It strains belief that, well within living memory, a member of the Royal household was sent to outer darkness for the crime of publishing a book that was unfailingly loyal, charming and civilised about the royal personages described in it. But that was the fate, in 1950, of Marion Crawford – ‘Crawfie’ to her charges – ex-governess to the Queen when she was Princess Elizabeth, and to her sister, Princess Margaret.
Her book, The Little Princesses, was a highly anodyne account of her life with two little girls, one of whom, by an accident of fate, became at the age of 10 heir presumptive to the Throne.
Crawfie had retired from royal service in 1948, when Princess Margaret was 18 and Princess Elizabeth had married. Such was her devotion to her employers, King George VI and the late Queen Elizabeth, that she had delayed her own marriage for 16 years to fulfil her duties.
When Princess Elizabeth heard she was writing the book (which began as a series of magazine articles, and was an enterprise in which she was encouraged by the Attlee administration for public relations reasons) she pleaded with her ex-governess not to do so, as the principle of confidentiality among courtiers was deemed inviolable: and it was courtiers who, understanding the need to protect the institution, urged a hard line against Crawfie.
For Crawfie, the lure of money and pressure from her new husband was too much; and she transgressed the Unwritten Law by disclosing that Queen Elizabeth didn’t get on with Wallis Simpson – a little like saying that the Chief Rabbi isn’t wild about bacon sandwiches. Crawfie was ostracised by the Royal family and by the Court, and they never spoke to her again.
What the Royal family and Court of 1950 would make of the preposterous "biography" of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Finding Freedom, published this week, hardly bears imagining: a fleet of ambulances would doubtless have been required to take them to the nearest hospital. I put "biography" in quotation marks because this self-serving tripe is really nothing of the sort: it is a cynical and apparently orchestrated snapshot of a period in the lives of two thirtysomethings, which aggrandises and justifies them in the eyes of the world.
It is a monumental public relations job, and a pretty disastrous one at that. The authors are a pair of American journalists who write about the Royal family for American glossy magazines. For them, the Royal family is a commodity, an institution in which their only interest is how loudly it can make their personal cash registers ring. It is a branch of show business; which is why they were the perfect couple to write a book about the Duchess of Sussex.
Even by the standards of recent royal biographies – most of which, when written about living members of the family, are little more than an extended gossip-column rather than reflecting the serious research normally associated with such a work – this one is an offence against even a moderate standard of intelligence and good taste. It is the perfect present for someone you wish to insult.
Serious biographies do not include effluent such as "the rising sun washed over her makeshift yoga garden, while an exotic flock of birds that looked as if they had just had their tails dipped in pots of colourful paints serenaded her". Nor would they include drivel such as this description of the Duchess meeting Misha Nonoo, a fashion designer: "Meghan was instantly intrigued by Misha’s effortless glamour, and Misha felt similarly about the actress’s fresh-faced interest."
Leaving aside the atrociousness of the prose, which any respectable editor would keep only in a book destined to be read by the vacuous, insights such as these raise the question of whether the Sussexes collaborated: a key point, because one needs to know with any biography how credible the information contained within it is.
To those of us who have written biographies – and even, I don’t doubt, to scores of millions of others who haven’t – it is blindingly obvious that much of the information in this book can have only one of two origins: either it is made up, in which case the book is worthless trash, or it was written after some sort of briefing or assistance from the Sussexes or those they may have instructed to speak for them.
How, otherwise, do the authors knows that "Meghan was instantly intrigued by Misha’s effortless glamour"? Are they psychic? As with so many books, royal or otherwise, about living people, sources are usually anonymous. That doesn’t mean that what they say is invention; but without attribution, anything goes, and the notoriously unreliable narrative tradition of this history gets off to a flying start in the case of the Sussexes.
If the book were invention the Sussexes, who are not slow to go to law, would be so outraged that a blizzard of writs would have been issued by now: so let us give the authors the benefit of the doubt and assume the contents are true. The book is still pretty much trash.
The Sussexes have made themselves people of no consequence in the British royal family. They are unconcerned, in both senses of the word, with great matters of state. The book is an unwitting tribute to what appears to be the Duchess's titanic self-obsession and the tragic ease with which the Duke has apparently decided to let himself be swallowed up by his wife's narrative.
What also lowers an already dismal, muck-raking standard is the book’s breathtaking lack of objectivity, with its accounts of people marvelling at the wonder of the Duchess as she condescends to pat a three-year old child on the head, or the magnificence of Harry’s manners when he asks his future wife to go through a door in front of him. That’s Eton for you.
There was an era of royal biography that was considered unduly fawning – Sir Sidney Lee’s authorised life of Edward VII, for example, or Harold Nicolson’s of George V – but that changed with James Pope-Hennessy’s subtle and entertaining life of Queen Mary, as amplified by Hugo Vickers’s superb edition of Pope-Hennessy’s notes, The Quest for Queen Mary, published in 2018.
The finest royal biography was not an authorised one, but Kenneth Rose’s peerless life of George V, written using Harold Nicolson’s notes and published in 1983. Once the Diana industry in all its repulsiveness got under way, standards fell. Royal biography became not a historical record, but a vehicle for settling scores.
That standards have fallen so low as this is something that does more damage to the Sussexes, embodying as it does their non-stop, self-righteous whine, than it does to the biographer’s craft.
In 50 years’ time, will serious scholars refer to this book? Perhaps: it might get a footnote or two as a contrast to more serious studies of the British royal family in the early 21st century. Would anyone, on the basis of what this biography promises, want then to read a book solely about these two future nonentities? I doubt it.