Queen Mary the Misunderstood

Queen Mary was a remarkable and interesting woman whose unique traits have been overlooked. Too much focus on her eccentricities and selfishness distracts from what is really interesting about her.

A few weeks before James Pope-Hennessy published his biography Queen Mary (1959), the life of the consort of George V, Alan Lascelles (The Keeper of the Royal Archives, and former private secretary to the Queen) published an article called ‘A New School of Royal Biography’ in The Sunday Times. It was a publicity piece, designed to help the image of the Royal family as much as Pope-Hennessy’s book sales.

Lascelles dismissed the ‘impeccably monumental’ biographies written by a previous generation of Royal biographers (people like Sidney Lee) as not being ‘true and lively representations’. He has no time for ‘pedestal’ biographies who make their subject’s strengths seem weaker by concealing their faults. He is equally dismissive of sensational debunkers and, a particularly amusing type, the ‘moron who is in continual ecstasy from the discovery that, in ordinary circumstances, Royal personages behave like ordinary people.’ This was all in the service of promoting Pope-Hennessy, who had written the most transparent, lively, Royal biography yet.

However, the book was double edged. When Lascelles read it, he cried. But Harold Nicholson, George V’s biographer, wrote to Pope-Hennessy saying the biography, ‘has all the virtues of serious biography, of studious social history and of a romantic novel.’ That blend of the serious and the sentimental was intentional. It allowed Pope-Hennessy to smuggle in a big load of irony. As he wrote to his brother: ‘I think I can get away with murder if everything is presented as making Grannie grander and stronger & more utterly marvellous.’

The Quest for Queen Mary is a book of notes, written by Pope-Hennessy, about the research he did for that biography. It has notes of interviews with dozens of Royal people: the former Edward VIII, Prince Henry Duke of Gloucester, assorted great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria, and all manner of minor German royals. One of the things we learn from these interviews is that Lascelles’ claim is palpably untrue. Royal personages do not behave anything like ordinary people.

Throughout The Quest we see Pope-Hennessy’s ambivalent attitude on full display. He thinks Royals are weird, has a deep interest in how to present their unique psychology, and makes endless remarks about their vulgar furniture and poor taste in architecture. A lot of the notes aren’t about Queen Mary at all but a series of Brideshead Revisited style observations about the oddities of Royal people. At one point Pope-Hennessy says ‘you can get on to plain terms with the species, like an ornithologist making friends with some rare wild duck.’ He described the family chapel at Sandringham as being like ‘the private chapel of a family of ailing megalomaniacs.’

The whole point of The Quest for Queen Mary is that Pope-Hennessy wanted to leave a record of all this byzantine bizarreness which he wouldn’t have been able to publish back in 1959. His visit to the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, one of the longest sections, is written like a P.G.Wodehouse story. The Duke is reported saying at dinner one night, ‘Funny shape for a country, Holland. Damn funny shape.’

When Queen Mary does appear in these notes, it is not often with praise. The Duke of Gloucester, her son, was clearly an unhappy child and Pope-Hennessy says his parents ‘have a lot to answer for.’ It seems to have been well known among the people he interviewed that George V was a bully to his boys and that Queen Mary never said a single thing about it because she respected him too much as a monarch. Daisy Bigge, daughter of George V’s private secretary, told Pope-Hennessy that QM was ‘frightened to death’ of GV. She also confirmed that Queen Mary was a ‘moral coward’, something the Duke of Windsor, another son, had said. Daisy Bigge told Pope-Hennessy that Queen Mary ‘wouldn’t let’ people love her. And the Marquess of Cambridge, Mary’s nephew, said QM ‘had no friends.’

All of this starts to get us into the question of how to present QM. In Kenneth Rose’s biography of George V she is given the usual side-show presence as a wife of no consequence, presented as a charming eccentric, and highly biddable. Pope-Hennessy gives a more sympathetic portrait but it is laced with irony and his true view of her is doubtful. He sees Royals as eccentric and detached. (Although he is curiously sympathetic to the Duke of Windsor, who says rather alarmingly at one point, ‘You realise there are only three completely royal persons alive now? My sister, my brother and myself.’)

A review of The Quest by Alexander Waugh in NYRB took a fairly negative view of Queen Mary, saying ‘her faults were legion, outweighing her qualities by a factor, let’s say, of ten to one.’ He collects a series of her traits that position her in a very unfavourable light.

She was stiff and cold and distant, awkward in conversation, often standing silent and rigid, cleaning her teeth with her tongue, waiting for others to talk. She was a rotten and unsympathetic mother who exiled her four-year-old on account of his epilepsy; she was parsimonious, so that her dinner guests left unsated from her table; she gave cheap and gaudy presents made of plastic to her family for Christmas. She was egocentric, avaricious, bad-tempered, and inconsiderate. “The truth is she was damned selfish,” her extra equerry, Lord Claud Hamilton, told Pope-Hennessy. “One of the most selfish human beings I have ever known.”

Rosemary Hill, reviewing The Quest for Queen Mary, in the London Review of Books said that to her mother and her mother’s friends, ‘to say that someone ‘sat there like Queen Mary’ was to indicate that ‘a terminal blight had been cast over the occasion.’ Similarly Harry Mount’s FT review looks at ‘the absolute oddness of royal life, and the quite bonkers things royals say to each other.’ The Literary Review also made much of her shortcomings, such as, ‘Her coldness is a recurring theme, as is her tendency to abandon long-standing friends who were inconsiderate enough to fall ill or grow old.’ Craig Brown in the Daily Mail highlights QM’s selfishness and lack of maternal instinct.

We might start to think that, contra Lascelles, Pope-Hennessy too was a pedestal biographer and Queen Mary needs to be seen for what she was.

However, what also comes through from The Quest for Queen Mary is just how interesting an individual Queen Mary was. A second series of examples can be compiled that show her to have some unusual and fascinating cognitive traits. 

  • She remembered the handwriting of a woman from Australia who had written to her fifteen years earlier. She had phenomenal power of memory recall.

  • She could hear what everyone was saying at a table of thirty people. She never misused her ability, but she knew exactly what was going on.

  • She was a collector and curator, making all of her own labels, and creating a family museum in Frogmore. Her catalogue system was first rate. Everything was labelled. It was said she could have been a curator.

  • She had an unrivalled and entirely accurate knowledge of all members of her extensive royal relations across Europe. Everyone comments on her incredibly detailed knowledge, always immediately accessible to her.

  • She had a lifelong interest in royal history, especially of objects lost over time. She was highly completionist and chased down hundreds of items over the years. She had such an encyclopaedic knowledge that she could often identify mislabellings of royal ancestors in antiques shops she visited. 

One of the things Waugh chides Queen Mary for is making her lady in waiting read to her for seven hours. That sort of demanding behaviour seems typical of Royalty, especially someone like Princess Margaret. More interesting is to note that reading that much is not typical Royal behaviour, or typical behaviour full stop. Queen Mary was read extensively in History and literature, picking up Dostoevsky as an old lady. There was a family story that in all the time spent waiting for her mother, she read a three volume history of the Dutch Republic. 

Similarly, her famous remark about punctuality — ‘Why should anybody be late? I know exactly how long it takes me to dress’ — can be taken as entertaining high handedness, Royally myopic even. But it actually reveals a sense of precision and focus on details that is unusual and interesting.

She was in fact much more interested in objects and things than people. There’s also a story about her waking up in the middle of the night in India to hear rain and she ran out in her nightdress to move her boxes. And the Marquess of Cambridge said, ‘all her acquaintances could be traced to some logical purpose — shared interest in collecting jade etc.’ There is of course nothing wrong with this, unless you happen to belong to a social grouping that prizes position, status, and relationships above all else. Mary strikes me as lonely, someone who was enlivened by the prospect of a friendship of mutual interest.

Berating Queen Mary for her shyness or her awkward manner is also unfair. She was very badly treated by her father and then her husband. Once when her father had a temper tantrum she ‘sat there… staring at nothing.’ He was described as being a vile bully who had ‘epileptic rages’. (This is all tastefully toned down in Pope-Hennessy’s biography.) Her technique as an adult was to quiz people about themselves; she was sometimes too inquisitive, but that was her way of overcoming terrible shyness as someone with a public role.

The accusation that she gave cheap plastic presents (a sign of her selfishness) is also unfair. One person in The Quest says she always gave such thoughtful gifts, another explains that she gave gifts according to their colour. Unusual perhaps, but rather than a sign of her moral failings it might perhaps be seen as yet another interesting trait. Rather than dealing with a moral or social failure, we are looking at an unusual woman with a unique mind.

The biggest problem is that Pope-Hennessy and others make their biographical views of Queen Mary social and moral. On that score she does look odd and perhaps even cruel. Royalty is unusual and Queen Mary is extreme in that dimension. Especially in her rigid beliefs about the importance of the monarchy and its religious purpose. 

But she was exceptional in her natural cognitive and emotional traits, and affected by her parents and her marriage. She is clearly a remarkably woman, who has been very much underrated both when she is made into an eccentric caricature, as she is in The Crown, and when she is portrayed as some sort of heartless Royal snob.

If we look in The Quest for Queen Mary for the real woman behind all this facade we might find a clever, overlooked, restricted individual who could have been a much more sympathetic figure if the conditions of her life had allowed, but who has some remarkable traits we ought to appreciate on their own merit. In the end, the criticisms are shallow. She was a fascinating woman, largely misunderstood by a lot of conventional men.