Don't be misled by the brassy title with which this book has been saddled.
"The Selling of the Royal Family" is to some extent an inquiry into how television and public relations have been used to market the British monarchy, but it is considerably more than that as well.
It is a comprehensive, informative and thoroughly entertaining history of the royal family from Queen Mary to Princess Diana, one that draws together material from a wide variety of published sources and many new ones as well; it offers a penetrating analysis of how the house of Mountbatten-Windsor has accommodated itself to 20th-century realities, and in the bargain it contains an ample amount of discreetly presented gossip.
John Pearson's attitude toward his subjects is sympathetic yet detached. He faced the same stone wall of silence that confronts all who write about the monarchy except those who do so by appointment to the crown, but he has not allowed this to color his judgments; though he is candid about the shortcomings as well as the strengths of individual members of the royal family, he tries to be both kind and understanding toward these people whose distance from the rest of us can make it difficult to see them in human terms.
Those, as it happens, are precisely the terms in which they themselves would like to be seen. The principal theme of "The Selling of the Royal Family" is the monarchy's transformation since the days of George V and Queen Mary from a remote, exalted institution into one with a distinctly human dimension. Its members, Pearson writes, lead a "hallucinatory double life" as "these ordinary people everybody knows so well who, along with their ordinariness, are simultaneously endowed with all the mystery and deference preserved within the most impressive of the world's surviving monarchies."
This "new way of regarding royalty" is the product of a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign that has used television to the utmost effect. Before television, the royal family was distant and determined to stay that way; it perpetuated "the sanctity and mystery of the royal family that obsessed Queen Mary all her life." But television has enabled the royal family to maintain its distance in actuality while creating a powerful illusion of intimacy. On the one hand, television has allowed the monarchy to dazzle the multitudes through its coverage of such royal spectaculars as coronations, weddings and investitures; on the other, it has presented documentaries and interviews in which the royal family is permitted to appear as just plain folks with whose seeming ordinariness we are able to identify.
It is a delicate balancing act, and there are those -- within and without the royal family -- who wonder if it is really possible to "humanize the royal family and yet preserve their sacred and symbolic functions." But there can be no question that the demystification of the monarchy has permitted it to survive and prosper during a period when it might have been allowed to atrophy. Further, it would be a mistake to ascribe this change in the way the monarchy is viewed solely to the counsel of canny public relations advisers; as Pearson makes entirely clear, the sound instincts and strategies of the royal family itself, most notably Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, have been crucial to the family's adjustment to contemporary realities.
Pearson arrives at these and other conclusions by way of a thorough history of the monarchy in the 20th century. He is sympathetic to all its members, especially those who have found the limelight difficult and/or have been overburdened by the duties they acquired at birth. Thus he writes with particular sensitivity about Princess Margaret, leaving little doubt that she was cruelly abused by well-placed courtiers in the Peter Townsend affair, and about Princess Anne, whose refusal to toe the royal line he regards with bemused admiration. He writes at some length about how Prince Charles, before his engagement and marriage, managed to indulge his sexual appetites behind tightly closed doors within Buckingham Palace, and he describes Lord Snowdon's relationship to the royal family with considerable subtlety.
No illusions about any members of the royal family are evident here -- intellectual brilliance is ascribed to none of them, and their quite ordinary upper-middle-class British taste is thoroughly documented -- but they are given a thoroughly fair shake. They probably won't like the book for the simple reason that they don't like anything they haven't specifically authorized, but "The Selling of the Royal Family" is as fair as it is fascinating. In Pearson's account, the royal family emerges as considerably more human than it has in any of its carefully staged media events -- because humanity, as Queen Elizabeth's former prime minister put it, means warts and all.