The Life & Reign of George VI, 1895-1952

By Sarah Bradford

St. Martin's. 506 pp. $25

IT IS astonishing how the Hanoverian dynasty (after 1917 the House of Windsor) runs true to type. George VI shared many of the characteristics of his remote ancestor George III: a mania for punctuality, an obsession with correct dress and a propensity to wild irrational rages, which George VI's family called his "gnashes," when "his jaw muscles would work, his blue eyes would assume an alarming glare, and a stream of invective, much of it consisting of expletives, would emerge."

But the salient characteristic of the Hanoverians was their alienation from their eldest sons. This was true of George I, George II and George III, Victoria and George V, and the apparent exceptions only prove the rule; George IV and William IV had no sons to worry about, and Edward VII's eldest, the scapegrace Duke of Clarence (suspected by some of being Jack the Ripper!), conveniently died in 1892, after which Edward settled down quite well with his second son, the future George V. George VI had no sons, and his loving, even cloying, relations with his daughters were not unusual in his family.

Unfortunately George V ran true to form, and Sarah Bradford's witty, eminently readable and deeply researched study shows that his relentless domestic tyranny, plus Queen Mary's arctic aloofness, warped the character of all his sons, and particularly the two elder, the future Edward VIII and George VI. He was made from the same mould as George I, George II and Victoria (his doctors were delighted at his recovery from a life-threatening illness in 1929, noting that "he was in a good mood, and cursed as in earlier days"), and the least peccadillo on the part of his sons led to a summons to the dreaded Library, a place of "cluttered gloom." He never struck them, or whipped them, but his outrage and scorn, his obvious disbelief in their capabilities, broke their spirit. He relented towards George eventually, because he entered the Navy, then made a "correct" marriage; but it was too late. It is significant that George and Edward, indeed all his sons, married mother figures.

It is the delusion of some Englishmen and many Americans that Edward VIII was forced to abdicate in 1937 because of his obstinacy in wanting to marry a twice-divorced foreigner. But, as Bradford shows, this was not entirely so. As early as 1927 his father was deeply concerned at his rakehell life, his flagrant liaisons with married women -- which would have been the delight of the tabloids today -- his pro-German, later pro-Nazi, sympathies, his indifference to religion and the blatant superficiality of his ideas. So were his prime ministers. Wallis Simpson was just the last straw.

But Edward VIII's abdication catapulted George VI into a post he dreaded, and for which he felt himself to be quite inadequate. He never entirely recovered from his Gothic upbringing, which amongst other things left him with a disabling stammer, slowly corrected by experts but never completely cured. He was slow to lose his deep inferiority complex with regard to his elder brother, who though shallow and scatter-brained was a sophisticated man of the world and a natural talker and crowd pleaser. Indeed, the early years of his reign were marred by stressful quarrels between them, and he only gradually overcame his fear that the Duke of Windsor would return to England to head a kind of opposition royalist party.

Nevertheless, George VI had many advantages, which he was slow to appreciate. He was slim, elegant and handsome, he wore his clothes well, he was always physically at ease, and he had a charming, diffident smile. His stammer was an appalling burden, but at least it saved him from those unguarded utterances to which some of his predecessors had been prone. He had a beautiful, accomplished and charismatic wife, who was never at a loss for the appropriate word, and may be said to have invented the smile. They had two very presentable daughters, and their family life was beyond reproach. It was not exactly Camelot, but the Windsors easily made the transition to a television monarchy, emerging as a comfortable, rather stodgy family, with all the prejudices, pointless hobbies and unenlightened attitudes of the English middle classes. The upper classes, the "county set," found them dull, but the rest of the nation loved them, and there is no doubt that in the Second World War they provided a national leadership, or "spokesmanship," second only to Churchill's.

Nevertheless the king, like his father and grandfather, was culturally and artistically illiterate, and his wife tended to keep her own more developed tastes under wraps until after his death. Indeed, his academic record as a youth at the Royal Naval College suggests that he was downright stupid. (One can only applaud the iron rectitude of his examiners, who at Osborne placed him 68th out of a class of 68, and at Dartmouth 61st out of 67.) Yet there is no doubt that he gained the respect of all the heads of state, ministers and army commanders with whom he came in contact. We may discount Winston Churchill, whose fawning, obsequious letters to George VI are eerily reminiscent of the Elder Pitt's letters to George II during the Seven Years' War. But a whole string of realistic, sophisticated and experienced statesmen like Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Baldwin, Halifax, Chamberlain and Montgomery were deeply impressed by the king's up-to-the-minute grasp of facts, figures and ideas, even his ability to "over-trump" them on occasion.

The answer lies, surely, in his photographic memory, a great gift that allowed him to hold his own with men much more able. To take but one example; in 1943, reviewing a naval guard-of-honor, he halted in front of one rating and said, "Weren't you on the same ship as I was at the Battle of Jutland?" He was, on the battle-cruiser Collingwood, but that was in 1915! I am sure that he simply memorized without effort all the copious briefing papers which landed on his desk from day to day.

He died prematurely in 1952, after an operation for lung cancer, the family disease. (In 1913 he noted in his diary, "My eighteenth birthday, and I am allowed to smoke"; his mother sent him a cigarette case.)

For once such cliches as "universally mourned" are entirely appropriate; the British public felt that an institution had passed away, not just a man. (Though his daughter Elizabeth, nearly 40 years later, is still demonstrating the durability of that institution -- as is his widow, soon to be in her nineties.) He was always a frail man, psychologically as well as physically; he struggled with a burden of responsibility he had never been trained to assume and never for a moment wanted. But he won through, by sheer grit, and amongst other things erased the deep stain on the reputation of the monarchy left by his brother's antics. When Churchill scribbled a note on his funreal wreath in 1952 he could find nothing more appropriate to say then, "For Valour."

John Kenyon, Joyce and Elizabeth Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas, is the author of "The Stuart Constitution" and "The History Men."