Sunday, January 24, 2021

#BookReview: The Royal Governess by Wendy Holden

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Sunday Times bestselling author Wendy Holden brings to life the unknown childhood years of one of the world’s most iconic figures, Queen Elizabeth II, and reveals the little-known governess who made Britain’s queen into the monarch we know today.

In 1933, twenty-two-year-old Marion Crawford accepts the role of a lifetime, tutoring their Royal Highnesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. Her one stipulation to their parents the Duke and Duchess of York is that she bring some doses of normalcy into the sheltered and privileged lives of the two young princesses.

At Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and Balmoral, Marion defies oppressive court protocol to take the girls on tube trains, swimming at public baths, and on joyful Christmas shopping trips at Woolworth’s. From her ringside seat at the heart of the British monarchy she witnesses the upheaval of the Abdication and the glamour and drama of the 1937 Coronation.

During the war, as Hitler’s Heinkels fly over Windsor, she shelters her charges in the castle dungeons (not far from where the Crown Jewels are hidden in a biscuit tin). Afterwards, she is there when Elizabeth first sets eyes on Philip. But being beloved governess and confidante to the Windsor family has come at a cost. She puts her private life on hold until released from royal service following Princess Elizabeth’s marriage in 1947.

In a majestic story of love, sacrifice, and allegiance, bestselling novelist Holden shines a captivating light into the years before Queen Elizabeth II took the throne, as immortalized on the popular television series The Crown.
Historically, Marion Crawford was a Scottish educator hired by the Duke and Duchess of York as a governess for their daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret. It was a privileged position, but it became all the more so when the Duke ascended the throne as George VI following his elder brother's abdication. In retirement, Marion published a book, THE LITTLE PRINCESSES, about her experiences with the royal family. The Windsors proclaimed the publication exploitive and ceased all contact with their former employee. 

Per the author's note, Holden intended THE ROYAL GOVERNESS to play on the suggestion that Marion was maltreated and misrepresented by the royal family. I obviously can't speak for the world at large, but I could not love this idea more if I tried. If the story has two sides – and what story doesn't? – what was Marion's? How could it all measure up to the common perception of a scheming and self-serving glory-hound? I had to find out, so I booked it to my local library, snagged a copy, and jumped in.

Now I know you're wondering how I went from blind enthusiasm to a two-star review, so I'll just come out and say it: I found Holden's delivery fatally flawed. 

I struggled with the author's decision to hold mention of Marion's writing or the scandal it created until the last four chapters of the narrative. I am not a writer, but in my head, this novel would have been infinitely stronger if Holden had introduced the scandal, then gone back in time to explain Marion's side of things. As is, Holden's delay undermines her intention to reframe the event and leaves readers who came to this novel specifically for the scandal feeling cheated of the experience. 

Realizing the story's direction wouldn't satisfy my preconceptions, I tried very hard to enjoy the novel for what it is. To that end, I feel I'd have liked the story more if Marion's character arc had any noticeable curvature. Unfortunately for me, her journey flatlined into a succession of walk-on roles in the defining moments of other people's lives. I got the sense that she occasionally wanted a life of her own and abhorred the aristocracy's privilege, but she was also enamored with the prestige of royal association, forgot her love life for years at a time, and failed to cultivate any compelling emotional relationships. I felt these contradictions muddied Holden's themes and, when paired with Marion's lack of growth, made it difficult to appreciate the fictional elements of the story she presented. 

In terms of accuracy, THE ROYAL GOVERNESS isn't flawless, but in Holden's defense, the errors I noticed were so minor that I didn't factor them in my rating. Holden depicts Debo Mitford as singled-mindedly interested in marrying a Duke. This is odd as the real Debo was married to Lord Andrew Cavendish for three years before the death of Andrew's elder brother placed her husband in line for his father's title (BLACK DIAMONDS by Bailey or THE KENNEDY DEBUTANTE by Maher). Elizabeth's engagement ring is also noted as square, but Google will quickly reveal that rock is round. I don't consider either slip significant to Marion's story and write both off as accidental, but if this is the kind of thing that will ruin a story for you, it might be best to move on.   

All things considered, I feel THE ROYAL GOVERNESS has some strengths. I quite liked Holden's approach to Wallis Simpson, George VI, the Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret, but when it gets down to Marion Crawford, I didn't find Holden's thesis convincing and felt the overall presentation disjointed.

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Library
Read: January 21, 2021

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