Books: Royal Square

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QUEEN MARY (654 pp.)—James Pope-Hennessy—Knopf ($10).

Before King George III lost his reason and 13 colonies, he fathered 15 children.

One great-granddaughter lived to present a silver gilt cup, once the property of poor mad George, to her great-grandchild—Prince Charles, present heir to the throne of England. She thus placed herself dead center in that huge tract of time between Saratoga and V-E day. Born Victoria Mary of Teck in 1867, she was called "May" by her family, and she is known to recent memory as Queen Mary, wife of George V, her second cousin once removed. With her pastel parasols, tailored suits and hats designed by some puckish confectioner, she was an anachronistic though never absurd figure.

This official biography by British Author James Pope-Hennessy may daunt some Americans, but those who are prepared to penetrate the thickets of multiple names and ever-shifting titles will read a coolly shrewd account of a woman remarkable in her own right, and survey a stretch of history lit with the kind of irony that only the truly simple-minded shed upon great events. May was a square.

The "Royal Mob." Her story begins in that barely imaginable time when a perpetual game of musical chairs was being played with thrones, and Queen Victoria was at the piano. In 1866, a splendidly mustachioed cavalry officer, one Francis, Duke of Teck, had married Mary Adelaide, the dumpy daughter of a Hanoverian duke of Cambridge. Although Teck was only an inconsiderable German principality, Francis thus won the right to join what the Queen herself called "the Royal Mob" of princelings clustering about Victoria's opulent patronage. They were an oddly innocent lot of hobbledehoys, but dedicated to their business—jobs and titles, endless meals and dressing up, places to live and places to die. Papa ("Der schöne Uhlan," the Mob called him) got himself appointed Honorary Colonel of the Post Office Volunteers. He dutifully went under canvas with his pugnacious battalion, but he was pretty much of a failure, declined into rose pruning, and died after a sad "softening of the brain."

Of this unlikely pair, May was born to greatness of a sort. Lineage, decorum and diligence (constant letter writing and diary keeping) commended her to Victoria, and she was chosen to marry Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, in direct line for the throne. Alas, Prince "Eddy," as they called him. was not very bright but very dissipated, and he died—in the usual semi-public royal fashion, with May and his family at his bedside—in a "noisy and frightful delirium." There remained George, Duke of York, Eddy's younger brother, a naval officer. After a suitable interval, bluff George and reticent May were married, and set up house at York Cottage, near Sandringham, practically a split-level by royal standards. George had his quirks and foibles, and his language owed more to the quarterdeck than to his quarterings. But he had more character than a bulldog and, like May, he was frankly a square. "There seems to me to be too much money spent on gilding. I hate gilding," was one of his rare judgments. Each night while George was in his library with the Times or his stamp collection, May dutifully played an educational card game with the children or read to them and made them knit scarves to stop their fidgets.

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