The present queen was not the only person to feel, when her grandmother Queen Mary died in 1953, that she ‘could not imagine a world without her’. The ‘old queen’, as she was generally known to the public, had become a totemic figure, rigidly upright in her toque and pearls, a grandmother to the nation. Her daughter-in-law, the queen mother, later fulfilled the same role, but in an entirely different way. Where the ‘queen mum’ was, or appeared to be as long as nobody let her speak in public, twinkly and friendly, fond of gin and jewellery, Queen Mary was cast as grandparent in the severe Victorian mould, a living reminder of an age gone by and not very fondly remembered. For the generation who were in their twenties during the Second World War, which included my parents and their friends, to say that someone ‘sat there like Queen Mary’ was to indicate that a terminal blight had been cast over the occasion. James Pope-Hennessy, born in 1916, belonged to that generation. He came from a distinguished Catholic and literary family and was a friend of many of his most interesting contemporaries, Cecil Beaton and James Lees-Milne among them. He loved female company, was ‘much sought after by hostesses for his sparkling conversation’ and by 1953 had established a reputation as a biographer. Two volumes on the life of Richard Monckton-Milnes, the late Georgian politician and socialite, were followed by a life of Monckton-Milnes’s son, Lord Crewe. The latter was the quid pro quo for access to the archives and was, Pope-Hennessy admitted, ‘less than inspired’. Its appearance in 1955, however, started a train of thought in the mind of Crewe’s daughter Lady Cynthia Colville, who had been a lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary. She spoke to Owen Morshead, the royal librarian, and shortly afterwards Pope-Hennessy was surprised and annoyed to be asked to write the official biography.
It was largely due to his brother John, the art historian who became director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, that Pope-Hennessy was persuaded to take the commission. Royalty, John argued, was ‘an endangered species’ and this was an opportunity to examine in detail ‘the nature of the phenomenon’. It was in this quasi-anthropological spirit that the book was conceived. Pope-Hennessy was a gifted writer and a meticulous researcher, but he was not the merely dutiful recorder Lady Cynthia had perhaps imagined, or hoped for. As Lees-Milne put it, his ‘natural rebelliousness … accentuated by his unremitting homosexuality’ made for a ‘somewhat chaotic’ and ultimately unhappy private life. As a biographer, however, the qualities of dissent and the sense of being an outsider, for his Catholicism at that date as well as his sexuality, gave him a sharp eye and cool judgment. He produced a more than competent official biography.
There was, however, another manuscript. This comprised his working notes in which he wrote everything ‘as it was … telling all the truth’. It is this text that Hugo Vickers has edited for publication with a combination of scholarship and panache that Pope-Hennessy would have appreciated. The result is as valuable as his brother predicted, a picture of European royalty at the crux of the 20th century, when Elvis Presley’s first album was in the charts and the grandchildren of George III were still in living memory. Vickers nods in his title towards A.J.A. Symons’s 1934 ‘experiment in biography’ The Quest for Corvo, an account of Symons’s efforts to untangle the life and lies of Frederick Rolfe, self-styled Baron Corvo and author of Hadrian VII. It was one of the first and best in what is now a subspecies of life-writing, the biography of the biography. The Quest for Queen Mary, however, goes one better by adding Vickers’s own role in shaping the book, combing the archives and plumbing the depths of the Almanach de Gotha for the many indispensable footnotes. The result is an engagingly quixotic two-hander, in which Pope-Hennessy takes on the fabulous monsters while Vickers trots behind like Sancho Panza, trying to make sense of it all.
Princess Victoria Mary of Teck was born in 1867 at Kensington Palace, in the room where Queen Victoria, her mother’s first cousin, had also been born. The eldest child and only daughter of the Prince and Princess of Teck in the Kingdom of Württemberg, she was a useful new piece on the dynastic chessboard. If not absolutely top drawer in royal terms, she was nevertheless marriageable and a rarity for not being a descendant of the queen. She was accordingly engaged in 1891 to Victoria’s eldest grandson, Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, who was second in the line of succession. Prince Eddy, as he was known, was notoriously stupid, an idle drunk and a magnet for scandal. His involvement with the homosexual brothel in Cleveland Street was covered up in the aftermath of a police raid in 1889, but the persistence of unfounded rumours that he was Jack the Ripper were indicative of a widespread belief that he was capable of anything. His sudden death in 1892 came as pure relief to most people, including perhaps Mary, who was redeployed as fiancée to the next in line, Prince George, later George V. They were married in 1893. There was general agreement among Pope-Hennessy’s interviewees that both princess and country had had a narrow escape. When he suggested delicately to the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, a former mistress of the robes to Queen Mary, that Clarence had been ‘somewhat backward’, she replied: ‘That is putting it very mildly. He was a mental deficient. I remember him quite well … A mercy he died when he did,’ adding as an afterthought, ‘very amiable, nothing against him’. It was one of many occasions on which Pope-Hennessy found that his interviewees, far from having to be drawn out, were alarmingly frank. Most were old, living in the twilight world of pre-war royalty and in an age before mass media. They saw no reason to be guarded.
Pope-Hennessy was intent on getting beyond Queen Mary’s public image, especially as that image was so unappealing, and many of his sources were anxious to dispel the view of her as austere and disapproving, insisting that she was great fun in private and had a lively sense of humour. There was a shortage, however, of convincing evidence. The Countess of Shaftesbury remembered that as a girl she was ‘not above sliding down the staircase on a tea-tray’ and Lady Estella Hope, another childhood friend, recalled her being ‘very high-spirited’, citing as an instance of this an occasion at the Henley Regatta when ‘my sister Dorrie had a new wide blue silk sash on, and the princess snatched it off and threw it in the Thames’, a gesture that revealed something about Mary’s character, but not exactly humour. Margaret Wyndham, a former lady of the bedchamber, was more helpful:
J.P.H. (leading and disingenuous question) Of course Queen Mary must have had a very funny sense of humour …
M.W. It was indeed a funny sense of humour.
J.P.H. I meant a really good sense of humour?
M.W. She had no sense of humour at all. What she had was a sense of the ridiculous.
Here subject and biographer had something in common, but while Queen Mary’s sense of the ridiculous stopped at a wink in the direction of Miss Wyndham, Pope-Hennessy was writing it all down. His notes illustrate, among other things, the capacity of human character to expand to the limits of tolerance and that if, as is often the case in royal circles, there are no limits, minor tics may become monstrous. The wife of one of her staff described the Duchess of Devonshire to Pope-Hennessy as being ‘Queen Mary’s type, very regal, wouldn’t speak to you unless she wanted something and never thanked you either’, which suggests she considered ‘regal’ a synonym for rude. Often it was. Queen Alexandra, Mary’s mother-in-law, was notoriously unpunctual and prone to sudden changes of mind. On one such occasion this meant reorganising the entire continental express timetable for 24 hours. The Hon. Lady Reid, who as Miss Baring had been a maid of honour to Queen Victoria, told Pope-Hennessy how she once accompanied the ageing queen empress to distribute Christmas presents around the estate at Osborne. Handing over one parcel she told the queen it contained a rug. ‘A rug,’ the queen replied, ‘is something one stands on. It can be called a plaid or a shawl, or even a wrap, but not a rug.’ This monologue continued for some time, while the tenant for whom the present was intended clung on to the steps of the carriage. ‘Poor woman it was agonising for her,’ Lady Reid recalled, remembering how the queen carried on regardless while she herself ‘laughed and laughed and laughed till she nearly died’.
It was often said of Queen Mary that as a collector she exercised a kind of droit de seigneur, indicating the objects in any house she visited which she required to be handed over. Pope-Hennessy and Vickers make no mention of this. Perhaps like Prince Eddy and Jack the Ripper it was simply a rumour that fitted the public perception. Her documented peccadilloes emerged in their most florid form during the war years, which she spent at Badminton in Gloucestershire, home of the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort. Pope-Hennessy’s interviewees varied in their opinions as to whether she was bored or happy there, but everyone agreed that for the duke and duchess it had been a nightmare. The duchess, ‘an interesting throwback’ according to Pope-Hennessy, looked like ‘a wonderful white newt … dressed in scarlet velvet’ and was very forthcoming on the subject of the queen’s obsessions. ‘The two things she liked most were destruction and order.’
Queen Mary arrived in style with a retinue of more than fifty staff and proceeded to take over the entire house, apart from two bedrooms to which the Beauforts were confined for the duration of her stay. ‘Once Queen Mary got an idea in her head,’ Pope-Hennessy wrote, ‘she never got it out again … She was fundamentally very very German.’ Her most notorious ideé fixe was ‘ivy mania’: she couldn’t resist pulling it up wherever she saw it and Badminton offered considerable scope. ‘She would go out in all weathers from two till five,’ the duchess recalled. ‘The Ladies loathed it, Cynthia [a lady-in-waiting] lost her wedding ring, Major Wickham [her secretary] broke his wrist.’ Nothing deterred her. Nor did she stop at ivy. ‘When left to herself for the day she would have trees cut down right and left.’ To the Beauforts’ dismay, she set her sights on a great cedar – ‘one of the beauties of the garden’ – but by unremitting efforts at distraction they managed to hold her off until Germany surrendered.
Pope-Hennessy chronicled his difficulties in getting on terms with research subjects who were simultaneously sizing him up, causing moments of humiliation and mutual incomprehension. Gardening, he realised, was part of the Duchess of Gloucester’s ‘long-term assimilation’ plan for him. The duke furnished him with ‘a tremendously heavy pair of tree secateurs about as tall as myself’ and the duchess asked him to tie up the cotoneasters. ‘Had I known about gardening, I would have known that cotoneasters have thorns at least an inch long.’ The Orthodox nun, Mother Marfa, who was gatekeeper to the Grand Duchess Xenia of Russia, asked Pope-Hennessy his name twice before announcing him as Poke-Henderson. His visit to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor went well and gave him a great deal of valuable material. It became complicated, however, when Elsa Maxwell was invited to lunch. Pope-Hennessy says nothing about Maxwell except that she was ‘a lumpy, ugly creature looking like James Boswell’ but Vickers pipes up helpfully from the footnotes to add that she was ‘an enormously fat American woman, who wrote books and social columns’. The duchess didn’t want Maxwell to publicise the fact that the Windsors were co-operating with Queen Mary’s biographer and decided Pope-Hennessy needed a suitable cover story. The duke thought he looked ‘too grand’ to be the doctor, so the duchess decided he should be ‘listing my faïence’. Over lunch Pope-Hennessy became hopelessly confused as to who he was supposed to be and what he was supposed to be doing and Maxwell went away highly suspicious, if not fully enlightened.
The Windsors were the key to Pope-Hennessy’s project for there was no doubt that the abdication was the great crisis of Queen Mary’s life. Her son’s decision to give up the throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson was a shock from which she never recovered. It ‘hurt her more than anything’, according to the Duchess of Shaftesbury. Although Queen Mary was thought to be ‘not maternal’ in a general way, she was ‘passionately devoted’ to the Prince of Wales and felt his decision as both a personal and a national betrayal. This was also the crux of Pope-Hennessy’s quest in its broader historical context. The abdication and the debates around it were a hinge between the old order into which Queen Mary was born and the new one she lived to see. However imperious and high-handed in private, she had never failed to put what she believed to be her duty before her feelings. Everything that might have been considered a personal choice – where she lived, whom she married – had been determined for her from birth and she had accepted it as the natural order. Edward’s choice to put his desires first, especially for romantic love, which Pope-Hennessy’s interviewees agreed in varying terms was something his mother knew little about, was an affront to her entire worldview. It cast imperial Britain in a bad light, or as she put it to Wyndham, ‘This might really be ROUMANIA!!’ Pope-Hennessy was closer in age and temperament to the Windsors. He saw, and was fascinated by, the ambiguities of their situation. ‘They are like people after a cataclysm or a revolution, valiantly making the best of infinite luxury.’ He was ‘delighted’ by them as subjects for study and also because their house near Paris, the Moulin de la Tuilerie, was so comfortable. The food was ‘spectacularly good’, the cocktails flowed and his own room was ‘pretty and convenient … planned by a perfectionist’ – very different from the stately homes of England, with their draughty rooms, dull food and erratic plumbing.
The Duchess of Windsor elicited some of Pope-Hennessy’s most penetrating observations. He thought her ‘one of the very oddest women I have ever seen. It is impossible to assess what makes her function or why. I should say she was on the whole a stupid woman, with … a stern power of concentration.’ He thought her ‘tremendously American and specifically Southern – it was like being back in Montgomery, Alabama, without the tree moss.’ In appearance she was ‘phenomenal … flat and angular and could have been designed for a medieval playing-card. The shoulders are small and high; the head very, very large, almost monumental.’ Like a figure in a de Chirico painting, the duchess, relaxing on a day bed with her legs tucked under her, ‘does not curl up; but somehow dismantles herself, so that she looks like a puppet lying in the wings of a toy theatre’. The duke was ‘immensely friendly and comical’ and ‘much less small than I had been led to believe’. He spoke with what to Pope-Hennessy’s finely tuned ear sounded like ‘cockneyfied vowels’. From the duke he heard the other side of the abdication crisis. Was the problem, he suggested tactfully, that Queen Mary herself ‘had never been in love’? The duke thought that was right. ‘My mother was a cold woman,’ he said, and, he added, a moral coward who would ‘never, NEVER, talk to me about it. Right up to the end, if I said anything to her, she’d just cough slightly, hm, hm, like that and that was all.’
Pope-Hennessy’s view of the rift could be summarised in 1066 and All That terms as Queen Mary, the queen mother and Queen Elizabeth, right but repulsive; the Windsors, wrong but romantic. What he found most unforgivable about the royal family was their lack of taste. His notes record a constant assault on his sensibilities from their sheer dreariness. Sandringham ‘had to be seen to be believed … like something designed by a child – all gables, and beams and little balconies, and hexagonal turrets’. The interior was just as bad. Queen Mary’s dressing room had ‘Maple-like fitted furniture painted in white’ and was ‘for all the world like an hotel near the Gare de Lyon’, her bedroom was ‘microscopic and claustrophobic’, and the overall effect ‘middle-class, suburban, in some indefinable way pretentious and utterly uncosy’. Maple & Co., the furniture shop in the Tottenham Court Road of which Cecil Beaton and his friends used to say ‘see Maples and die’, becomes a leitmotif. Queen Elizabeth, ‘Lilibet’ to her family, has the taste of an ‘anonymous mouse’ and makes ‘clockwork conversation’. The Duke of Edinburgh’s boudoir, while at least giving evidence of a ‘positive but somewhat vulgar personality’, had ‘sofas and armchairs covered in virulent magenta chintz … Naval pictures and so on’. The pièce de résistance is the Duchess of Gloucester’s ‘rather unpleasant Formica tea trolley’, which she delighted in. ‘It’s the very latest thing. It won’t burn or stain or scratch and it folds up. It was Lilibet’s Christmas present to us. Wasn’t it kind of her?’
Pope-Hennessy returned from his quest with ample material, if it were carefully handled, for a biography tactful enough to be authorised while retaining plausibility. As he explained to his brother regarding the awkward episode of the Duke of Clarence, ‘I think I can get away with murder if everything is presented as making Grannie grander and stronger & more utterly marvellous – coming up fighting after each fresh trial, don’t you see?’ Harold Nicolson, who read the typescript, congratulated Pope-Hennessy on his combination of ‘serious biography … studious social history and … a romantic novel’. The result he said was a ‘pointilliste portrait’. Now, thanks to Vickers, we can join the dots.