Royalties are buried with ceremonial fanfare. What they never hear is the scratch of the pen by their biographers, as they scavenge among diaries, letters and papers to reconstruct a papier-mâché effigy of the deceased.
Relations try to control that image by commissioning official biographies, retaining the right to audit the final account. Queen Victoria set the pattern by commissioning Sir Theodore Martin to write the biography of her beloved Albert. Martin compressed Albert’s 42 crowded years into five volumes, published between 1875 and 1880. It was less a biography than a hologram in print.
Albert’s son and Victoria’s heir Edward VII had to wait 17 years before Sir Sidney Lee completed his biography. King George V was served by two historians – John Gore who wrote King George V: a personal memoir (1941) and Harold Nicolson’s subsequent and official King George the Fifth: His Life and Reign (1952).
Neither dared to include references to the diaries of the king’s doctor Lord Dawson. He recorded that ‘he hastened the King’s death’ in 1936 by injecting him with two lethal injections of morphine and then cocaine. Dawson accelerated the King’s last breaths so that his passing could be announced in the morning edition of The Times newspaper rather than catch the ‘less appropriate … evening journals’.
The biography by James Pope-Hennessy of George’s consort – Queen Mary 1867-1953 (published in 1959) – was the first of any royal consort after Albert. Like the stately ocean liner that still bears her name, the book sails grandly through the turbulence of her troubled early days as a neo-royal, her abortive six-week long engagement to Prince Albert Victor (incidentally, he laid the foundation stone of the present Lahore Museum in February 1890), her marriage to his younger brother George, their bland life together until his death in 1936, her son Edward VIII’s abdication, her cementing role as the dignified Dowager Queen Mother, until her death in 1953. Pope-Hennessy’s work, described by an admirer as ‘a work of pure genius’, has become a model of royal taxidermy.
Pope-Hennessy was careful to remove all perishable organs, even her reputedly cold heart upon which he expected to find the word ‘India’ inscribed (after her bejewelled tour as Queen-Empress of imperial India in 1911). The image Mary projected of regal hauteur was born of chronic shyness that camouflaged itself behind condescending aloofness. Few knew that in fact Mary had sublimated her passions to her official role. Before her marriage, she had fallen in love with Lord Hopetoun (later 1st Marquess of Linlithgow), and later nursed a reciprocated passion for Queen Victoria’s son-in-law Prince Henry of Battenberg – a generation her senior.
These and other royal tit-bits are contained in The Quest for Queen Mary (2018), edited by Hugh Vickers from notes maintained by James Pope-Hennessy of the interviews he conducted with Queen Mary’s British and foreign relatives, friends, and royal households. One can understand why Pope-Hennessy omitted the seasoned courtier Sir Alan Lascelles’ observation: ‘George V was by far and away and without question the most physically repulsive man he had ever seen.’ Or Queen Mary’s comparison between her two daughters-in-law – Elizabeth (mother of the present Queen) and Marina Duchess of Kent. Elizabeth may have had Scottish ancestry but Marina being a real princess (albeit of Greece) came as ‘such a relief’.
Queen Mary herself had German and British blood in her veins. Since the import of King George I from Hanover in 1714, Great Britain was a British kingdom ruled over by a dynasty of Teutonic origins. Mary’s closest confidant, for example, remained her British-born German aunt Augusta, Grand-Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. She maintained a lively correspondence with her until Augusta turned radically pro-German and wrote ‘such dreadful letters’ that Mary gave up answering them. It took two World Wars and a change of name from Saxe-Coburg Gotha to Windsor for Mary to abjure her Germanic paternity. Pope-Hennessy records that in January 1941 she admitted: ‘I did not realise that I could really hate people as I do the Germans, tho’ I never liked them.’
Anyone intending to attempt a biography is well-advised to read Pope-Hennessey’s brilliantly etched notes: Grand Duchess Augusta – ‘a complacent partridge’; the exiled Grand Duchess Xenia (sister of Nicholas II) – ‘an exceedingly nervous wild bird’; the Duchess of Windsor – ‘flat and angular, [like] a medieval playing card’. Pope-Hennessy permeated through the protective membrane of courtiers, though not always successfully. He arrived at Hampton Court palace to interview Grand Duchess Xenia and encountered the protective ‘sinister’ Russian nun Mother Marfa. After making Pope-Hennessy repeat his name twice for accuracy, Marfa introduced him as: “Mr. Poke-Henderson, Your Imperial Highness!”
Royal biographers swallow such slights, so long as they can capture and preserve their royal quarry.
Fakir Syed Aijazuddin is an internationally known Pakistani writer and columnist