KING GEORGE V by Kenneth Rose
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For Britain, George V (1865-1936) was the ill-prepared, unprepossessing king who turned out well. The world-at-large regards him primarily as an old fogy: a harsh father to Edward, later the Duke of Windsor, and Bertie, later George VI; the husband of Queen Mary, who wore toques and long skirts to the end. With equally massive detail in the private and public spheres, and less need to be discreet than the earlier, official private-and-public biographers (John Gore, 1941; Harold Nicolson, US 1953), Rose (The Later Cecils, Superior Person) throws new light on George's character and conduct. The son of ben vivant Edward VII, George was, by contrast, ""an old-fashioned country gentleman"" whose pleasures were hunting and collecting stamps. Honorable and prudent in his political counsels, he talked too much in private and appeared dour in public. He did not browbeat his sons, however, though he could be ""astringent"" (about duty and decorum)--and he probably did not utter the words for which he's best-and-worst known: ""My father was frightened of his mother, I was frightened of my father, and I am damned well going to see to it..."" (But Queen Mary did, alas, wear outmoded apparel to please him--not by choice.) In the major crises of his reign, George comes off well: punctilious in giving his promise, in 1910, to create new peers (if the Lords didn't pass the Liberal government's reformist Parliament Bill); sagacious in selecting Stanley Baldwin over Lord Curzon to succeed the terminally-ill Bonar Law as P.M. in 1923, ""for one reason alone: that he sat in the House of Commons""; and chiefly responsible for resolving the 1931 financial and political crisis by persuading Labour's Ramsay MacDonald to stay on, with Liberal and Conservative participation. Where George does not shine is as regards the fate of his cousin, Tsar Alexander, and his family. ""Correspondence between the King and his ministers in March and April 1917. . .shows that the British government would willingly have offered them asylum but for the fears expressed by Buckingham Palace."" The documentation is chilling, whether or not George's fears for his popularity and his very throne were justified. Some readers may wish to skim certain parts (on the Honours lists, Royal friends, etc.), which Rose's topical arrangement facilitates; but there is vitality as well as thoroughness in the telling. It's one of those portraits that becomes sympathetic in becoming fully and unapologetically human.

Pub Date: April 12th, 1984
Publisher: Knopf