‘In a century, this volume will be a point of reference’
Edited by Steven Brindle (Royal Collection Trust, £95)
IN 1913, Country Life published two immense and luxuriously bound volumes entitled Windsor Castle: An Architectural History. This limited edition told the story of Windsor’s evolution and has remained the standard account of the castle—until now. As the author, W. H. St John Hope, liked to point out, his great work was prepared at the direction of three successive sovereigns during a period of 20 years. This new volume at last supplants its predecessor, although for those fortunate enough to own both works—and have the space to accommodate them—they will surely sit together on the shelves.
In physical terms, this is another breathtakingly ambitious book, with 560 pages, nearly 40 plans, seven specially commissioned reconstruction drawings and 361 plates. There is no doubting that Windsor merits such fulsome treatment. By virtue of its continued royal occupation of nearly a millennium, it’s hard to think of a building richer in history than this. The book has taken, moreover, almost as long to produce as St John Hope’s tomes, having been planned after the fire of 1992 that devastated parts of the Upper Ward. Sir Jonathan Marsden, who has just stood down as director of the Royal Collection, deserves credit for bringing it to fruition at last.
The book tells the story of the castle afresh, and in the light of recent scholarship, through 32 chapters to the present. It incorporates the work of 11 specialist contributors, their essays brought together under the editorship of the architectural historian—and Country Life contributor—Dr Steven Brindle. Here, we follow the story from the Conquest—famously, the castle is actually named after an Anglo-Saxon palace in the neighbouring manor of what is now called Old Windsor —through its various expansions and re-buildings to the present. Where appropriate, there is valuable discussion of the social and political context of changes to the building. From the 14th century, the story of the College of St George is told in counterpoint to that of the royal apartments in the Upper Ward. There is discussion of the park and the wider context of the castle, but the focus is on the buildings within the walls.
In common with most accounts of the castle, the emphasis is on the development of the building by particular monarchs. This means that the overarching narrative, as well as the cast of principal characters involved—Henry I, Henry III, Edward III, Charles II, George III, George IV and Prince Albert and Queen Victoria—is broadly familiar.
Don’t be deceived, however: there is much fascinating new material here and the different authorial voices bestow a welcome variety of emphasis on the chapters. Judged overall, the book succeeds in organising an almost overwhelming body of material and fashions it into a coherent narrative. By any measure, this is a remarkable achievement.
The text is well supported throughout by the rich illustration of the volume. This helps convey a sense of one building evolving through time. Where plans, drawings, engravings, paintings and photographs fail, the book makes use of photo-realist reconstructions of medieval interiors. Indeed, only one period is not represented with visual magnificence in this remarkable book: the present. So, for example, the modern St George’s Hall, the centrepiece of the State Apartments, is pictured once under construction and once as a backdrop to a banquet, but never in isolation as an architectural space.
For a reader today, this omission, in such a sumptuous and important book, feels like a missed opportunity. It is of little significance now, as we can go and visit, but a century hence—when this volume will be a point of reference—readers might wonder at it.
Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus, £14.99)
AMONG THE hallmarks of Rose Tremain’s prose fiction, as well as unparallelled range and stylistic grace, is an invigorating combination of wit and emotional robustness. Spanning the past 40 years, her substantial corpus has eschewed anything remotely personal, but the roots of these qualities are laid bare in this concise, candid and fascinating memoir.
Material privilege is no substitute for maternal neglect. The author grew up with every advantage, save limitless parental love. During her childhood, that commodity was rationed, on occasion cruelly. Until the age of 10, life was punctuated by seemingly idyllic sojourns at her maternal grandparents’ Hampshire estate, ‘a holiday paradise’ of abundant food where she and her sister could run wild. Emotionally cauterised by the loss of their two sons, Granny and Grandpop minded about manners, but cared less for the living. ‘Seen but not heard’ was the order of the day, until her father left and the wheels of family life, already wobbly, came off. In the ensuing ‘sexual madness’, her mother—an anorexic who’d been sent to board at the age of six—married her husband’s cousin. He did his best, but ‘lovelessness can lay the seeds of tyranny’. It was Nanny, a stalwart, uncomplicated soul warmly realised in these pages, who ‘saved my sanity, and probably that of my daughter’.
It’s a confounding pleasure to read this wise, often funny exploration of broken hearts, thwarted ambition and blossoming creativity, not to mention an object lesson in the literary virtues—and, by extrapolation, survival skills—of positivity and forbearance. Every new ‘Rose Tremain’ displaces my existing favourite, but this, her first and avowedly last exercise in autobiography, has shot to the top of my personal pantheon, where it will lodge—until her next one joins it.
James Pope-Hennessy; edited by Hugo Vickers (Zuleika, £20)
QUEEN MARY, the redoubtable consort of George V, cultivated an image of such inscrutability that the temptation to speculate on the woman behind the austere, if invariably jewel-encrusted, façade is hard to resist. Now, 65 years after her death, many of the riddles hovering around her legacy are solved in this fascinating new book.
This is not a biography in the literal sense. Instead, it draws upon the journal kept by James Pope-Hennessy between 1955 and 1958 as he worked on the official life of the royal matriarch. Penetrating, but not unsympathetic, with a vivid turn of phrase and a keen eye for the ridiculous, Pope-Hennessy set down his impressions of a host of interviewees the length and breadth of Europe. They ranged from a retired footman in Fulham to a former lady-in-waiting in Norway, and from the King and Queen of Sweden in Stockholm to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor outside Paris. He was clearly captivated by the idiosyncrasies of appearance and behaviour he either encountered or heard recollected.
Of the Grand Duchess Xenia of Russia, who had become terminally vague in her exile in a grace-and-favour house at Hampton Court, he recorded her ‘floating voice… you could almost see the sentences trailing like thin smoke around the room’. And he was delighted to observe the speed (‘someone escaping from a fire’) with which the Duchess of Gloucester darted away from what she described as ‘some awful Americans with Kodaks driving up’.
Sprawling across borders and centuries, the intricate threads of the royal tapestry are masterfully handled by editor Hugo Vickers. His insightful introduction and witty footnotes will prove invaluable to readers in danger of becoming lost in the maze of relatives, friends and courtiers so relished by Queen Mary herself. The result—illuminating, intriguing and boundlessly entertaining—is likely to become one of the definitive works on European royalty published in this or any other year.
Antonia Fraser (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25)
THE STRUGGLE for Catholic emancipation began with the 1778 Relief Act and consequent Gordon riots in London, during which 1,000 people were killed and many buildings put to the torch, and culminated, surprisingly peacefully, with the granting of Royal Assent in 1829.
It’s a dramatic subject, which Antonia Fraser explores with balance and humanity, deploying her research without pedantry, bringing out the political ups and downs, the characters, humour and tragedy with the verve of an accomplished storyteller. A Catholic convert, she is by birth an Anglo-Irish Pakenham, whose antecedent ‘Brunswicker Tom’, Earl of Longford, founded the Irish Brunswick Club to uphold the Protestant constitution and the Hanoverian Succession. So she has personal sympathies with both sides of the debate and comes to the job with even-handed loyalties.
In 1800, there were about 80,000 Catholics among England’s population of 8 million or so—largely the old Catholic aristocracy and gentry, together with their tenants, as well as a mixed urban population that included prosperous entrepreneurs such as the Gillows (furniture) and the Brethertons (stage coaches).
Ireland had a similar population, but two thirds were Catholic—many of them small farmers or landless peasants who, together with scores of Catholic Highlanders, provided a significant fighting force in the British Army. Their sterling service in the French Wars won them grudging sympathy from ultra-Protestants, such as the Duke of Wellington and the ‘One Leg’ Marquess of Anglesey.
In England, harsh penal laws belied a ‘Live and Let Live’ reality. The Catholic gentry threw themselves into racing and cricket—Mr. Lord of the eponymous cricket ground was a Catholic—fostered good relations with Anglican neighbours and were generally Cisalpine in religious sympathy. In 1778, George III offered a symbolic rapprochement with a public visit to Thorndon Hall, home of the Catholic Lord Petre, Grand Master of the Freemasons, largest landowner in Essex and a notable charitable philanthropist.
By the 1790s, Catholic committees in both countries were making progress, with compromises over the public service oath and the government veto over Catholic bishops. Further Relief Acts swept away more surviving injustices and the Act of Union with Ireland (1800) promised full religious emancipation. However, of the successive bills that passed through the Commons over the next 20 years, all were thrown out by the Lords, with no prospect of Royal Assent.
In political terms, the Whigs were pro-Emancipation and the Tories against any perceived threat or change to the ancient constitution. Other fissures opened, in particular between the English Catholic laity and their clergy, led by the uncompromising, ultra-montane antiquary Bishop John Milner. In Ireland, the Catholic Daniel O’Connell’s brilliant orchestration of the groundswell of public dissatisfaction into a non-violent popular political movement culminated in his election as MP for Clare—a potentially revolutionary moment.
George IV, clouded by brandy and laudanum, had become as resolute as his father in defending his coronation oath. He recalled two successive viceroys from Ireland—the Marquess of Wellesley and the Marquess of Anglesey—for going native and supporting the Catholics, but the day was saved by the Tory Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel. Both were staunchly Protestant opponents of Emancipation, but they changed their minds when they saw it as the only way to avoid unrest in Ireland. This was fortuitous, since the Duke was the only person able to get George IV to give his assent, which he did on April 13, 1829.
The King and the Catholics ripples with colour and is full of contrasting characters, from ‘roaring’ Tory Lord Winchelsea to voluptuous Lady Conyngham and heroic ‘King Dan’ O’Connell. Indeed, it’s like an exhilarating literary point to point, with falls at the fences, but the favourite winning by a neck.
John Martin Robinson
Nicola Ferguson (Pimpernel Press, £30)
THE QUESTION of ‘doubleness’ in flowers is simply explained in that such flowers have more petals than those typical of the wild species. A hedgerow rose has five petals, but most of our garden roses have more petals than we can be bothered to count.
Nicola Ferguson’s book examines this phenomenon. Doubleness is unpredictable and tricky to maintain in cultivation, so that its popularity in gardens tells us something about a desire on the one hand for novelty and on the other hand for conservation.
In the chapters of this well-observed and superbly illustrated book, the author examines these tendencies at length. Some camellias, for instance, are an example of the human fascination with order in the way that their cultivars, often ancient in origin, bear flowers that are imbricated—that is, the petals overlie each other in mesmerisingly regular patterns. Peonies, on the other hand, seem to have been selected for maximum blowsiness of effect, suggesting the romantic triumph of feeling over reason.
Given that most of these many-petalled forms arose because one sharp-eyed individual picked out a distinctive seedling and set out to perpetuate it, we soon enter the world of the scientist, where Goethe and Darwin realised that by observing plant breeders at work, they could witness a sort of accelerated evolution. Genetically unstable plants—dahlias and chrysanthemums, for example—generate new forms so rapidly that we can barely keep up with them. Even superior types such as Gertrude Jekyll, who professed not to like double blooms, invariably seem to have found plenty of exceptions to their rules.
The author died with the manuscript well advanced, but incomplete. Charles quest-Ritson is responsible for the book we see today. It’s a tribute to their combined skill that I could not tell where one author ended and the other began.
Charles Quest-Ritson; Historic Royal Palaces/Claire Collins/ Bridgeman ■