I got this one on one of Audible’s Daily Deals — it wasn’t something I otherwise would have searched for, as I don’t even know where to begin when listening to history. But it was fantastic—if often sad. The reality of royalty is definitely not like the fairy tales.
The story begins when Queen Victoria is on the throne, and follows Princess May of Teck: she is the prim daughter of distant royals who are constantly overspending their budgets, requiring the Queen to bail them out. May is not very attractive and doesn’t have a lot of marriage prospects. The Queen, for her part, needs to marry off her grandson Edward… but scandal follows Eddie wherever he goes. He’s also homely, unintelligent, and shaping up to make a terrible king when the time comes. (There was even speculation that Eddie was Jack the Ripper!) But May’s well-meaning and ebullient mother, Princess Mary Adelaide, dreams of putting her daughter on the throne, while Queen Victoria sees that May might be just the ticket to keep Eddie in line. The match is made… but Eddie dies before the wedding day. (His death is also somewhat mysterious… supposedly he died from pneumonia, but the rapidity of his demise implied to some that there might have been foul play involved. Was it possible that someone thought he needed to be removed from the line of succession?) The public mourns with Princess May, who had become a favorite during their short engagement. But Queen Victoria still needs to marry off her younger grandson George, and May has earned the Queen’s esteem. George and May fall in love, and wed about a year later.
Unfortunately, George and his mother, Princess Alexandra, have a seriously codependent relationship, and Princess Alexandra becomes the mother-in-law from hell. Meanwhile, it was an open secret that George’s father, who would later become King Edward VII, kept a mistress, Alice Keppel. He’d had many others, but she became a fixture in his life, and eventually Alexandra came to accept her (largely because she wasn’t as pretty as the others!)
And so it goes… the interpersonal intrigues make the story a fascinating one, combined with the historical context of two World Wars. While Princess May, later Queen Mary, is a terrific sovereign and lovable to her subjects and friends, she’s a pretty dreadful mother. I felt especially sorry for poor Bertie (King George VI), her stuttering second son who was forced to wear the crown after his brother David abdicated so that he could marry the smug American twice-divorced Wallace Simpson. (She wasn’t divorced when he met her, though. David had three women in his life, and all of them were married at the time. Mistresses were apparently a common thing among royalty.) Bertie, timid and in poor health most of his life, had never been prepared to be king—yet suddenly found himself the reigning monarch during World War II. No wonder he died of cancer not long afterwards. Then again, David ended up rather pitiful as well: his family never forgave him for his abdication, and he wasn’t even invited to his mother’s funeral. He’d longed all his life for the approval of a mother who was monarch first, and parent only a very distant second.
I hadn’t gotten all that into the Netflix series “The Crown” before, but it picks up almost right where this book leaves off, with Bertie’s death and his 25-year old daughter Lilibet’s coronation as Queen Elizabeth. Now that I have more context, I think I’ll try it again!
My rating: **** 1/2