The Oxford Book of Royal Anecdotes, ed. Elizabeth Longford. Oxford University Press, £6.99 paper, 546 pages.
reviewed by Otto Steinmayer
My editor gave me The Oxford Book of Royal Anecdotes with an order for a review, and I took it to the premises of the BRRI (Bedside Reading Research Institute, i.e. home) and ran it through the testing stations of Kitchen Table, Bed-Head-Pillow, and Toilet. I am pleased to report that OBRA proved successfully up to standard, more interesting than the News, engendering a widescreen dream (directed by Kevin Costner), and, well...
Longford's is a wonderfully enjoyable collection.
I hope, though, I
will not be suspected of lèse majesté if I as a democrat
wonder out loud what all the fuss is about royalty. (British royalty
anyway. A book of "royal anecdotes" could cover a lot of families,
stories about the lesser Chinese dynasts perhaps. Oxford apparently
considers there's only one worth the title.)
Power fascinates, absolute power fascinates
absolutely. It tickles our
fantasy to read stories about people who we think can do whatever they
want. Elizabeth II however is left with little of her ancestors'
privilege. Soon she'll be paying income tax like the rest of us, and
I'd hate to be in her bracket. Prince Charles must grumble in private
about the press prying into his marriage. Henry VIII in similar cases
expressed his annoyance directly on the bodies of his critics.
Modern advances in government have rendered kingship a largely ceremonial job. Dictators have the old power; among their drawbacks is their unspeakable vulgarity. Heaven save us from books of anecdotes about cabinet ministers! Who needs office politics writ large?
Once upon a time, in less systematized ages, as
Louis XIV put it, the
state was the king: government was personal, personality mattered. When
the king was intelligent, government went intelligently; when the king
was lazy, officals snoozed, crafty kings raised a race of minor
Machiavellis, and under weak rulers all hell broke loose. Funloving
kings led a funloving people, and in the decades Victoria was "not
amused," society loyally adopted Victorian morality.
I guess that from the days we followed club in hand the sons of war leaders, the baddest men with the gaudiest feathers, we have inherited an awe before lineage decked with glamour, and a fascination with its character.
The British monarchy has always been rather a sensational show. OBRA is not exactly a potted history of England---though it contains plenty of hints and might be a good place to start--rather character sketches of England's 60-odd kings and queens since the Boudicca who gave Nero a hard time in the mid 1st century.
"Anecdote" means, in brief, "secret history," the juicy bits that are not supposed to get into the official versions. Of course most of the royal anecdotes here do come from the official versions. Nowadays tabloids daily spill the intimate beans of royals waywardness, and ancient monks slipped similar scandal in between the leaves of their Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.
A collection of short and striking stories attracts the odd and the funny, the rare occasions when life itself sets up a punch line. To give you a taste, here are two of the more frivolous tales:
Of Elizabeth I:
This earl of Oxford [Edward de Vere], making of his low obeisance to queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart at which he was so abashed that he went to travell seven years. At his returne the queen welcomed him home and sayd, 'My lord, I had forgot the Fart.'
William IV's accession announced to him:
He was roused from bed to receive the news and composedly returned to bed, 'in order,' he explained, 'to enjoy the novelty of sleeping with a queen.'
All of Longford's anecdotes are entertaining. I
did regret seeing so
little on Charles II, certainly the wittiest as well as the most humane
of English kings.
Most of the book reads much bitterer than the
above. Some kings were
deposed, others murdered. (For a real shocker, see the section on
Edward II.) Henry VI and George III went mad, Queen Anne suffered
disease and betrayal. Who would envy a woman of whom her doctor said:
"I believe sleep was never more welcome to a weary traveller than death
was to her"? The cruelty of the human condition can often be more
apparent in the fates of the mighty than in the bulk of men.
It took all kinds to rule England. The present lady on the throne, happily for her, comes off as a likeable and skilled professional acting a tough role that has run longer than "Dr Who."
Longford includes references for the sources of
her stories to make it
easy for us to find more if were are curious. With her book, and maybe
a book of pictures to put faces to the names, you can spend a few good
evenings of profitable and adult entertainment.