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Book review: ‘The Royal Governess’ revisits the queen’s past

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 7, 2020

The Royal Governess  (Berkley)
The Royal Governess (Berkley)
By Steve Donoghue Special to The Washington Post

Although perhaps the bulk of Wendy Holden’s readers in 2020 won’t recognize the name Marion Crawford, the main character of her new book, “The Royal Governess,” once upon a time, Crawford was a bestselling author and the center of a controversy that fascinated readers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Crawford was governess to Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, the daughters of the Duke and Duchess of York. The girls, who referred to her as “Crawfie,” cherished her energy and honesty, and she retained her position even when the duke and duchess became King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1936 and their elder daughter, “Lilibet,” was suddenly heir to the throne.

Those years are the playground of Holden’s novel, which begins with Marion studying at a teacher training college in her native Scotland and falling in love with a handsome young communist named Valentine whose impetuous anti-imperialist sloganeering is the author’s first gesture at foreshadowing but certainly not her last. Marion gets a job in the household of Lady Rose Leveson-Gower and quickly comes to the attention of Lady Rose’s sister, the Duchess of York, and finds herself installed as governess to the two little princesses.

Once “The Royal Governess” gets to the Windsors, it takes off like a grand parade. Holden obviously relishes bringing to life her famous cast of characters, from the nervous, stuttering Duke of York to the tall, imperious Queen Mary, to strong-willed daughter Elizabeth (who would go on to reign longer than any monarch in English history), to her saucy, free-spirited sister, Margaret, to the Duke’s brother David (who would make history as King Edward VIII for abdicating to marry Wallis Simpson).

Standing out gloriously even from this colorful cast is Queen Elizabeth, by far Holden’s most winning fictional creation in these pages. Marion has no sooner met her than she’s making the obvious comparison: “She was like something out of P. G. Wodehouse.” The queen burbles, she merrily slings lingo such as “Tinkety-tonk, old fruit,” she slurps gin at untoward hours and underneath it all, as one character observes, she’s as tough as an old boot. Whether she’s charming a war-wary Ambassador Joe Kennedy or bucking up the spirits of her timid husband, this Queen Elizabeth thoroughly steals the show, both from Marion Crawford and from the future Queen Elizabeth, the teenager waiting in the wings throughout the book. Here, as in all other books, that other Elizabeth remains stubbornly opaque.

Of course, a part of the charm of this performance is hindsight; Holden knows that Queen Elizabeth would go on to become the nationally beloved Queen Mother, clad in creamy frocks and feathered hats, smiling and waving to innumerable onlookers until her death in 2002 at age 101. Such knowledge gives license to project that quippy, luminous figure back into the past.

This can be as much a weakness as a strength when it’s overdone. Holden hardly ever passes up an opportunity to lean on her reader’s shoulder and whisper: Irony, huh? How about that irony? When we meet the future King George VI, he’s intently, desperately smoking (the king will develop lung cancer and die at age 56). Before she’s even met the little princesses, Crawford makes a comment about how “James II and Bonnie Prince Charlie lost their kingdoms.” (She will live through the abdication crisis while King Edward VIII will lose his kingdom.) When precocious Margaret flirts with Ambassador Kennedy’s son John, a character sniffs, “A young man like that will never amount to anything.”

It’s an overindulgence, but it’s this author’s only one. In all other respects, “The Royal Governess” is spirited, virtually clockwork enjoyment, humanizing the Windsor world through the death of two kings, the ordeal of an abdication and the very real dangers of a world war. Through it all, Marion Crawford is convincingly passionate and respected by everybody in her glittering new world.

In the real world, it didn’t last. The aforementioned controversy happened in 1950 when Crawfie committed the ultimate act of lèse-majesté by writing about her experiences as royal governess in a book, “The Little Princesses.” The book sold briskly, but the royal family felt betrayed. They never spoke to Crawford again, and when she died in 1988 at age 78, neither the Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth II nor Princess Margaret so much as mentioned that fact in public.

“The Royal Governess” shades that tension very neatly into the final pages of a very satisfying reading experience. It’s doubtful the queen would enjoy it, but pretty much everybody else will.

Donoghue is a book reviewer living in Boston.

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