That Indescribable Something
Society reserves a spotlight for them unlike any it shines on other celebrities: they are the royal House of Windsor – famous, powerful, fabulously wealthy, revered, scorned, romanticized, vilified, and even taken for granted. Their gaudy, moving spectacle has played out alongside the entire 20th century – and continues into the 21st. In this year-long feature, we’ll examine the lives of the men and women whose stories comprise a Year with the Windsors.
In July of 1936 the irrepressible diarist Sir Henry “Chips” Cannon and his wife had a visitor to their home in London’s Belgrave Square, one who’d appeared many times in Cannon’s diary entries over the years: Queen Mary, whose husband, King George V, had died that January. The Cannons were apprehensive about the
visit, and a glance at those diary entries shows why – in the popular imagination, Queen Mary was a formidable, upright, even magnificent figure, an austere presence at court functions, always stiffly jeweled and unsmiling. The late king had been a Navy man for fourteen years before unexpectedly ascending to the throne – he could be priggish about formalities, but he had no personal aura
of majesty to speak of. Queen Mary was a very different thing, and Cannon was apprehensive. He was in for a surprise:
We then began a minute detailed examination of the house, the Queen at once revealing her very great knowledge and flair for pictures, furniture, and bibelots. I found her absolutely delightful, indeed I have never liked anyone so much so quickly …We then walked up to the Library, the drawing room, even to our bedroom, and climbed to the nursery, and the Queen picked up Paul and played with him. He clutched the royal nose, to her amusement, and tried to tug at her earrings. She stayed in the nursery for some time, and seemed delighted with my beloved baby boy, who always plays up on these occasions.
The visit was a smashing success, and when it was over, Cannon and his wife celebrated their relief with a very strong drink before heading out for their evening’s engagements. Their imaginings of the visit had not dared to extend to the tweaking of the royal nose, nor to the ripple of laughter and the pleasure of company – they’d expected all the icy grandeur of Queen Mary’s typical public demeanor, perhaps with an extra layer of frost owing to her recent bereavement. Instead they’d encountered a smart, funny, friendly old woman who knew her own mind and enjoyed conviviality. Through his extensive contacts with the royal family, Cannon would have known something of the Queen’s personal background, although perhaps not enough to predict with any confidence how the visit would go. In truth no one would have been more disappointed than Queen Mary if the whole incident had lapsed into mere formality.
It’s been a reflex in biographies of Queen Mary to refer to the ‘Cinderella’ aspects of her life story, the minor royal figure plucked out of backwater obscurity and raised to the throne of England, but this is like those unhelpful sports writers who were once fond of pointing out that Seattle Slew was never expected to rise to Triple Crown glory: it varnishes something that’s already shining, and it ignores the power of bloodlines, something no good stable-master would ever do.
The stable-master in Queen Mary’s case was Queen Victoria, who knew royal bloodlines to the last bigamy and bastard. And the bloodline in question was the most potent in the land: her own.
Queen Mary was born in 1867 as Princess Victoria Mary of Teck (her family always used the shorthand ‘May’), the oldest child of Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge, who was a granddaughter of King George III. Victoria – whose record-setting reign came to signify her as a new and self-created royal identity in the minds of her subjects – was well aware of the almost atavistic affection those subjects had for “the old royalty,” the few lingering reminders of the age before her reign. In royal processions through London, “Fat Mary” (as she was called, apparently to her own amusement) elicited louder cheers than the Queen Empress herself, and this had two simultaneous effects on Victoria: it caused her to suspect Fat Mary of overreaching, and it caused her to keep an eye on that eldest daughter: there was good blood there, and if it could be matched with good breeding, it might prove useful.
The breeding young May got was unusual, even in the elaborately dysfunctional world of the royals, and her mother Princess Mary Adelaide was the reason. Her husband, the Duke of Teck, was a peevish semi-invalid, but Mary Adelaide herself was a force of nature. She was rigidly aware of her own royal status, yet she was jovial and entirely approachable; she was a hopeless spendthrift, yet she could organize public relief funds to the last tuppence; she thought nothing of keeping a retinue of servants, yet she was tireless in her charity work for the poorest of the London poor. She was voluble and uproariously funny in company, ungainly and uninhibited in a thoroughly Hanoverian way, and her daughter May seems to have pondered all these things in her heart and decided fairly early to be none of them herself. By the time she was being considered as a possible fiancée for Queen Victoria’s grandson Prince Eddy (“Can I handle that, mama?” she asked. “Of course you can!” her mother answered), Princess May was already widely known for her reserve, her dignity of comportment, and her deliberation. She had a long interview-visit with the Queen and passed with flying colors. When Prince Eddy was finally prevailed upon to propose to her (he’d had his heart set on another, but a plea to patriotism brought him around), she accepted.
As we’ve seen, she was quickly relieved of the burden of handling Prince Eddy, who succumbed to pneumonia, spent two days deliriously calling out the names of women other than his betrothed, and then died. May, who, like Katherine of Aragon, had been brought to court to be a royal bride, found herself adrift in the home of a genuinely grief-stricken family. Nobody in that family felt that grief more sharply than Prince Eddy’s handsome, outspoken younger brother Prince George, who now became second in line to the throne. The prince and princess had been playmates in childhood and friends in adulthood, and they naturally turned to each other now in their mourning. Soon the suggestion began to circulate (its most likely source being the wily old Queen) that perhaps, like Katherine four centuries earlier, May might wed one brother now that the other was dead.
In due time (perhaps just a touch less than due time) that’s just what happened, and the new Prince and Princess of Wales took up the rounds of appearances and responsibilities that had already come to characterize the British Royal Family. George’s beautiful, deaf mother, Queen Alexandra, could be jealous of her new daughter-in-law, who had so much more of the simple self-assurance she herself lacked, and the world of lavish wealth and multiple estates came as something of a shock to May after years of economizing with Mary Adelaide. But there were fortunate alignments too: not only was George every bit as emotionally reticent as she was (in the early years of their marriage, they communicated far more comfortably via letters than in person), but he also preferred keeping their private life as quiet and unostentatious as possible. His biographers have criticized George V for being something of a domestic tyrant, insisting that his wife restrict her activities, subdue her choice of clothing, and even shorten her name (he considered it impolitic for her to come to the throne
with her full name, insisting there could only ever be one
Queen Victoria). Those same critics point out that the Queen became more active and adventurous after her husband’s
death in 1936, and imply that the King callously stifled the
spirits of the Queen. But for virtually the whole of her adult life, she kept up a voluminous correspondence and a spirited and pointed diary, and in all of that verbiage, there’s not one hint of rebellion or regret; she conformed to her husband’s likes and prejudices because she shared them. She liked regularity; she liked quiet domesticity; she, like he, loathed change. One can easily imagine the troubles that might have arisen if she had ended up married to a flamboyant peacock like Prince Eddy.
As monarchs in the bloody 20th century, she and her husband had troubles enough. On the eve of a state visit to Paris in 1914, Queen Mary had written “It seems to me that ‘finesse’ has gone out of the world, that indescribable something which was born in one & which was inherited thro’ generations.” Only weeks after the Queen complained of this finesse leaving the world, many, many other things left it too – eventually including chunks of the British Empire, great swaths of noblesse oblige, and roughly 9 million young men in the First World War. Even the old royal family was swept away: by proclamation George V changed his family’s ruling name to Windsor, and suddenly nine-tenths of the names in Queen Mary’s photo albums became historical oddities.
There seemed no decent way to honor the monumental sacrifices the nation was making other than to partake of them, so the Palace dug its own potatoes in the gardens and ran a ‘dry’ establishment at dinners while the war lasted. The King visited the war-zones of France, and the Queen poured her energies into the kind of home front charities that had once been so big a part of her mother’s life. The First World War wasn’t kind to hereditary monarchies; it’s not too much to say that if the newly-christened Windsors hadn’t given such a creditable performance, they might not have kept their jobs.
Had they foreseen the turbulence awaiting them in the next twenty years, they might not have wanted to: social unrest in Ireland and the partitioning of that country; social unrest at home with the General Strike that crippled the country for ten days in May of 1926; the increasing demand for greater measures of self-government among the colonies of the empire, from Canada to South Africa (and, on the most epic scale, India); the great world-wide depression that hugely swelled the ranks of England’s unemployed and led to the formation of the National Coalition Government in 1931 … all these and many other crises led King George to complain that he never seemed to get a moment’s peace. What peace he got came from his family and most of all his wife; what she meant to him was the only subject on which he ever grew tearful in public. And if some palace eavesdroppers might have heard fulsome arguments between the royal couple, Queen Mary was always silent about it; her public comments about her husband were always the essence of loving decorum. When he died in 1936, she wrote that “the sunset of his death tinged the whole world’s sky.”
The social issue on which Queen Mary’s silence was most vexing to half her subjects (and most vexing to later historians) was the growing strength of the women’s suffrage movement. The queen had no sympathy for ‘those horrid suffragettes’ and looked with Olympian disdain on their most theatrical gestures to arouse public support and awaken royal empathy. When Emily Wilding Davidson threw herself under the hooves of the king’s Derby horse in 1912, Queen Mary was concerned about the jockey. When Mary Blomfield fell to her knees before her at Buckingham Palace in 1914 and begged Queen Mary to stop the force-feeding of suffragettes who’d gone on hunger strikes in prison, the Queen stepped over her without so much as a change in her facial expression. Political agitation such as the suffragettes advocated was anathema to Queen Mary; if her husband was the last of the Edwardians, she was one final breath of the Victorian era, and like Queen Victoria, she considered anyone who agitated against the social givens as someone agitating against society itself. Activists for universal suffrage would have liked nothing better than to secure the sympathy of the foremost woman in the realm, but as the Queen sometimes remarked in her correspondence (negligent Windsor punctuation and all), “Life is not obliging is it.”
In her widowhood she went on much as she’d always done – her court appearances continued, as did her tireless inventory of all items that were or ever had been in the royal collections (it was said that in the wake of a visit for dinner or tea, no estate in England was entirely immune to the possibility of receiving a politely worded note that the Queen had very much enjoyed seeing some picture, plate, or furniture piece and would like it back at the owner’s earliest possible convenience). During the Second World War she kept herself busy in the countryside while bombs fell on London and her son King George VI and his wife worked long hours under threat of invasion. She stood on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with her family when victory was declared over Nazi Germany, and at age 84 she hurried to London’s Clarence House to greet her granddaughter Elizabeth on the occasion of her ascension to the throne (“her old Grannie and subject must be the first to kiss her hand”). She lost none of her fascination with life and none of her acerbic wit despite enduring the deaths of her husband, three of her six children, and the whole of the old world she had known. “Underneath her charm and wit, she was iron,” one courtier remarked. “And we badly needed that.”
War, infirmity, and death all provoked her trademark steadfastness, but there was one calamity that shook Queen Mary in a more fundamental way than all the rest, one thing she found so alien as to be incomprehensible. That calamity forms the crux of the next chapter in our Year with the Windsors.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, The Washington Post, The National and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.