Thursday, 15 September 2011

New books: A privileged life on the royal sideline

Many may remember Margaret Rhodes only for being interviewed by Peter Sissons on BBC shortly after the news of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother of Britain’s death had been announced, an interview which many found insensitive and intrusive. Apparently Sissons was not aware that the Hon Mrs Rhodes, the Queen Mother’s niece and Woman of the Bedchamber, had been present at her aunt’s deathbed only a few hours before.
This episode goes entirely unmentioned in Margaret Rhodes’s recently published memoirs, The Final Curtsey: The Autobiography of Margaret Rhodes, First Cousin of the Queen and Niece of the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, which opens with a moving account of the Queen Mother’s death. While royal employees writing their memoirs or talking to the press is generally frowned upon, Rhodes has spoken to the media on many occasions and is obviously one of those who are sufficiently trusted to be allowed to do so.
The youngest child of the 16th Baron Elphinstone and his wife Mary (the Queen Mother’s eldest sister), Margaret was seven years junior to her nearest sibling, but only a year older than her first cousin, Princess Elizabeth. This meant that she came to be a close companion of the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, occasionally living with them, for instance at Windsor Castle during parts of World War II. In 1991, when she had been a widow for ten years, she was asked to become Woman of the Bedchamber to the Queen Mother, “a mix of Lady-in-Waiting and companion”. She believes the Queen Mother came to regard her as her “third daughter” and she has remained close to Queen Elizabeth II to this day.
Thus she has been in a position to observe things closely, but remains careful not to give much away. Indeed the book offers little that is new to those who have already read a few books on the British royal family and many of the anecdotes told by Mrs Rhodes are well-known from other books. There are also the by now familiar “corrections” from people in the inner circle: no, the Queen Mother did not drink a lot. And no, she did not hate the Duchess of Windsor.
One exception is a rare look behind the closed doors of the monarch’s weekly audiences with the Prime Minister, about which Margaret Rhodes is able to tell us that when the young Queen Elizabeth II had her first meeting with Winston Churchill, “she was so over awed at being in the presence of the great man that she hardly dared to speak”, while Churchill “was overcome with emotion and wept tears of chivalric adoration”.
From someone this close to the royal family one might perhaps have expected something contributing to the readers’ understanding of their characters, but this Margaret Rhodes does not deliver. There are in fact not many characterisations in this book, neither of her relatives nor of other people she has met. About meeting Nelson Mandela she has nothing more to say than that “I like to think that [...] I had rounded the circle as far as South African politics were concerned” as she had met Smuts decades before. The most memorable thing about the Dalai Lama was apparently what kind of shoes he wore.
One exception is perhaps Princess Margaret, who her cousin considers “missed her vocation; she should have been in cabaret”. She adds that her cousin had “such great promise, beauty, intelligence and charm”, but that she was “very indulged, especially by her father” and “did have the most awful bad luck with men”. She concludes that “the Almighty usually gets the right people to be born first”, but only a brief look at the recent history of the British monarchy shows that in the two generations preceding Elizabeth II the person born first was not the right one.
On the same topic, Mrs Rhodes believes her cousin Elizabeth “hoped she might have one [a brother] and be let off the hook, but deep down she knew that it wasn’t very likely. She accepted that she would be Queen one day but thought it was a long way off”.
When writing about the euphoria of VE Day she admits that she does not remember much of it herself and quotes instead from her cousin’s diary, which is in itself quite a scoop (but if the terse, factual statements of the diary of 1945 is representative the future official biographer of Elizabeth II should not expect too much from her diaries).
Except for her closeness to the royal family Margaret Rhodes’s upbringing seems to have been rather the prototype of British pre-war upper class child-raising and she compares it herself to Downton Abbey and Gosford Park. She never went to school, yet apparently thinks she did not miss out on much and considers herself self-educated by virtue of having read many books, which of course indicates a certain unawareness of what an education is really about.
She worked for the MI6 during World War II and was thereafter hired to work for a businessman by the name of Denys Rhodes, with whom she began an affair and married after he had had his marriage to his first wife annulled.
Two chapters are dedicated to their travels in Asia and Africa. Such descriptions of foreign journeys are standard in the memoirs of British aristocrats of a certain age, but here, like in so many other memoirs, they are rather uninteresting because of Mrs Rhodes’s lack of education and her not making much of an attempt at understanding the “exotic” customs witnessed. Thus one ends up with rather meaningless descriptions such as this: “He danced again, but more soberly and the he spoke a few words, which were of course incomprehensible to us, but apparently it was deemed sufficient to keep the crowd satisfied”.
It is also a drawback that the author tends to get her facts wrong, particularly when it comes to years. Early on she claims that her eldest sister Elizabeth was “ten-years-old” when she was a bridesmaid for their eponymous aunt, but as the wedding took place in 1923 and Elizabeth was born in 1911 this obviously does not match up. The wedding was “solemnized at St Margaret’s, Westminster, where I was also to be married”, she tells us, but in fact the royal wedding took place next-door in Westminster Abbey.
Later we hear that Princess Margaret, born in August 1930, was “a couple of months short of eight” in May 1937 and she even manages to get her own age wrong she claims to have been “eighty-one, soon to eighty-two” when the Queen Mother died (she was in fact five years younger). In a rare attempt at seeing things in a greater context she states that her aunt’s and uncle’s state visit to France in 1938 took place at “a time when, despite the Munich Agreement, many people believed that war was inevitable”, but in fact the state visit happened more than two months before Munich. There are also at least two photos which are obviously misdated by some two decades, while her sister Jean appears in a photo dated 2000 although she died the year before.
The book is written with a certain sense of humour and is not free of self-irony. There are some funny stories (“Poor Britannia. She would have hated being Cool”, the Queen Mother said to Margaret Rhodes’s daughter at the outset of Tony Blair’s premiership), but there is one so-called hilarious story which is at best in bad taste if not downright disgusting. “I have been assured by my children that I am a consummate hostess even when disaster looms”, Mrs Rhodes tells us and continues to relate how on one “mid-winter occasion [...] our overworked heating system blew up” and they had to receive their guests in candlelight and rearrange the menu. Then the housekeeper appeared and said “that the cowman’s wife had arrived to say that she thought her husband was dead and please, could Mr Rhodes go over and see if he was actually dead”.
One hardly believes one’s eyes when one reads that Denys Rhodes refused to do so, but sent the gardener instead. “Ten minutes later the hatch opened again and the message was that Mr Mallet thought the cowman was dead, although he had twitched a couple of times”. Still neither a dying nor a dead cowman could get Mr Rhodes to leave his dinner party. “The final request, death having been established, was for Mr Rhodes to go and lay the poor man out. This pleasure, I’m afraid, Denys also declined”.
After this callous account of how they refused to help in the face of death, Marie-Antoinette Rhodes concludes that “the whole macabre sequence was unbelievably funny and our rather ribald weekend guests were convulsed”. A recently widowed guest was the only exception, seeming “merely bemused”. However, she later wrote to say “that perhaps she had been taking death too seriously – which was very tactful of her”. Margaret Rhodes concludes: “Queen Elizabeth would have revelled in the situation if she had been there”. Would she have found it equally hilarious if her own husband had been the one dying, one wonders?

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