George V: Never a Dull Moment by Jane Ridley #2022Books #AudiobookReview #BookReview #HouseofWindsor

The grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II, King George V ruled the British Empire from 1910 to 1936, a period of unprecedented international turbulence. Yet no one could deny that as a young man, George seemed uninspired. As his biographer Harold Nicolson famously put it, he did nothing at all but kill animals and stick in stamps.” The contrast between him and his flamboyant, hedonistic, playboy father Edward VII could hardly have been greater.

However, though it lasted only a quarter-century, George’s reign was immensely consequential. He faced a constitutional crisis, the First World War, the fall of thirteen European monarchies and the rise of Bolshevism. The suffragette Emily Davison threw herself under his horse at the Derby, he refused asylum to his cousin the Tsar Nicholas II during the Russian Revolution, and he facilitated the first Labour government. And, as Jane Ridley shows, the modern British monarchy would not exist without George; he reinvented the institution, allowing it to survive and thrive when its very existence seemed doomed. The status of the British monarchy today, she argues, is due in large part to him.

How this supposedly limited man managed to steer the crown through so many perils and adapt an essentially Victorian institution to the twentieth century is a great story in itself. But this book is also a riveting portrait of a royal marriage and family life. Queen Mary played a pivotal role in the reign as well as being an important figure in her own right. Under the couple’s stewardship, the crown emerged stronger than ever. George V founded the modern monarchy, and yet his disastrous quarrel with his eldest son, the Duke of Windsor, culminated in the existential crisis of the Abdication only months after his death.

George V: Never a Dull Moment (Amazon US) (Amazon UK) (Audible) (AbeBooks) is the first biography I’ve read about Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather. I’d picked up enough from my reading of other royal histories and biographies that I thought I had a good idea what King George V was really like. However, this just scratched the surface of her personality and all that he did for Great Britain.

George V was much like Henry VIII in that he wasn’t born to be king. He was “the spare” to his brother Eddy. The son of Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales, and grandson of Queen Victoria, no one could prepare him for his brother’s death. George was 26 when he became heir presumptive.

While May of Teck was chosen as a wife for the ill-fated Eddy, she stuck around and ended up becoming a love match for George, also like Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon.

The basic biography of King George V has always been one of a greatly boring man, who wasn’t meant to be king, who enjoyed collecting stamps, killing things, being a tyrant to his kids, and changing the family name during World War I. Yes, it was he who changed the family name to Windsor because of anti-German sentiment and the family descended in part from Germans. But there was more to George than that.

One of the things that doesn’t get mentioned enough was that King George refused asylum to his cousin, Czar Nicholas II of Russia and his family. At first, he and Parliament agreed to bring them to Great Britain. Then the king’s private secretary convinced him that having a man who was seen as a tyrant to many in the world was not a good move politically and could mean the end of the British monarchy. And if there’s anything the House of Windsor has proved themselves, it’s that they know what they have to do to survive. You have to put the decision into the context of the time, when many royal houses in Europe fell during World War II. And King George didn’t think he was sentencing his cousin to death; he thought someone else would step up and offer asylum. He certainly didn’t think the Romanovs would be killed.

As always, when I read about a leader, I always wonder what they were like in their personal life, especially their relationship with their children. Well, to put it bluntly, King George V was a terrible father who left lasting psychological problems with each of his children. Queen Mary was reported to be much more open with the children when George wasn’t around, but when he was, she offered no support and just shut up and put up with the tyranny. All his children had their issues, which I won’t go into here, but it says a lot about the man as to how his children turned out. He favored Bertie, the Duke of York, and outwardly wished he could be king instead of David, the future King Edward VIII. Yet while the king was hard on his children, as any child of a dysfunctional family can tell you, you can rise above your upbringing and not let it control your life. David constantly laid blame to his parents for how he behaved as a 40-year old.

Ridley’s book is very well researched and detailed, yet not bogged down in minutiae. The pacing is good and despite clocking in at 450+ pages before endnotes, the book did not seem that long. While I enjoyed reading more about this important king in British history, I still think he was rather boring.

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