Thursday, May 9, 2019

Book 180: The Royals



"There were no more seasoned actors than the British royal family. Like an old vaudeville troupe, they filed on stage to go through their practiced routines. Looking like rouged curiosities, they performed at weddings and funerals. In costume, they still drew a few regular spectators, but they lose their biggest crowds with the departure of their ingenue Princess. They knew that they were viewed best from afar; up close, their imperfections showed."

Dates read: October 2-10, 2017

Rating: 6/10

I'll admit it: when I went to London, one of the first things I wanted to see was Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard. It feels a little un-American, given that the whole reason the USA is a thing was rebelling against the crown, but I love the British monarchy. If someone wore Saint Edward's Crown, I want to know about them. The jewels, the castles, and the wide variety of people who have worn them/lived in them through the centuries is something I just can't tear myself away from.

The family currently occupying the throne are the Windsors, and Kitty Kelley's The Royals recounts their modern history. She starts with the changing of their name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor to downplay their Germanic origin in the World War I era, and traces the family through the divorces of Prince Charles and Prince Andrew (the book was originally published in the late 90s, shortly before the death of Diana, and while there is a bit of content added on to the later edition I had, the bulk of the material stops there). After some introductory material about the history of the House, she recounts it primarily by tracing the romances that have defined it: David and Wallis Simpson, Albert and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Elizabeth and Phillip, Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones, Charles and Diana, and Andrew and Fergie.

Kelley's book lies somewhere between the tawdriness of an expose and glossiness of an official biography...she's looking to tell a behind-the-scenes story to get to who the Windsors actually are, but mostly avoids being sensationalistic. Kelley highlights the steely reserve of the Queen Mother, who held on to her grudge against Wallis Simpson until the day the latter died, and how her deep opposition to divorce was internalized by her daughter and trapped many of the family members in marriages long past their expiration date (and prevented one marriage from occurring at all, in Margaret's case). Queen Elizabeth II is shown to be both deeply devoted to her duty as monarch, and also as a woman who's fundamentally introverted and struggles with social relationships, including parenthood. And while Phillip hasn't always been faithful to his wife, he has always been loyal to The Firm, as he calls the royal family.

This is actually what interested me the most as I was reading the book...the line that the Windsors walk between being a family, with all the messiness that entails, and being an institution, which needs to show staying power and continue to have meaning in order to maintain relevance. The Queen can never just be a daughter, or sister, or mother, or wife...she is always the monarch and the figurehead of the Commonwealth. For some, like Princess Anne, who has famously inherited her father's stubborn prickliness, this seems to have worked out just fine. But for Prince Charles, with his almost painful earnestness, it's clear that a more traditionally middle-class/warmer household would have been better for him...I found myself feeling more sympathy for him than I would have expected after reading this book. He's not either of his parents' favorite (Phillip prefers Anne, while Elizabeth reportedly favors Andrew), and his obvious desire to be feel loved and be taken seriously is sad. Kelley doesn't let him off the hook for the issues in his marriage to Diana (nor does she let Diana off the hook for her own contributions to the breakdown), but reading about his obvious lasting devotion to Camilla made me glad for him that they finally ended up married. 

Like I said previously, I think Kitty Kelley does a pretty good job of including enough gossip to be dishy, but not going overboard and just printing every rumor she heard while doing research. Obviously the Windsors themselves may disagree, but she definitely paints portraits of them as people who are neither flawless example of nobility nor cartoon villains (well, later-in-life Margaret veers towards cartoon villainy but it doesn't seem gratuitous, at any rate). At the end of the day, I found myself glad that the families I was both born into and married into are warm and loving and free from public scrutiny, even if that scrutiny does come with the castles and the jewels and all that. This book is sure to entertain those who enjoy reading about the British royal family, but won't have much for those who aren't already disposed to be interested. It's long, but never feels like a slog.

Tell me, blog friends...do you know anyone who's been raised in the public eye because of who their parents were?

One year ago, I was reading: Children of Blood and Bone (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Friday Night Lights

Three years ago, I was reading: The Witches of Eastwick

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