handbag that read, “I am the Queen of Sweden,” in case she was knocked over. Members of her family thought that was the surest way to get locked up.

Pope-Hennessy describes Queen Mary’s third son, the hard-drinking Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, as “one of the finest and most authentic specimens of the race available for study today. He is tall and bulky, and his head is wonderfully Hanoverian, flat at the back and rising to the real pineapple point of William the Fourth. He has protruding Guelph eyes.” The Duke’s laugh was “an hysterical piglet squeal which becomes uncontrollable and which I found very infectious.” Prince Henry disliked the constant handshaking required of royals. “It broke my father’s hand once. And the Duke of Windsor’s hand. Broke ’em.” And he comes up with one of the book’s best lines. “Funny shape for a country, Holland. Damn funny shape.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal


Non-Fiction