The Royal Governess by Wendy Holden

In my love all things British royal family, The Royal Governess fits nicely in my wheelhouse. It’s the story of Marion Crawford, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose’s governess.

From the publisher: “In 1933, twenty-two-year-old Marion Crawford accepts the role of a lifetime, tutoring their Royal Highnesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. Her one stipulation to their parents the Duke and Duchess of York is that she bring some doses of normalcy into the sheltered and privileged lives of the two young princesses.

At Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and Balmoral, Marion defies oppressive court protocol to take the girls on tube trains, swimming at public baths, and on joyful Christmas shopping trips at Woolworth’s. From her ringside seat at the heart of the British monarchy she witnesses the upheaval of the Abdication and the glamour and drama of the 1937 Coronation.

During the war, as Hitler’s Heinkels fly over Windsor, she shelters her charges in the castle dungeons (not far from where the Crown Jewels are hidden in a biscuit tin). Afterwards, she is there when Elizabeth first sets eyes on Philip. But being beloved governess and confidante to the Windsor family has come at a cost. She puts her private life on hold until released from royal service following Princess Elizabeth’s marriage in 1947.”

The Royal Governess was not at all what I expected at the beginning. Marion Crawford was something of a radical feminist, getting involved with a young Communist, Valentine. What Marion really wants to do is work in the slums of Edinburgh, Scotland, which is where she is from. She’s the best pupil in her teaching school, and the opportunity arises for her to teach The Duchess of York’s sister’s children. This opens the door to work for the Yorks.

Marion struggles to get the girls on a schedule that includes learning. There are constant interruptions for dance lessons, portrait sittings, and trips to the country. After what seems like a long time, Crawfie, as the family calls her, finds time to teach the girls not only their sums and writing, but glimpses of the world outside palace gates.

Sadly, this idyllic setting only lasts for a short while because of the twit-head Prince of Wales, David, who doesn’t really want to be king. Through his affair with Mrs. Wallis Simpson, King Edward VIII as he was known, promptly abdicates in favor of his brother, Bertie, less than a year into his reign.

Now Elizabeth is second in line to the throne of England. Crawfie has to cede some of her lesson time to experts on more parliamentary procedures, and Margaret Rose acts out because of the special treatment Elizabeth receives. It’s Crawfie’s job to smooth things over.

The years pass and Crawfie still dreams of teaching in the slums while showing her young charges how the ordinary world is by taking them on the underground, trying to join a Girls’ Guide group, and more. Crawfie knows what important work she is doing, yet constantly feels the need to threaten to quit and go back to Scotland.

There are appearances in the book by Eleanor Roosevelt and Ambassador Joe Kennedy and his family, including a meal where JFK and Princess Margaret are thick as thieves. Eisenhower makes an appearance as well. There’s also a weird not-explored subplot involving Tommy Lascelles, who was the king’s right-hand man, sot-to speak. I’m not sure why this kind-of sort-of flirtation is put in the book, because it adds nothing to the story. Trying to insert a romance where it isn’t needed was unnecessary.

Everyone survives World War II and Elizabeth is now eighteen and has been keen on Prince Phillip of Greece for some time. Princess Margaret is a teenager who has taken a fancy to the king’s married equerry, Peter Townsend. Crawfie feels it is time to leave, but the Queen Mother pleads with her to stay on a little longer. She finally leaves the royal service after seventeen years, is given a cottage and a pension, and rarely sees the girls again.

The man she ends up marrying, George, is a sorry old sock, constantly complaining that Marion got the short end of the stick from the royal family. So when Ladies’ Home Journal comes to her with an offer for her memoirs (between $6,500 and $85,000, depending on the source), her banker husband thinks this is a capital idea.

Marion decides to ask the Queen if it would be all right to publish the articles, using all the letters she’d saved over the years from Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. The queen’s reply was absolute: “I do feel, most definitely, that you should not write and sign articles about the children, as people in positions of confidence with us must be utterly oyster. If you, the moment you finished teaching Margaret, started writing about her and Lilibet, well, we should never feel confidence in anyone again.”

Marion decides to publish anyway, and to the best of anyone’s knowledge, she never had contact with the royal family again.

This was a very good book and I think the characters, as they are portrayed in the book, match the historical record of how the royal family acted during the 1930s and 40s. I’d definitely pick The Royal Governess up if you’re interested in historical fiction in general, too, as the descriptions of England during the war are most interesting.

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