Windsor Castle Gave Me a Boost
After I finished my dissertation, I managed to reach the holy grail of all historians who work on the monarchy. I was allowed to work in the archives that belonged to the woman on my mug. I’d applied once before and been turned down. I applied a second time and was accepted. This gave my writing career a royal boost.
The Royal Archives are housed in the Round Tower of Windsor Castle. To enter, you speak to a policeman at a gate in the town. He phones ahead to see if you’re all right. Then you walk up the hill past St. George’s Chapel on the left to check in with a guard at a desk. He’s wearing a red uniform designed by the king who lost the colonies, George III. With the red guard’s okay, you climb up a long stone staircase. At the top are a series of cream-paneled rooms, a thick blue carpet and Victorian furniture. Archivists bring you one box of papers to work on at a time. Then they talk to you about what you’re finding in the break room over instant coffee and cookies. Everyone meets in there for thirty minutes at 11 a.m. to discuss what they’re doing.
I once saw Prince Edward washing a cup at the break room sink. He was working on a documentary about King Edward VIII’s Nazi connections. For the most part the coffee room was filled with professors, not princes.
Crowds of tourists walked beneath the windows of the Royal Archives. Another time I was sitting at a table in the window when someone from the crowd walking by waved to me. I thought it was polite to wave back. Big mistake. A bigger crowd suddenly assembled and there were two dozen people waving at me. They were frantic. Maybe they thought I was Prince Albert in a can?
I read a long series of letters between Queen Victoria’s private secretary and his wife. They were legible and funny. They were about family life as well as office politics. They were often about exasperating squabbles. Tempests in royal teacups. For example, who should be allowed and who should not allowed to ride the royal ponies in Scotland? Henry Ponsonby wrote up the pony question for his wife Mary with mock gravity as if it were a constitutional crisis. Making jokes was his way of staying sane. I thought they’d make for a readable and entertaining book.
I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but I was also re-orienting my career. I wanted to defend myself to fellow academics less and write more amusing, narrative history for general readers. I wanted to grade fewer stacks of undergraduate papers. I wanted to immerse myself in the lives of the Ponsonbys. I was still interested in the light this would throw on the Victorian monarchy. I still wanted to know why two intelligent people would devote their lives to such an unusual, and often absurd combination of the medieval and the modern.
What I didn’t know was that I was trying to find myself in them as well. I was trying to probe my own fascination with the monarchy by looking at two people whose entire careers were caught up in it. Why did they? Why am I? Who were they? Who am I?
The ostensible subject of my book was a couple who worked for Queen Victoria. One was a colonel in the army who’d served as a young man in the Crimean War. He later managed the queen’s public, private and financial affairs for a quarter of a century. The other started as a maid of honor who later served on committees that assisted trades unions and helped found the first college for women at Cambridge. The real subject of the book was an attempt to pull up my own royal obsession by the roots and see what was there.
I met friends along the way. There was the painter who was a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. She had the right to put an RP in back of her name on an envelope. She often asked me with liquid irony, “How was Windsor Castle today, darling?” There was the retired diplomat, who lived adjacent to the queen’s Scottish estate and tried to pry gossip from the equally ex royal housemaids who lived in cottages at the end of his drive. Supposedly he was doing this on my behalf. The ex staff members were always polite and unforthcoming in their responses to him.
There were also two royal archivists. One I got to know well enough so that she came to visit me in the States. When we went to meet the archivists at the White House, they proudly showed off their new digital scanners. She pointed out a scanned letter to the first President Bush, signed only “Margaret.” They had misidentified it as having come from the queen’s sister, Princess Margaret. It had really come from the prime minister, Mrs. Thatcher. Oops.
The other archivist was married to a man who looked after the queen’s art collection. Dinner parties at their house were good-humored fights about the meaning of words, including flights to the bookshelf to bring back dictionaries, and the serving of coffee not in porcelain, but in rough Scandinavian mugs like the ones my parents had in Ohio. This was Britain and its monarchy, as well as the tiny slice of the Royal Household that I encountered, in the era I came to know it, as the 1990s faded into the new millennium.
The most important patrons and friends of this, my second book, were Laura Ponsonby and Kate Russell. They were sisters who lived in the remains of a medieval priory about an hour from London. Their grandfather had moved into the house just before the First World War. Arthur Ponsonby had been a Labour member of Parliament, and as the first Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, led the Labour party in the House of Lords. Arthur was Henry and Mary Ponsonby’s youngest son. Laura and Kate were Henry and Mary Ponsonby’s great grandchildren.
Laura, the elder sister, had worked in public relations for the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. She lived in London during the week, and came down to Shulbrede at the weekends. Kate and her husband, Ian, lived there all the time. Kate had been a book designer. Ian was an architectural engineer who advised clients on the maintenance of historic buildings. This was a useful expertise to have if you lived at Shulbrede. A medieval priory that has survived into the twenty-first century needs fairly constant attention. At Shulbrede they had Ponsonby papers — diaries, letters, scrapbooks, photographs — that I hadn’t even dreamed existed. There was far more than at Windsor. I wrote them a letter on the suggestion of one of the Windsor archivists. Kate telephoned me and said they’d be happy to see me.
More important than those papers, and their helpfulness in letting me read them at Shulbrede, was the attitude that Kate and Laura had to all things royal. It wasn’t contemptuous or dismissive. It wasn’t disrespectful. It wasn’t overly interested, either. Their outlook had elements of all of those, mixed together in such a way that when the topic came up, you could always expect a wry joke delivered with a straight face. If the subject of the current queen came up around the kitchen table, Laura would raise her head distractedly, as if we were talking about a hen pecking at grain in the forecourt of the garage. “Who? Queenie?” she’d say.
They would also make gentle fun of me by using an expression dating from their great grandparents’ day. Anyone who had too great a fascination with the royal family, too great an interest in an institution that was better for jokes than for politics, was said to have royal culte. They regarded this as a harmless superstition, like astrology, or putting a tooth under the pillow in return for a reward from the tooth fairy. One sister would say to the other, as if I weren’t in the room, “Does Bill have royal culte, would you say? A little bit?” It was an affectionate tease.
What they never said was that to be interested in royal things was gay. They didn’t think that. They didn’t often use the word gay. But if anyone was gay, their immediate assumption was that that person was likely to be more interesting than anyone who was not. Have I made you see how utterly at home those sisters made me feel when I went to stay with them at Shulbrede? Eventually they invited me to stay the weekend. I shared three meals a day with them at their kitchen table. Sunday lunches were in the dining room with a big walk-in fireplace. Tea in warm weather was out in the garden. I loved them both from the very start.
Laura and Kate had other famous relatives. They were my first brush with Byron. One of Byron’s most celebrated love affairs had been with Caroline Lamb, whose maiden name was Ponsonby. I think there may have been an engraving of her on the wall in the dining room. But it was certainly the feeling during conversations in the kitchen at Shulbrede that if “Queenie” were a hen, then Caro Lamb was someone who’d just stepped away from the table for a moment, was out somewhere, and would soon be back to tell us the trouble she’d made. She might drink a “Shulbrede special,” which was what I was offered too, half vermouth, half gin, and all good. For Kate and Laura people who’d been dead for centuries were treated as if they were alive and well. These dead people were likely through anecdote, through recollection, through a reading of their surviving papers, to tell us something that was interesting or instructive or fun.
Writing doesn’t always arise from desire or misery or a perception of something amiss. Sometimes it comes from spheres mysteriously aligning. Getting to know Kate and Laura was the world of friendship and of research coinciding like a rare eclipse of sun and moon. The first time I took the train back to London after having spent several hours with them at their kitchen table I felt as if I were flying. The iron wheels didn’t quite touch the track. They sang. I didn’t quite sit in my seat. I floated. Everything was radiant and rushing forward.