Queen Elizabeth II reigns but does not govern. Nevertheless, her duties and responsibilities are manifold and burdensome. In this new book, the prolific popular historian Christopher Hibbert recounts what the British sovereign's work entails and describes how monarchs from Victoria to Elizabeth have done that work. He reveals what happens at Buckingham Palace besides the changing of he guard.
Half of "The Court of St. Jame's (the palace in London where the accession of a new sovereign is proclaimed) deals with the reigning monarch, half with her predecessors. Hibbert discusses their personalities and relationships with their political ministers; he examines the organization and operation of the royal household, court ceremonies, the awarding of honors and -- touchiest of issues -- royal finances.
The tiny 18-year-old girl who in 1837 was proclaimed Queen Victoria gave those who attended the first privy council of her reign an impression of tractability. Shy she undoubtedly was, but tractable she wasn't. That by Victoria's day the monarchy had lost nearly all its political power was clear to almost everyone but her. As queen she proved "as difficult, tiresome and demanding as she was conscientious, capable and effective."
The role of buffer between the queen and those who had business with her -- such as Gladstone, whom she disliked, and Disraeli, whom she adored -- fell to her private secretary. The most estimable of these officials, Col. Henry Ponsonby, had all the virtues that serving his difficult employer required: a knowledge of the world, wit, tact, a gift for languages and for writing -- and the patience of a saint.
Hibbert looks at Queen Victoria's household mainly through Ponsonby's eyes. A pall fell over the court with the death of Prince Albert, whose great influence in the affairs of the crown caused his wife to be known as Queen Albetine. Henceforth, to dine with the queen was an invitation to be dreaded. Dinners, Ponsonby remembered, were "appallingly dull," the "most depressing functions" he had ever attended.
Edward VII restored gaiety to court life as he swept away the staggering accumulations of his mother's long life. Best known as a pleasure-seeking and faintly dissolute monarch, he nevertheless took seriously his duties as king. But his sense of frustration also measured the powerlessness at which the monarchy had arrived. Railing at his ministers' failure to keep him adequately informed, he also knew that in the end he had to give way to them. King at a time of intense social unrest at home and dire troubles in Ireland, he died believing his son would be the last royal ruler of England.
Hibbert is an excellent storyteller, a talent displayed to good effect in his rendering of the monarchy's one genuine crisis in this century, the abdication of the hapless Edward VIII. The crisis that made this king of England into the duke of Windsor combined high politics with low gossip, the stuff of treaties in political science with details of the kind that recommend themselves to People magazine.
Elsewhere in Hibbert's book, however, the consequential and the inconsequential don't mix together as well. Monarchy buffs may devour every crumb of information on such ceremonies as attend the appointment of bishops; others may take Melbourne's view of these affairs: "I believe the bishops die to vex me." Much of Hibbert's description of the queen's household reads like a rather dreary guidebook for tours that are never going to be permitted to take place. His portrait of the reigning monarch would be unlikely to distress the the most loyal member of her staff -- such is the price, perhaps, of gaining entree into Buckingham Palace. The last chapters -- except the one on royal finances, in which Hibbert points out that the popularity of republican government soars every time an increase in royal expenditures is proposed -- take on flattened-out, official tone.
Hibbert has an eye for mordant quotations. Of King George V, his biographer Harold Nicolson complained that "for 17 years he did nothing but kill animals and stick in stamps." Of his relationship with Queen Elizabeth ii, the late Richard Crossman wrote, "She finds me boring and I find her boring and I think it is a great relief I don't have to see her."
"The Court of St. Jame's" can't be recommended for its quotations any more than raisin bread can be recommended soley for the raisins. In the end, the book is concerned more with what goes on backstairs at Buckingham Palace than with how the soverein perfoms his duties as head of state. Backstairs, as numerous books on the White House have shown, can be an entertaining place.