Monday, December 03, 2018

"Sat there like Queen Mary"

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The awful English mania for respectability that is blamed on the Victorians really dates from the early decades of the 20th century. But even then we could be more subversive than you might expect.

Rosemary Hill writes about Queen Mary - wife of George V, mother of George VI and grandmother of our present Queen - in the London Review of Books:
The present queen was not the only person to feel, when her grandmother Queen Mary died in 1953, that she ‘could not imagine a world without her’. The ‘old queen’, as she was generally known to the public, had become a totemic figure, rigidly upright in her toque and pearls, a grandmother to the nation. 
Her daughter-in-law, the queen mother, later fulfilled the same role, but in an entirely different way. Where the ‘queen mum’ was, or appeared to be as long as nobody let her speak in public, twinkly and friendly, fond of gin and jewellery, Queen Mary was cast as grandparent in the severe Victorian mould, a living reminder of an age gone by and not very fondly remembered. 
For the generation who were in their twenties during the Second World War, which included my parents and their friends, to say that someone ‘sat there like Queen Mary’ was to indicate that a terminal blight had been cast over the occasion.
This is in the course of a review of James Pope-Hennessy's The Quest for Queen Mary, which details his efforts to write a biography of the old monster. You can see the relevant passage in front of the LRB's paywall.

Rosemary Hill concludes that the story about your being obliged to hand it over if Mary stayed with you and took a liking to one of your possessions is untrue. But, she argues, it does show what people believed about her character.

I recall John Howard Davies - David Lean's Oliver Twist and later the producer of Fawlty Towers - talking about the experience of being presented to her as a child. He found it terrifying.

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