court of st james's hcOur book today is The Court of St. James’s, a marvelous 1959 confection by that indefatigable hack E. S. Turner, who found rather early on in his life that few pleasures in this world are so reliable and so joyous as the pleasure of making words on the page do exactly what you want them to do – and knowing, with the hack’s surest instinct, that those words will go out and please their readers. He developed the ability to generate clean, snappy prose at lightning speed, and he gradually carved out a freelancing career at such venerable London periodicals as Punch and the mighty TLS that brought in enough money for him to pour real energy into writing books.

And he wrote lots of them, but to my mind none more entertaining than this one, spurred by the renewed interest in all things royal that arose naturally out of London having a fresh-faced new Queen on the throne. There’s not much pretense to scholarship in the pages of The Court of St. James’s – instead, there’s one well-turned story after another taken from the thousand-year history of the royal Court. The stories are always sparkling, and they star not only the most famous of England’s sovereigns, like Queen Elizabeth I:

Holinshed says it was a rare thing to find a courtier who could speak no language but his own. Not only were Greek and Latin widely understood, but Spanish, Italian and French could be heard on courtiers’ lips. The Queen herself set an example of lingual virtuosity which few of her Court could have emulated. There was a famous occasion when a presumptuous ambassador from Poland, addressing her in Latin as she sat on her throne, began to reproach her for her policies, and to voice what appeared to be threats. The Queen endured it for a while then abused the ambassador heartily in his own chosen tongue, to the dazed admiration of the Court. When congratulated – and this was one occasion when congratulations could be sincerely voiced – she said, “God’s death, my lords, I have been enforced this day to scour up my old Latin that hath been long in rusting.” She was then in her middle sixties.court of st. james's mm

And also those monarchs who’ve never been as well-known, like that erratically good-natured Hanoverian William IV:

Of William IV’s Court little need be said. The once hard-swearing, hard-drinking sailor had become a garrulous old gentleman of 65, very proud to be a king, very anxious to be affable to his subjects. Whereas George IV had shut himself from sight, William went out of his way to mingle informally with the public. He would even walk about London drawing a crowd behind him. Once he was kissed by a woman near White’s; another time, his German Queen in her coach suffered her hand to be held by a rapt female admirer. The courtiers, especially those who had to bundle the King away from the mob, thought it all quite dreadful.

Only very occasionally in the cheerful course of The Court of St. James’s does Turner veer into contemporary reflection, although it’s lucy reads the court of st. james's mmjust enough to make you wish he did it more often. He was born in 1909, after all (and only finally died in 2006, the stubborn cuss), so his own personal memory spanned some of the most fundamental changes the monarchy had ever seen. Even in a book as fundamentally light-hearted as this one, he couldn’t help but reflect on some of those changes:

It is not easy to see the events of the present reign in anything like perspective, but it is probably fair to say (as Time has said) that the Court is the scene of a struggle between ‘the partisans of the pompous past and the champions of a folksier future.’ If it had been left to the traditionalists the Queen would still be touching for the Evil and the Poet Laureate would still be grinding out Birthday and New Year Odes. If it were left to the democratic avant garde, the royal family would be escorting the public through their picture galleries.

But readers seeking analytical scrutiny of the monarchy are still advised to look to Jeremy Paxman; this book is much more akin to one of those royal picture galleries. Only instead of a halting-mouthed awkward Windsor to show you around, you have a raconteur extraordinaire.

 

 

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