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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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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