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The Purple Moth

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I remember distinctly the first time I read James Pope-Hennessy’s Queen Mary. It was a scorching hot August afternoon in Umbria. Retreating indoors in search of shade, I picked up the fat paperback I had dithered about packing, begrudging the weight it would add to my Ryanair baggage allowance. Like so many paperbacks taken on holiday, I expected it to disappoint, but I was instantly gripped.

Re-reading the book today, it still seems astonishingly modern and fresh. It’s hard to believe that it was published as long ago as 1959. Even harder to credit that this is a royal biography, and an authorized one at that. Royal biographers in the 1950s were obliged to obey strict rules. When Harold Nicolson began work on his official life of George V, he was interviewed by Sir Alan (‘Tommy’) Lascelles, the King’s private secretary and keeper of the Royal Archives, who told him: ‘You will be writing a book on the subject of a myth and will have to be mythological.’ He was not to write anything that was not true, but he was expected to omit things that were discreditable.

As the official biographer of George V’s consort, Queen Mary, who died in 1953, Pope-Hennessy wrote under the same constraints. But he was incapable of writing the sort of tight-lipped, sycophantic book he was expected to produce. For a royal biography such as Sidney Lee’s Edward VII he had nothing but contempt, dismissing it as ‘a disquieting example of how a positive and flamboyant personality living a life glittering in interest can be made to seem dead and dull on the printed page, crushed flat between the boards of an octavo binding like a large purple moth’. Crushing the purple moth was what Pope-Hennessy wanted to avoid.

There were incidents in Queen Mary’s career, however – notably the Abdication crisis – which were highly sensitive, and many people who knew her were still alive. The heavy-chinned queen, with her toque hats and her ramrod-str

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I remember distinctly the first time I read James Pope-Hennessy’s Queen Mary. It was a scorching hot August afternoon in Umbria. Retreating indoors in search of shade, I picked up the fat paperback I had dithered about packing, begrudging the weight it would add to my Ryanair baggage allowance. Like so many paperbacks taken on holiday, I expected it to disappoint, but I was instantly gripped.

Re-reading the book today, it still seems astonishingly modern and fresh. It’s hard to believe that it was published as long ago as 1959. Even harder to credit that this is a royal biography, and an authorized one at that. Royal biographers in the 1950s were obliged to obey strict rules. When Harold Nicolson began work on his official life of George V, he was interviewed by Sir Alan (‘Tommy’) Lascelles, the King’s private secretary and keeper of the Royal Archives, who told him: ‘You will be writing a book on the subject of a myth and will have to be mythological.’ He was not to write anything that was not true, but he was expected to omit things that were discreditable. As the official biographer of George V’s consort, Queen Mary, who died in 1953, Pope-Hennessy wrote under the same constraints. But he was incapable of writing the sort of tight-lipped, sycophantic book he was expected to produce. For a royal biography such as Sidney Lee’s Edward VII he had nothing but contempt, dismissing it as ‘a disquieting example of how a positive and flamboyant personality living a life glittering in interest can be made to seem dead and dull on the printed page, crushed flat between the boards of an octavo binding like a large purple moth’. Crushing the purple moth was what Pope-Hennessy wanted to avoid. There were incidents in Queen Mary’s career, however – notably the Abdication crisis – which were highly sensitive, and many people who knew her were still alive. The heavy-chinned queen, with her toque hats and her ramrod-straight back and her jutting bosom armoured with diamonds, presented a daunting prospect. Yet Pope-Hennessy succeeded in writing a serious life, based on archives and fully footnoted, which reads like a romantic novel – a masterpiece of royal biography. His book has never been superseded. Queen Mary begins thus: ‘One late April day in the year 1867 a letter from England reached Schloss Reinthal, the turreted, ochre-coloured castle of the von Hügel family, hidden in the fir woods of the Styrian hills, within an easy distance of Graz.’ This is a somewhat unexpected opening sentence for a book about a British queen; but we are immediately drawn into the little-known world of Queen Mary’s German relations. The letter in question was written by the Duke of Teck to his sister, announcing the forthcoming birth of the child who was to become Queen Mary. Pope-Hennessy had evidently visited the schloss, which he described with the eye of a travel writer, and he added a generous sprinkling of fairy dust. No one has written better about the ‘calm, doomed world’ of the late-nineteenth-century small German courts, with their litanies of titles, their uncomfortable houses, their stifling etiquette and their inedible 5 p.m. dinners for which they dressed in ‘full fig’. This was the world in which Queen Mary spent much of her childhood, an by the end of her life she was the only member of her family who could unravel the genealogical tangle of her German relations. By building a detailed and sympathetic picture of life in the court at Strelitz or the schloss at Rumpenheim, Pope-Hennessy was able to steer breezily round the allegation that Queen Mary was more German than English, and to show that it was only to be expected that she should be on friendly terms with Kaiser Wilhelm II. Princess May, as she was always known, became Queen Mary when she was 43, and she was 68 when George V died in 1936. An official biographer might be expected to place the tumultuous years of the reign at the centre of his narrative. Pope-Hennessy, however, was not a conventional official biographer, and he glided swiftly over the middle years of Queen Mary’s life. Devoting a mere 120 of the book’s 622 pages to the reign, he lavished attention on the early life of Princess May – it took him 420 pages to reach 1910. The real achievement of the book is to bring into sharp focus the young Princess May and her family. The unsmiling, painfully shy princess of the photographs was reinvented as a high-spirited but thoughtful young woman. One of the strongest characters in the book is May’s mother, the larger-than-life Duchess of Teck – chronically unpunctual, pathologically untidy, hugely fat and overflowing with goodwill. ‘Fat Mary’s’ gushing letters, dashed off at speed, are counterpointed by the crushing snubs she received from her disapproving first cousin, Queen Victoria. Pope-Hennessy brilliantly reconstructs a life spent on the precarious fringes of royalty, where money was always short and houses were always borrowed. The Duke of Teck was the product of a morganatic marriage. May’s status was ambivalent. She was not eligible to become the wife of a small German prince; and lack of cash meant that the British aristocracy didn’t see her as a catch. Neither of these drawbacks disqualified May from marrying the king of England. Though a poor relation, May was Protestant, royal and – most important of all – she was English. Aged 24 May waschosen by Queen Victoria to marry Prince Eddy, Duke of Clarence, the feckless eldest son of Edward VII. Eddy had become involved in a hopeless romance with Hélène, Catholic daughter of the Duke of Orléans, and when that was broken off, May was brought in as a sensible solution. Eddy died of pneumonia six weeks after the engagement, and the following year Queen Victoria brokered May’s marriage to Eddy’s younger brother, the future George V. Pope-Hennessy hints – and it is no more than a hint – at the financial collapse of May’s incurably extravagant parents, which forced them to auction their belongings and retire to Florence to economize. Modern commentators have suggested that this humiliating episode scarred May for life, leaving her with a lifelong hunger for valuable objects, which bordered on kleptomania. Pope-Hennessy merely remarks that ‘had she not been Queen Consort she would have made an admirable and efficient museum curator’. But Pope-Hennessy was no sentimentalist. Like Lytton Strachey’s biography of Queen Victoria, Queen Mary combines affection for the subject with wicked irony and wit. As Harold Nicolson wrote: ‘It is perfectly respectful; yet one can see the angels smile, and the chuckle of the devils is so subdued that only an ear as acute as Princess May’s own could detect their laughter.’ Pope Hennessy was fortunate to discover in lady-in-waiting Lady Geraldine Seymour an observer who charted the fortunes of the Teck family with a pen dipped in acid. Queen Mary’s aunt Augusta, Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, was another sharp-tongued observer of the English court whose letters provided the biographer with grit for his oyster. The charge against Queen Mary which the biographer must address concerns her failure to stand up to her husband, especially over his disastrous bullying of his sons. It is also claimed that she did not do enough to heal the family rift which culminated in the abdication of Edward VIII. Pope-Hennessy’s explanation is simple. Queen Mary, he tells us, was consumed by a passion for the British monarchy which ruled her entire life. She was not in the least afraid of her husband, but once he became king she would no longer contradict him. Her existence was devoted to smoothing his path. The notion that she sublimated her true feelings to the service of the monarchy has gained wide acceptance, and there is a good deal of truth in it, but I wonder whether Pope-Hennessy himself was entirely convinced. Some of the notes he wrote about the research he did for Queen Mary were published after his death in an entertaining and frank collection entitled A Lonely Business. Among them is an account of an interview he had with the Duke of Windsor. Pope-Hennessy remarked that he was puzzled by the shutting-down of Princess May’s high spirits after her marriage. The Duke replied, ‘Well you’re right there, I think. My father was a very repressive influence.’ The King had a horrible temper, and he could be foully rude to the Queen. When the King was away, the Queen was a different person, laughing and joking – though still very reticent, and she never said anything about her family. This was the woman Pope- Hennessy sought to recover. By deconstructing the forbidding matriarch, he revealed the intelligent, diffident Princess May. Once King George was dead and her difficult eldest son safely exiled, Queen Mary could revert to her true self. During the Second World War she shut up Marlborough House, her London home, and descended on Badminton with her retinue of fifty servants, where she was the guest of her niece, the Duchess of Beaufort. Pope-Hennessy’s description of the Badminton years is richly comic. Queen Mary was a true Londoner. She had never lived in the country, and didn’t know what hay looked like. But she soon adjusted. With her customary energy, she took to tidying up the estate, ordering her household to strip all the ivy and shrubs from the walls – much to the annoyance of her hosts. When the ivy ran out, she went on to supervise the clearing of the woods. Pope-Hennessy notes that she enjoyed a freedom that she had not known since she was Princess May. ‘Oh, I have been happy here!’ she said when she left. ‘Here I’ve been anybody to everybody, and back in London I shall have to begin being Queen Mary all over again.’ With those words, she encapsulated her biographer’s project.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 41 © Jane Ridley 2014


About the contributor

Jane Ridley is a historian at Buckingham University. She encountered Pope-Hennessy while working on her biography Bertie: A Life of King Edward VII.

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