From bedchambers to ballrooms, a revealing portrait of daily life among the royals.
Steeped in British history, Tinniswood (History/Univ. of Buckingham; The Long Weekend: Life in the English Country House, 2016, etc.) offers an intimate and entertaining look at the private lives of monarchs from Elizabeth I to the current occupants of Buckingham Palace. Funded grandly by their subjects, kings, queens, and their families have always inhabited “a cocoon of support to ease their paths through life”: cooks, dressers, housekeepers, valets, wet-nurses and governesses, pages, footmen, gardeners, butlers, secretaries, and a hierarchy of staff overseers. “The rituals of royal care,” Tinniswood writes, “are there to separate sovereigns from the rest, to remind their subjects that they are not like other people, not even presidents and billionaire executives.” In centuries past, body servants included a bedchamber-woman who handed the queen her fan, poured water out of a jug when the queen washed her hands, and pulled on the queen’s gloves; a page was called in to put on the queen’s shoes. Some 1,200 employees attend to the household of Elizabeth II; her great-great-grandmother Victoria had 921 salaried retainers. Royals were rarely alone. Charles II, annoyed that Whitehall palace was “cluttered with people,” devised a set of household ordinances to control the throngs. Royal palaces, the author asserts, were not “like some regal version of Downtown Abbey”; Whitehall, particularly, “was more like a vast apartment complex” with around 1,500 lodgings for countless servants, government staff, menials (who slept in closets), and squatters. Tinniswood cheerfully chronicles the flirtations, affairs, family squabbles, back-stabbing, and jockeying for favor that characterized the royal courts, even giving pets a quick nod. George V, for example, doted on Charlotte, a parrot who had the habit of defecating on the tablecloth. The author also recounts the madness of George III, whose “weeping, insomnia, and feverish agitation” may have been caused by acute attacks of porphyria or, as recent historians suggest, “recurring bouts of manic-depressive psychosis.” Some sovereigns, the author admits, “are more interesting than others.”
Deft, zesty social history.