Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long
A few years ago I read Jane Ridley’s biography of Edward VII, which I found a fascinating, fully rounded portrayal of his life and personality. In the foreword the author said that she had enjoyed being in Bertie’s company and hoped the reader would too. Well I certainly did. So it was with great interest I read her new biography of George V. And the same thing happened. By the time I had closed it up I found I had become fond of George and had enjoyed his company. Jane Ridley, whose writing is impeccable and research admirable, seems to have the knack of finding good qualities in her subjects.
My main fascination with this book, though George’s political acumen was far greater than we would think, is in his relationship with his family. His mother, Queen Alexandra, clung to her children and after the death of her elder son, even more so. George adored his mother, spoke to her every day, and allowed her to organise his life even after his marriage, to the annoyance of Queen Mary. However, she infantilised him and, in a letter, written to him after he had set off on a voyage with the navy, she penned:
Every morning I woke with a jump and a start and expect to see you standing before me with your poor dear tear-stained little face.
He was twenty-five at the time.
Very close to his elder brother, Eddie, George was devastated at his death and found it difficult to realise that he was now in line to be King. Eddie had become engaged to Princess Mary of Teck who Victoria thought was a nice sensible girl who would manage him and bring him up to scratch – as we all know by now Eddie was a vacant young man lacking in any sense of purpose or intelligence.
Of course, a good princess cannot be allowed to go to waste and after Eddie’s death and with unseemly haste, or so it seems these days, George proposed to her and was accepted. One cannot help but feel for May, as she was known, an intelligent and well-read girl, being passed around as if she was a parcel. No choice in the matter as her family were impoverished and the idea of being Queen certainly appealed to her.
The generally accepted view of George and Mary is one of a stern-faced upright couple and their portrayal as cold unfeeling parents has remained. He hectored and shouted at his children and the Queen was reported to be afraid of him. Sadly, both were unable to express their feelings either to their children or to each other, but George’s letters to May show his love for her as he wrote to her three days before their wedding:
It is just two months today that we became engaged, how quick the time goes, I loved you then very much now I adore you.
As Ridley points out this sounds like a man hoping that if he says something often enough it will come true. A year later George wrote to his wife: ‘When I asked you to marry me I was very fond of you but not very much in love’ and in her widowhood Queen Mary reflected that she knew her husband was not in love with her when they married but fell in love with me later.It was a long and enduring marriage and more successful than many thought it would be: as a critic at the time said waspishly, ‘she is in love with the Crown irrespective of whose head may wear it’.
Both George and Mary were underestimated by the general populace and, indeed, the Royal family, many of whom apotheosised her as dull and boring. This may have been because both of them disliked socialising or going out to banquets and balls and had very little small talk unlike the court of Edward VII. But Mary was intelligent and well read in complete contrast to her husband who had very few intellectual interests.
They spent as little time in London as possible and stayed at Sandringham as much as they could. Few public duties were expected of him though it is worth noting that his father Edward VII made sure he saw papers sent to him and kept him in the loop, unlike Queen Victoria who kept him firmly in the cold. George scheduled his functions and appearances around the shooting season. For seventeen years, according to Harold Nicolson, ‘he did nothing at all but kill animals and stick in stamps.’ Nicolson then went on to say that though he was not worried about the shooting (we would think differently today as the amount of animals and birds slaughtered by George was huge) he thought he was idle. ‘The moment he marries and settles down at York cottage the basic stupidity of his character becomes apparent.
This is a rather vicious and nasty comment because George was not stupid. Yes, he lacked intellect and was old fashioned in many ways, but he was a practical and a good man who worked hard and wished to do the very best he could in the role which fell to his lot. On reading of his interactions with the various governments over which he reigned, and his relationship with Prime Ministers, no matter which party they represented, it becomes clear that his thoughts and his behaviour were based on sound common sense. Not flashes of intellectual brilliance, but what he thought was the best solution for the country.
Mary supported him throughout. She revered the institution of Monarchy and saw it as her life’s work and duty to put this above all else and this is where the reputation of being a cold hearted mother was formed. It is clear from reading this biography and also the brilliant book about her by James Pope-Hennessy, that she loved her children dearly. The Duke of Windsor, even when he was at his most bitter about his family, recollected the evenings spent sitting with her while she read to him and they discussed matters. The Queen wrote him loving letters when he was an adult saying how easy she found it to talk to him and how much she appreciated sharing confidences with him. This is not an unloving mother, but as previously mentioned, her carapace of shyness grew stronger and harder to breach the longer she was on the throne.
George was another matter entirely. Uncomfortable with his eldest son who he viewed as a bit of a wastrel, and disapproving of his love life, his relationship with him worsened as he got older, and in a famous quote he said that David would ruin himself after his (George’s) death and he hoped that the throne would to his brother and then to Lilibet. And of course he was right.
I have barely touched on George’s political views – I leave that to more scholarly reviewers to do so. I must, however, mention his part in the matter of the murder of the Romanov family, as he has been accused by many of a lack of action. I am in two minds about this but having read other books on the Romanovs, it was clear that getting them out of Russia was a lost cause from the start, though I do believe that the King was somewhat relieved to find he could, politically, do very little. Expedience saved him from having to make a decision.
A modest man in truth who, when being cheered and applauded during the celebrations of their Silver Jubilee, said that about the people ‘they must really like me for myself’ .
I liked him too.
Elaine blogs at Random Jottings.
Jane Ridley, George V (Chatto & Windus, 2021). 978-0701188702, 624pp., hardback.
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