According to Barbara Tuchman, quoted on the jacket, there is ‘a startling royal family scandal buried at the heart’ of this biography of Queen Mary. What steaming titbit can her fellow American, Anne Edwards, biographer of film stars, have turned up at this late hour? Can it really be that rather overworked rumour that identifies Prince Eddy, the Queen’s first fiancé, as Jack the Ripper? Indeed it can. James Pope-Hennessy did not find room to discuss this matter in his 685-page life of Queen Mary published in 1959, possibly because the hue and cry after Prince Eddy had not then gained its full impetus, possibly for other reasons. What can Anne Edwards tell us about this business? Unfortunately she knows no more than anybody else and can only ask a string of questions.
Eddy, first-born of Edward and Alexandra, the ‘dawdly’ flaccid prince with the long simian arms and the prominent collar and cuffs, armed with the potentially damning knowledge of how to disembowel deer, must be acquitted of the Ripper charge for lack of evidence. What else is known against this great under-achiever? Anne Edwards tells us that he was a crony of Lord Arthur Somerset, who was allowed to flee the country after being involved in a male brothel scandal, and a close friend of his Cambridge tutor, James Kenneth Stephen, a cousin of Virginia Woolf, who fasted to death in an asylum after Eddy died. Is that all the scandal, then? Well no, not quite. Eddy died in 1892 only weeks after he became engaged to Princess May (as the future queen was then known). We are invited to wonder whether his demise was deliberately accelerated by a doctor.
Was it just coincidence that the young man took a dramatic turn for the worse directly after the arrival of the Queen’s physician? Why was he in such agonising pain? Was pneumonia the true cause of his death? To this day there are those who are convinced that poison was administered to Prince Eddy under the very eyes of his family and without their knowledge. There can be no doubt that Prince Eddy would never have been capable of reigning and those at Court knew this. Could he have been deposed on the grounds of insanity when the Crown was finally placed on his head? Was there another way to remove him from the succession other than by death?
No expert is produced to answer the last two questions. It is easier to ask these things and move on. The Queensberry family had a ‘cannibalistic idiot’ who should have been the third duke, but who was passed over in favour of his more amiable younger brother. However, what is possible among dukes may not be possible among royals.
The nation was distressed at Princess May’s loss and so was her scheming mother, Princess Mary Adelaide of Teck (‘Fat Mary’). What of Princess May? She hardly knew Eddy, but when the Prince proposed to her, she had not hesitated. ‘Of course I said yes,’ she wrote in her diary. She was said to have waltzed round her bedroom with friends, in celebration. But May was a cool one, not given to sloppiness or crushes, according to the author, who says: ‘No comment exists in her diary of any fond feelings for Prince Eddy, or mention of her own happiness. Instead there is a sense of gloating, or a competition won.’ When Queen Victoria (‘Aunt Queen’) congratulated her on the engagement, ‘she could easily have had a moment of speculation as to how it might one day feel to receive such obeisance and to wear the Crown.’ So, for the pretty princess with the poodle hair-style, the switch to Prince Eddy’s younger brother, Prince George, was accomplished without perhaps too much pain. Had she married Eddy before he died, it would not have been so easy: there was as much feeling against marrying deceased husbands’ brothers as there was against marrying deceased wives’ sisters (the Act permitting such liberties was not passed until 15 years later). Princess May’s engagement to Prince George was approved by Queen Victoria, who had formed a good view of her.
The ambitious young princess had an upbringing hard to associate with the majestic, diamond-plated queen who, in the memorable words of Chips Channon, looked ‘like the Jungfrau, white and sparkling in the sun’; the queen who, in Anne Edwards’s judgment, became ‘the one constancy the English had’ in a sadly deteriorating world. At the age of 16 Princess May had skipped with her family to Florence to avoid the bailiffs, for the Tecks were notoriously hard up and May had the ‘unsavoury task of putting off their creditors’. Later her mother was to have much success in wheedling money out of Queen Victoria, to the annoyance of the other royals. Not only had Princess May been forced to face the realities of housekeeping: she had had to come to terms with another family problem, a wastrel brother Frank who gambled heavily and gave away family jewels to his women. This last was a heinous offence in the eyes of Princess May, who in later life was able to recover unauthorised gifts from various quarters. As a great lover of jewels, she must have been gratified at the glittering deluge which descended on her at her second engagement (more than a million pounds’ worth of gifts altogether, by the Edwards calculation).
The Princess was regarded as the intellectual of the family into which she married and she chafed against the lot which compelled her to watch her menfolk destroying wild life. John Gore, in his life of George V, suggested that her intellectual life might have been starved and her energies atrophied in those early years. George was not a man who lightly opened a book, other than a stamp album, but his bride read to him at length, pausing to comment and explain: ‘May appears to be educating Georgie,’ said a member of the family. She could speak French and German and had studied constitutional history. None of this made for an exciting court. Surprisingly, there is no mention of that mischievous ‘Ballade à Double Refrain’ (in which courtiers debate whether the King is duller than the Queen, or vice versa) written by Max Beerbohm in 1912, a jeu d’esprit supposed to have delayed his knighthood for more than twenty years.
Describing the pre-1914 years, Miss Edwards says: ‘Politicians were out of touch with the things that really mattered, but the King and Queen were doing what they could to redress the balance by giving the people greater access to the Monarch.’ Could taking tea with selected miners stave off revolution? Instead came World War One, when the Queen gained much esteem by her indefatigable touring of hospitals. The visits inspired ribald stories, of which we are given only one. Schoolboys of the Twenties treasured a supposed exchange on the lines of: ‘And where are you wounded?’ ‘If you were wounded where I’ve been wounded you wouldn’t be wounded at all.’ These anecdotes about the Queen’s supposed unworldliness circulated in all ranks. Yet, as we learn from these pages, she was capable of chuckling over La Vie Parisienne, doubtless introduced into Windsor Castle by her problem son David, Prince of Wales. The Queen disapproved of the Prince of Wales’s liaisons with other men’s wives. At one time she had the curious notion of installing Lord Louis Mountbatten in York House, the Prince’s residence, apparently in order to spread the suspicion when Mrs Dudley Ward was around. Perhaps we should not take Miss Edwards too literally when she tells of the night when the Prince and Mrs Ward ‘dined intimately on a table in front of the fire’.
The Prince’s friendships enable the author to comment on the game of cuckoldry. Earlier on, referring to King Edward’s affair with Mrs Keppel, she says that George Keppel was ‘unswervingly loyal to both of them’, but also that his acceptance of the King’s seigneurial rights was ‘downright feudal’. Writing of the Prince of Wales’s borrowed wives, she says: ‘To an Englishman honour existed in his wife being chosen as the Prince of Wales’s favourite.’ Americans, she indicates, tolerated such relationships only if they were wrapped in romantic gauze. All we learn from the detailed account of the Simpson affair is what we already knew: that the Queen was profoundly disappointed in a son with so little notion of duty as to walk out on the job. It is hardly true to say that the abdication crisis ‘catapulted the nation into immediate chaos’. As one recalls, there was no chaos: only indignation, hot air and then a new crop of funny stories.
Though her full-bosomed aspect suggested a maternal spirit, Queen Mary here earns the usual low marks as a parent. Pope-Hennessy commented on her ‘rather detached attitude to her children’ and said she had ‘no automatic or spontaneous understanding of a child’s mind or ways’. Miss Edwards reminds us that it took the King and Queen three years to discover that the tyrannous nanny Mary Peters was ill-treating the young Prince of Wales (meanwhile another nanny was giving him a Cockney accent). The Queen’s six children, with their stutters, knock knees, crying fits and nervous giggles, had to get on as best they could. The epileptic John, who died at 13, was segregated with a miniature household of his own on the Sandringham estate.
In World War Two Queen Mary cut an extraordinary figure. With a train of fifty-odd servants (too old for call-up?), she set off for the Duke of Beaufort’s home at Badminton, creating an astonishing domestic upset. Servants apart, she observed all the other sumptuary requirements, even travelling about the estate in a farm cart. There was a rule that, if the Nazis invaded, two dressers would pack a special suitcase with tiaras and other jewels, before the Queen emplaned to a secret destination. In the ducal grounds she organised notorious ivy-ripping parties, ivy being one of her pet hates. One has the impression of a good woman, a mother of kings, wasted and frustrated because she did not know what next to be at. Sir Osbert Sitwell, a frequent visitor to Badminton, detected many ‘Rumanian traits’ in the Queen (there were family links with Transylvania) and among these were ‘the manner in which she smoked cigarettes; her love of jewels, and the way she wore them; and the particular sort of film star glamour that in advanced age overtook her appearance, and made her, with the stylisation of her clothes, such an attractive as well as imposing figure’.
As an American, Anne Edwards remains neutral when telling how the United States Ambassador, Joseph Kennedy, declined to wear knee breeches to dine with Queen Mary, for fear of adverse comment back home, and was therefore not invited to Marlborough House. One suspects that the author is firmly behind Queen Mary on this one, as the people of Britain would have been if they had known of it. A touch of the Jungfrau was what the nation expected of its Queen. It is odd that the book does not contain even a passing reference to the great liner Queen Mary, which was almost as much a ‘constancy’ in the national life as the lady after whom the vessel was named: indeed, for years this majestic symbol of Britain’s recovery upstaged the Queen in the headlines.
Anne Edwards makes no claim to have unearthed new sources. Matriarch is simply a refresher course in recent royal history, written by one who, in earlier years, had wanted ‘to identify with strong women’. The narrative is easy to read, though the arrangement of material is sometimes odd. For instance, the Queen’s reputation for causing antique dealers to hide away their bijoux for fear she might too openly envy them is dealt with in a chapter on World War One, between an account of hospital visiting and the Last Push. To nag further: one wishes the author had been a little less thorough, or a shade more inventive, in describing ceremonial occasions. The eye quickly glazes over at phrases like ‘radiantly happy’, ‘resplendent in their vivid attire’ and ‘bedecked with gay bunting’. The Queen, incidentally, was never escorted by Lifeguards, who have bare chests, but by Life Guards. How Queen Mary would have relished the book is a wonderful field for conjecture. We are told that in 1922, when a purported biography said that she was easily bored, she wrote on the offending page: ‘As a matter of fact, the Queen is never bored.’ Here one pictures her writing, on (say) page 95, ‘The Queen was never prematurely queenly in her manner’; or, modestly, on page 309: ‘The Queen in her early days may have been a “quintessential fairy queen”, but surely not in her late years.’ As for the pages dealing with the rumours about Prince Eddy, might she perhaps have stripped them from the book like so much harmful ivy?