Sunday, November 6, 2011

A majestic biography

Queen Mary, James Pope-Hennessy

Several things in my recent reading got me interested in reading more about Queen Mary.  The first was the volumes of letters between Queen Victoria and the Crown Princess of Prussia that I read over the summer.  There were frequent references to "Aunt Cambridge" and her family, particularly the difficulties of marrying off her daughter Mary Adelaide.  It took me a while to figure out that Princess Mary Adelaide was Victoria's cousin and the future mother of the future Queen Mary.  Then I came across Princess Mary Adelaide, now the Duchess of Teck, in Mistress of Charlecote, The Memoirs of Mary Elizabeth Lucy, where she completely captivated Mrs. Lucy with her friendliness and charm.  Finally, Queen Mary also plays a fictional role in Rhys Bowen's Lady Georgie mystery series, now in its fifth book.  I already had this book on my shelves, a gift from a friend years ago, which I never got around to reading, until now.

I do not think I have ever read a biography that embodies its subject so completely.  Queen Mary is majestic, intelligent, discrete, obsessed with family relations and genealogy, and fascinated with furniture and objets d'art.  Two years after Queen Mary's death in 1953, Queen Elizabeth II asked James Pope-Hennessy to write the biography of her grandmother.  He was given access to the Royal Archives at Windsor, which include Queen Mary's diaries and letters, as well as family archives in Europe, including the personal papers of the Duke of Windsor.

In a book of 620 pages, Pope-Hennessy devotes more than a third of it to the future queen's childhood and adolescence, and to her remarkable parents.  Like Mrs. Lucy, he seems captivated with her mother, Queen Victoria's cousin and one of the most visible, and popular, members of the Royal Family (he even analyzes her astrological sign).  She was what we today call "plus-sized," and though she was a Princess of the Blood Royal, it took quite some time to find her a husband.  She married at what was then the advanced age of 32.  Her new husband, Prince Franz of Teck, was the child of a morganantic marriage, which in the view of many in Europe, particularly at the Prussian Court, should have disqualified him to marry into the British Royal Family.  Like Prince Albert, Franz moved to his wife's country, but unlike Albert he found very little to do, and his frustration created tension in the family.  So did the massive debts from the extravagant life he and his wife led. 

In this atmosphere, their eldest child and only daughter Victoria Mary, called "May" in the family, grew into a quiet, studious, compassionate young woman, known for her good sense and for her blonde good looks.  All of these qualities combined led Queen Victoria and the Prince and Princess of Wales to choose her as the bride of Prince Albert Victor of Wales.  Pope-Hennessy is rather discrete about Prince Albert Victor, whom he calls "Dear and good . . . pliable and obedient" - or perhaps it is that more information about the Prince has come to light since this book was published in 1960.  I don't think anyone can take seriously the theory that he was Jack the Ripper, but he seems to have led a pretty unsavoury life.  It is clear from Queen Victoria's letters that she thought the best reform for a rake was marriage to a good woman (which didn't work in her own sons' cases).  Pope-Hennessy devotes several chapters to Prince Albert Victor, their engagement, his death soon after, and the pressure that built on May to then marry his brother the Duke of York, the new heir-presumptive.  He writes with sympathy and insight of her grief, and her embarrassment at the situation she found herself in, explaining how affection for her cousin George and her sense of duty to the Royal Family led to her second engagement.

Her marriage to the Duke of York and then her nine years as Princess of Wales take up a scant third of the book, and then her twenty-five years as Queen Consort and seventeen as Dowager Queen take up the last third.  Pope-Hennessy spends so much time and attention on the first twenty-six years of her life that it almost seems like the last sixty get short shrift, in comparison.  He makes the argument that in marrying the Duke of York, May devoted herself to the service of the British Crown, and that when her husband became King in 1910, she focused her life on supporting him.  Pope-Hennessy is very candid in discussing her failures as a parent, including her exclusive focus on her husband, though he points out in her defense that she gave the same devotion to her sons Edward VIII and George VI in their turns as King.  What spare time she had was devoted to collecting artifacts of the Royal Family, a hobby that became something of an obsession (and may have shaded into kleptomania in her last years, which Pope-Hennessy naturally doesn't mention).  When I visited Windsor Castle a few years ago, I got to see Queen Mary's Dolls' House, part of her fascination with miniatures.

I found Pope-Hennessy to be an entertaining narrator, but an unusual one for a biographer, particularly of a royal subject.  He is not above sarcasm.  Writing about the Duchess of Teck's training her children in charitable work, he quotes an account of one occasion when "Her Royal Highness sent a dinner to a destitute family, and gave instructions that the children were to stop and see the poor people eat it, showing at once her practical mind and her goodness of heart."  Pope-Hennessy adds, "Such golden opportunities to observe the Poor at feeding time in their natural surroundings were supplemented by hearsay. . ."  While researching the book, he traveled extensively in Europe, staying in the former homes of Teck and Cambridge relations.  At times his story becomes more an account of his own travels, and I lost patience a little with his intrusions into the story:
"The valley lies silent in the sunset. No puff of wind stirs the sentinel trees. Wafting slowly upwards from a hidden chimney, a curl of wood-smoke hovers above the old house's purple roofs.  Somewhere in the walled garden of the Schloss, with its frozen pool and its black box hedges, a dog is baying."
In the end, I enjoyed this book very much and learned a lot from it.  If I had been reading a library copy, I would already have been out searching for my own.


  1. I was totally the library user who then rushed out to get her own copy when I first read this about ten years ago!

  2. Sad to say, I've probably had this on the shelves for ten years. I wish I'd read it sooner.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!