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Too bold to print, at last the gossip cut from Queen Mary's biography sees the light of day

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Queen Mary, in a colourised black-and-white print
Queen Mary, in a colourised black-and-white print Credit: Getty

Simon Heffer reviews The Quest for Queen Mary by James Pope-Hennessy, edited by Hugo Vickers

In an age of constitutional monarchy, when even kings and queens regnant are of little but ornamental significance, what is the point of a book on a queen consort? A biography of Queen Mary, grandmother of our Queen and wife of George V, would indeed be superfluous – but this is not biography. It is a book about a biography, and very illuminating and entertaining it is, too.

After Queen Mary's death in 1953, the Royal Family authorised James Pope-Hennessy to write a Life of their matriarch. He kept extensive notes about all the royalties, possessed and dispossessed, whom he interviewed for the task. Because the manuscript was to be vetted by the Queen, her family and senior courtiers, much of the gossip and insight his interviewees gave was destined to remain for background only. Pope-Hennessy was adept at using coded means to describe, tactfully, the shortcomings of his subject and those around her. Unfortunately, his magisterial work, published to great acclaim almost 60 years ago, requires code-breaking skills of a very high order to appreciate to its full extent.

Hugo Vickers, who probably knows more about British and European royalty than any man on earth and is blessed with such skills, has taken Pope-Hennessy's notes, explained and edited them. We follow the biographer around Europe as he talks to those who knew Queen Mary, born into a morganatic branch of the House of Württemberg, and see what he learnt before he had to redact and dilute it. One sees the species of mainly minor royalty in the raw and, eventually, there emerges a multidimensional picture of Queen Mary, of a sort that could not have been countenanced in the Fifties.

A few of his interviewees verge on the normal; most are eccentric, their eccentricities deepened by the insulation their lives gave them from reality. European royalty – be it in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Britain or the Germany of Queen Mary's family – was still, even in the Fifties, a club, in which everyone more or less knew everybody else, and rarely strayed out of their compounds. The one exception, we are told, is that the Queen no longer kept up with her innumerable German relations, most of them having ended up on the wrong side in the recent unpleasantness with Hitler.

Pope-Hennessy was a fine writer and aesthete, but had never written a book of the first rank. He got the job because, when Queen Mary died, he was writing a (second-rate) biography of the (second-rate) Liberal politician Lord Crewe, and Crewe's daughter happened to have been Queen Mary's lady-in-waiting. Given the lack of constitutional significance of his subject, Pope-Hennessy was an inspired choice: the job did not require a serious historian, but a man with an eye for colour. Even if the colour was forcibly drained out of his book, it abounds in his notes.

Mary of Teck, photographed in February 1901 Credit: Getty

"Queen Mary's never forgiven me for telling her without any adornments that the Duke of Kent had been killed," said Lady Cynthia Colville, Crewe's daughter, when asked to break the news to Queen Mary that her son, George VI, had died. He was the third of her six children to predecease her, but by this time she seemed inured to it. Her cousin Prince Axel of Denmark ("a very tall rather wooden-looking naval man") was told not to cancel a meeting with her in London, just hours after George VI's death. He found her "quite calm and natural" and she said to him: "Axel – this is the third time this has happened to me – the third of my sons to die unexpectedly – curious, isn't it?" Pope-Hennessy captures Prince Axel's main verbal tick: in response to almost any query, he said: "offergotseck!" – "Oh, for God's sake."

Yet for all the entertainment value of the continentals, it is Pope-Hennessy's British subjects who give the most pleasure. Visiting the Duke of Gloucester – the third of Queen Mary's five sons – in 1957, he is in raptures. "Prince Henry is one of the finest and most authentic specimens of the race available for study today," he notes. "He is tall and bulky, and his head is wonderfully Hanoverian, flat at the back and rising to the real pineapple point of William the Fourth. He has protruding Guelph eyes. I could hardly take my eyes off him for the 48 hours I was there." Later he notes: "Drink plays a very great part in his life."

One of the Duke's more erudite observations concerns Holland: "Funny shape for a country, Holland. Damn funny shape." Luncheon was spartan, even though the Gloucesters were entertaining: macaroni cheese, washed down with beer for the men and Kia-Ora for the women.

One place where Pope-Hennessy had to tread carefully was Prince Eddy, the Duke of Clarence, Edward VII's elder son, who perhaps fortunately died of the flu in 1892. Eddy was rumoured to be a junkie with bizarre sexual tastes – he had been on the fringes of the Cleveland Street rent-boy scandal of 1889 – but was born to be King. Queen Mary – or Princess May of Teck as she then was – was about to have an arranged marriage with him; so it was rearranged with his younger brother George instead, and May became Queen after all.

The four sons of George V in 1933, from left: Prince George, Duke of Kent; the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII); Prince Albert, Duke of York; Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester Credit: Getty

"Funny chap, Uncle Eddie, don't you think so?" the Duke of Gloucester asked Pope-Hennessy. "He was rather odd, sir," the author replied. He then told the Duke of the rumours about Eddy. "Neither seemed to surprise him."

He goes to Badminton to see the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort – she was Queen Mary's niece – and hears accounts of the old Queen (evacuated there for the Second World War) occupying herself either cutting down trees or pulling down ivy, two of her obsessions. The fact the estate was not hers was neither here nor there. The Duchess tells Pope-Hennessy she was "scared stiff" when she saw her aunt, with 50 servants, coming up the drive in 1939. "Queen Mary speedily took over the whole house, and arranged her own life and theirs."

He goes to Balmoral to see our current Queen – "by no stretch of the imagination can this Queen be called an historical figure," he says dismissively. He finds Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, more enjoyable. She tells him of Queen Mary: "Shshsh – the truth was she didn't like Scotland."

But the high point of the notes is his trip to Paris to see the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, entering their third decade of pointlessness in exile. The Duke is forthcoming, letting Pope-Hennessy see his file of correspondence about the abdication – and telling him his mother was a "moral coward" who never discussed it with him.

Pope-Hennessy's description of the Duchess is unsurpassable: "This is one of the very oddest women I have ever seen... She is, to look at, phenomenal. She is flat and angular, and could have been designed for a medieval playing card." The Duke has "nicotine-coloured hair" and drinks milk for what his wife calls "that lil' old ulcer". The Duke describes his aunt, Princess Victoria, as "a b---- of the first order" and says: "My father had a most horrible temper. He was foully rude to my mother." None of that, unremarkably, found its way into the finished biography.

Vickers has edited these notes brilliantly, with footnotes that are witty and helpful – such as about Lady Sybil Grant, Lord Rosebery's daughter, who "spent much time in a caravan or up a tree, communicating with her butler through a megaphone," or the Duke of Beaufort who "neither wrote nor read" his own memoirs. The book is a delight, though one does feel as if one has been admitted into a rather baroque zoo. It was fortunate for us that Pope-Hennessy could visit it first, and poke his stick through the bars of their cages.

The Quest for Queen Mary is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £25. To order your copy for £20, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the online Telegraph Bookshop