Power and Glory: Elizabeth II and the Rebirth of Royalty, by Alexander Larman

210 0

Review by Elaine Simpson-Long

When Alexander Larman wrote The Crown in Crisis: Countdown to the Abdication about Edward VIII, he had no idea that it would be the beginning of a trilogy. The second part, published last year, was The Windsors at War: The Nazi Threat to the Crown. Meanwhile, Larman’s agent and equally renowned historian, Andrew Lownie, biographer of Mountbatten, also continued on with the narrative, following the life of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor after the Abdication in The Traitor King, reviewed here.

Now here is Larman’s third and final part and it seems that the author feared this might be anticlimactic in comparison, lacking the others’ “grand operatic themes of betrayal, power and a family torn apart by war and treachery”. All I can say is that his fears are ungrounded, and I found it as just interesting as the previous books.

While reading, the question crossed my mind as it has done in the past; just what do we expect of the Royal Family? This book dropped through my letterbox in the midst of the most ridiculous furore regarding the Princess of Wales and wild speculation from the press and social media as to just what was going on. Sadly now we know and I can only hope that the family will now be left in peace. It seems to me that we expect the Royal Family to be perfect. Live better than us, never get ill, never have sore feet, or toothache, always smile, always be grateful, and always bow to our wishes and give us what we want. It is a life that is free of the worries of bills and mortgages but goodness me, not a life I would want.

On reading Power and Glory I gain the impression that the Royal Family have very little of both. This book covers the period after the Abdication, through the Second World War up to the coronation of Queen Ellizabeth and, quite frankly, it all felt that they had a hard slog. George VI, a shy man with a stammer (as we all know from the film The Kings’s Speech), never wanted to be King. Indeed, Queen Mary records that he wept on her shoulder when he knew it was coming. The burden of kingship lay heavily on him, and it coincided with the start of the war and the worry and stress it entailed. His life seemed one of unremitting drudgery, and fear that he was not doing a good job and would be
found wanting. The famous phrase we see on mugs these days, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, certainly applied to the King, and in the end his health, not helped by his heavy smoking, gave way and he died in his fifties totally worn out and run down.

The sense that he did his duty and did his best is very clear. He was dearly loved by his wife and daughters even if others were a bit sniffy about him. Chips Channon was very sarky about his lack of charisma and charm, and about the family in general: “I don’t think the royal family is popular, certainly not the king and Queen who are tolerated. Nobody hates then, nobody loves them”. He was wrong. By the end of the second world war the King and Queen had gained the respect and love of the British people, but you cannot expect Chips to say so. He was pretty nasty about everyone so his little digs can be ignored.

Throughout the war, the Duke of Windsor continued blithely on his way, evincing his usual lack of understanding of anything that was outside his purview. It was Noel Coward who said that a statue should be erected of Mrs Simpson in every town in England for the blessing she had bestowed upon the country, in relieving us of the trial of having Edward as King.

Try as I might it is almost impossible to dredge up any liking for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. I have a certain amount of sympathy for her as I have always felt she was caught up in a web from which she wished to extricate herself but, instead, found herself saddled with a needy man-child. I give her credit for forging a life of trying to keep the Duke happy and occupied, but as the years passed she seemed to harden and become more and more bitter and resentful.

The greed and avarice emanating from the Windsors is really rather distasteful. When the Duke left the throne he negotiated a settlement and a yearly allowance (this was personally from George VI) claiming he was short of money, when the truth was he had much more than he admitted to. The spending of the Windsors was excessive and they were always looking for more sources of income. On a visit to the UK, the Duchess was robbed of a magnificent cache of jewellery. At the time she tried to blame the staff of the household in which they were staying as guests, but this came to nothing and the case was never solved. There were rumours that it was actually organised by the Duchess herself in order to claim on the
insurance. Far fetched maybe, but it seems that some of the pieces reported missing turned up at Sotheby’s for sale after her death.

It is impossible to read Power and Glory without the inevitable vision of the ‘Montecito Two’ floating into the reader’s mind. So many parallels. So much familiar harping on about finances, so much stress on their so-called poverty. Both the Duke of Windsor and Prince Harry have written books using their much despised family connections to make money. Harry actually complained that they had to do this as his father had “literally cut them off financially”. I’m not sure there are many 37 year old men around who rely on their father to support them.

After the death of George VI the allowance he paid to his brother stopped and then the Duke turned really nasty:

our situation is further aggravated by the fact that I have just suffered the
loss of £10,000 per annum through the payment of the voluntary allowance I had from poor
Bertie being stopped at his tragic death. This serious loss of income has come at a most
inopportune time and will necessitate a complete revision of the style of living we have
maintained every since our marriage as benefits the position of a son of a sovereign.

He was also very sniffy about his niece and Prince Phillip, and vitriolic about his family in letters to the Duchess when it became clear that they were not going to budge and reinstate his allowance. Even as Wallis had complained to her aunt that she wished the world would forget about the Windsors, she and the Duke were aware that their financial stability depended on not being forgotten. The Duke wrote to his wife:

fate certainly can be tough taking me away from you after two weeks of separation with my nose to the grindstone to repair the loss of income my very wealthy niece withholds…. When I think of having to make this ridiculous and costly trip instead of being together in Palm Beach is nobody’s business!

And so it continues to this day, the same sniping, the same family difficulties, the same stress and worry and strain that we all come across in daily life but at least we are not on a world stage and have every single thought and word dissected and put on display. I, along with many others, felt a deep sense of loss when Queen Elizabeth died. It has always seemed to me that she inherited the same sense of duty and care for others which her father felt.

Throughout her long reign she never put a foot wrong – sometimes she was accused of being boring and unfeeling and a bad mother but she never complained. She just got on with it. She came to the throne at the age of 25 and had to deal with all of that as well as grieving the loss of a beloved father and it was all done without publicly emoting or flinching or complaining. When I look back to how I was at that age it is really something.

[H]er uncle had been an appalling selfish king; her father a dutiful and serviceable one who had found his true mettle in wartime. But Elizabeth was someone quite different…her reign would not be without controversy, incident or upset but never would she be regarded by her loyal and adoring subjects as anything other than an inspiration to them all.

In her memoir Lady in Waiting, Anne Glenconner, one of the Queen’s ladies attending the Coronation, tells of waiting with the Queen to make her entrance as the music of Zadok the Priest grew to a climax. The Queen looked around and smiled, “Ready girls?” then they stepped forward into the Abbey to the sound of God Save the Queen.

The last few lines of Power and Glory brought a lump to my throat and I am not ashamed to say so.

Shiny New Books Logo

Elaine blogs at Random Jottings.

Alexander Larman, Power and Glory (W&N, 2024). 978-1399615525, 360pp., illus, hardback.

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)

Do tell us what you think - thank you.