Down a Royal Reading Rabbit Hole

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You know how these things go for avid readers. You read one book, find something really interesting about it, maybe a character, the subject of the book, a particular setting, or even the author, and off you go. Down a reading rabbit hole, following the scent, so to speak. That’s how it’s been for me for the past week or so. I’ve been listening to Anne Glenconner’s book Lady in Waiting. And I have been down a warren of reading rabbit holes. I think I’m a bit obsessed by royal biographies.

Anne Glenconner’s memoir, Lady in Waiting, is not quite a royal biography. It’s the story of her life, and dwells in part on her years as lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret. Lady in Waiting was recommended by at least two readers of this blog a few weeks ago. And another reader drew my attention to this wonderful interview with Lady Glenconner on the Graham Norton Show. As the author says in this clip, her book is not “a lavender sort of scented memoir.” Ha. No kidding.

I am loving Lady in Waiting. Anne Glenconner herself narrates the Audible version to which I’m listening. She is far from a professional reader, but it’s still lovely to hear her tell the story herself. And wow, she sounds like a powerhouse even at eighty-seven.

At the beginning I wasn’t sure if I would like the book; I lost the plot a bit in her list of dukes and duchesses and barons when she discussed her relations and forebears. But I was charmed by the stories of her childhood. Especially during the war when she and her younger sister planned how they would kill Hitler. She said if he invaded England, she and her sister being blonde Aryan looking girls (she was twelve, I think) would attract him, like a couple of the more infamous Mitford sisters did. Except they wouldn’t fall in love with him, they would poison him. She said they never worked out exactly how they’d do that.

Colin Tennant and Anne Glenconner and their son Charles at his christening in 1967

Glenconner’s life is fascinating. But not one I think many people would choose. Her early life is characterized by separation from her parents. And her turbulent married life by separation from her children, as she followed her husband Colin Tennant around the world. Wow, he was a piece of work: unpredictable, uncontrollable, and often unhinged.

With Colin Tennant at the christening of their son Charles, 1957. source

But despite this, Glenconner stoutly defends her husband’s good qualities in her book, his kindness and generosity, his sense of adventure and fun. It seems she is trying to be scrupulously fair. Even when he buys and sells homes without consulting her. Even purchasing the island of Mustique at one point, where in the early years they kind of camped, showering with a bucket tied to a tree. She deserves full credit for gamely facing anything he could throw at her, literally and metaphorically.

But weird living conditions characterized by opulence on one hand and privation on the other were not the hardest obstacles she has faced in her long life. She experienced her share of tragedy. And as Kathryn Hughes says in her review in The Guardian, Lady Glenconner seems to show a “remarkable readiness to own up to her own mistakes.” And according to Hughes, Glenconner provides an example of “honest self-reckoning and personal responsibility” that some members of the present royal family should emulate.

Photo of Anne Glenconner and her husband in Mustique in 1973.
Anne Glenconner and her husband Colin Tennant on Mustique in 1973. source

Having an i-pad to hand with a WiFi connection is a dangerous thing when one is reading or listening to an interesting book. As I sat pedalling my exercise bike, or sat up in bed at night pretending to read something else, I’d hive off down another rabbit hole. Thus I amassed countless hours on YouTube. I listened to a biography of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret as sisters; I’ve always been fascinated by them, how they look so similar and so different at the same time. I watched several interviews with Anne Glenconner. And one night, I even watched some of the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth to see if I could pick Anne Glenconner out of the row of bridesmaids. Then I had to force myself to stop.

Slightly Foxed podcast "Moving in Royal Circles."

One day shortly after I began Lady in Waiting, I listened to the Slightly Foxed podcast “Moving in Royal Circles.” The featured guests are biographer Jane Ridley, and novelist Daisy Goodwin. They have a wonderful conversation, telling tales of researching and writing royal biographies of Queen Victoria, among others. You can listen to it yourself here.

Of course this is not my first royal biography rabbit hole adventure. Years ago I read the story of Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert Massie. And I became a bit obsessed with the story of the Romanovs. I remember watching the 1956 movie Anastasia on television when I was a child, all about the youngest Romanov daughter, and her impersonator Anna Anderson, played by Ingrid Bergman. I remember desperately wanting Anna to be the real Anastasia, hoping that Anastasia had somehow survived when the rest of her family were killed. Do you ever do that? Wish that historical novels or biographies can somehow turn out differently? Even when you know the real story?

photo of the Romanov family taken in 1914.
Tsar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, and their children in 1914. source.

Of course, you’ve probably read about my Mitford obsession. The Mitfords were not royal, but they did swim in some pretty influential ponds. I’ve read most of everything that was written by and about those famous sisters. My favourite non-fiction versions are The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell, and youngest sister Deborah’s memoir Wait for Me, the story of her life as a Mitford girl and later as the Duchess of Devonshire.

I read and really enjoyed Anne de Courcy’s biography of the most infamous Mitford sister Diana Mosley when it came out. You can read my review of that book here. This last one sent me off in search of other Anne de Courcy books, in particular The Viceroy’s Daughters, about the lives of the Curzon sisters. Mostly because Cimmie, the middle Curzon daughter, was Oswald Mosley’s first wife, and Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, went on to marry Diana Mitford. Phew. Trust me, by this time I was well and truly sick of royal or close-to-royal biographies and of the antics of upper class eccentrics.

I noticed when I was doing my research today that Anne de Courcy has a new book out. The Husband Hunters is about the American heiresses who married into British aristocracy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Much like Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, I imagine. I really like de Courcy’s writing, so I may order this myself. After I’ve finished Lady in Waiting, of course.

In fact, I may wait for a while after Lady in Waiting. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. And even though I love royal biographies, tales of the rich and famous and well-connected begin to pale after a while. And I yearn for something a little more down-to-earth.

How about you, friends? Are you a sucker for a tale of the rich and famous and well-connected? Do you read royal biographies, or semi-royal biographies? I’m tempted by that Jane Ridley book about Queen Victoria mentioned in the Slightly Foxed podcast.

P.S. I have been trying to be better at posting on a schedule. Usually shooting for Tuesdays, and Saturdays. All winter my posting schedule was a challenge. January was a car crash. Mostly due to my cold. February was an improvement over January. March was a bit all over the place. But I’ve been better lately. Except last week, I forgot and posted early on Friday, and this week somehow time got away from me and I didn’t finish my post yesterday, as I’d intended. Still, I want you to know that I am endeavouring to improve. When I was still teaching we had to come up each year with something called a School Improvement Policy. This is my Suz improvement policy. 🙂

P.P.S. Links to books are affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking my link I will earn a small commission.

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39 thoughts on “Down a Royal Reading Rabbit Hole”

  1. Thanks for sharing these books. I also love a good royal biography so these will be added to my list.
    You may also enjoy My First Ladies by Nancy Clark. Nancy spent 25years as the chief florist at the a White House starting with Roslyn Carter through to Michele Obama. It’s a fascinating read with wonderful insights into each of the different administrations and the style of each First Lady.

  2. Try The Gown, by Jennifer Robson..historical fiction about the making of Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown. I think you might enjoy it.

  3. I enjoyed Husband Hunters and can recommend it. I like reading history, especially social history, so biographies are always interesting as they provide a window into a different time. I have read a lot about the Mitford family as I find them endlessly fascinating. I wrote a major essay about Diana’s time in jail during WW2 when I was studying for a postgraduate degree. Another book I loved was The Riviera Set by Mary Lovell which is a history of a house and it’s inmates in a house in the South of France. The main focus in pre WW2.

    1. That is very cool, Maryann, that you wrote about the Mitfords for an academic paper. I may order that other book of Mary Lovell’s… the Rivera Set. Thanks for suggesting it.

  4. I’m currently down the Canadian mystery writer Louise Penny rabbit hole! I was given her first book as a gift at Christmas and I’m now completely hooked!
    I love your blog.
    Ingrid

  5. As a lover of history & gossip , I really enjoy this type of book . I actually got two copies of Anne Glenconner’s book for Xmas – people must know what I like . I found myself exasperated by what she was prepared to put up with but ‘ gels ‘ in those days usually accepted their lot . The irony is she was actually so much stronger than her husband & you have to wonder what she could have achieved in her life had she taken a different path . There was a touch of decadence about it all – not least by Princess M ( Colin Tennant’s own book Lord Of The Isle wallows in his fun & frolics – so much so that I gave up on it . I can only take so much selfish decadence ) I’ve read most of the books you mention & gone even deeper down the rabbit hole . Going further back , some of those aristocratic girls were chattels really . Being rich & beautiful was a curse sometimes . Consuela Vanderbilt seems to have been a lovely woman who had a dreadful marriage to the Duke of Marlborough in the late 1800s , though it made her mother very happy . This was the fate of many American heiress’s but we mustn’t feel too sorry for them . Life for ‘ ordinary’ wives & mothers was pretty grim in those days too .
    I’m still with Peter Grainger . DC is in happy retirement & the young bloods have taken over – still very good books . So pleased you recommended him . I can’t understand why he hasn’t been snapped up by a major publisher .

    1. I think that Colin Tennant was a wallower of the first order. I can’t imagine how Anne stuck it out with him. So glad that you are enjoying the Peter Grainger books. He is a good writer, and I can’t understand either why he’s not been snapped up by a big publisher, especially when you consider some of the really bad stuff that gets published.

  6. I have read a fair amount of royal or semi-royal biographies over the years but not at present. My daughter loves biographies so the house always has plenty lying about and I generally give them a go, reserving for myself the option to put them down if they don’t gel with me. Currently it is the Brontes who are being investigated and – while I am no fan of the writing – I do feel a terrible pity for them and their lives. Other people’s lives can be riveting. If you fancy a great life well told, you might like Bess of Hardwick by Mary S Lovell, who you mentioned re the Mitfords.

    1. I read a bit about Bess of Hardwick before my trip to England in 2017. I didn’t know that Mary Lowell wrote about her. I must see if I can find her book. I too love the story of the Brontes more than the stories they wrote. I found touring the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth so touching and sad. Especially a dress on display worn by a Charlotte. It looks a if child could wear it, so tiny.

      1. Re Daphne Du Maurier. Margaret Forster wrote a brilliant biography of her and she wrote a little autobiography of her life from birth to marriage called Myself When Young. If you read one, it is interesting to compare with the other.

  7. Maybe I’m a communist at heart but I don’t see why someone, through the luck of birth, should be exalted, whether they be royal or just rich (why would anybody care what any Kardashian says or does? It baffles me). I am more interested in the people who created/invented/discovered things on their own. Granted, Queen Elizabeth could have done a good job or a bad one, and she has mostly done a fantastic one, especially recently.
    That said, rabbit holes are fascinating! No better time than now for some deep research.

    1. Oh… I cannot even stand to read anything about the Kardashians. But royal bios have always fascinated me. Not because I particularly admire them… most often I don’t

  8. The same here! I’ve read Lady in Waiting and Daisy Goodwill’ s Victoria (and a lot of other biografies,royal or not,starting with Maria Theresia,Marie Antoinette,Sissi….)
    I’ve finished The Mirror and the Light yesterday…wow! What a book! And have spent some time watching You Tube,wives,mistresses,Boleyn sisters etc
    I usually get interested in people,period,relatives…but only google it. With corona,one gets more time ,so yes,I’ve watched a lot of video stories as well
    And Peter Grainger is waiting…I’m on the book 3 in series….
    Dottoressa

    1. Now that is a coincidence that you’ve read Goodwill’s book. You would love that podcast then. I’m glad you are enjoying the Grainger books. They are competently written and I love the characters. Wendy is enjoying them too. And Stu.

  9. I’ve also gone down the rabbit hole with one kind of reading enthusiasm leading to another. A few years ago I ended up reading just about everything I could find on the Roosevelts–mainly Franklin, Eleanor and Teddy. Still reading Mary Lovell’s Mitford book in between other books. Enjoyable but sometimes I just get annoyed with their antics.
    It might just be me, but I am having trouble sticking with any one book right now. Getting easily irritated and not wanting to read on in some books when a character or action begins to bore, anger or even frighten me. I’ve set aside more unfinished books in recent months than ever before. Clearly, life in the time of the virus is not one that allows the mind to rest easy for any length of time. Must work on that.

    1. I’ve been doing a similar thing, Mary. I’m easily distracted. I get annoyed with books and click away, or put them down, and move on, then go back and try again. That’s why the YouTube videos were helpful to me. And my audio books. I find I can move around, go for a walk, do housework and still listen to the book. But sitting still is very hard to do right now.

  10. Thank you for all of these great suggestions… I was looking for something engrossing to read, and these all seem to fit the bill nicely. I was fascinated by first Victoria, and then The Crown on PBS… and the contrast between Elizabeth and Margaret. Being the oldest of five girls I am sure I’ll find the books here on sisters quite relatable. Look forward to falling down this rabbit hole!
    Donna

    1. I loved the Crown. We are waiting for season three at the moment. We don’t have Netflicks, but the library will get it eventually. I thought it was interesting to see Helena Bonham Carter on the same Graham Norton show as Anne Glenconner. She helped Bonham Carter prepare for her role as Princess Margaret in season three.

  11. This post was a delightful rabbit-hole of its own for me. My sister’s best friend is the daughter of Robert Massey, author of Nicholas & Alexandra. The Massey’s first became fascinated by the Romanovs because their own son had hemophilia like the young tsarevitch. The Masseys were fascinating in themselves. A fun modern Russian twist is following Alexandra Tolstoy on Instagram – just Google her, there’s far too much to tell. I found the Mitford sisters-Oswald Mosely connection interesting as he’s featured in two TV series I’m watching now – Peakey Blinders and World On Fire. What fun it is to love history and fiction, and to have the world at our fingertips, even during lockdown. I do so enjoy your blog, and it’s been inspiration as I’ve launched my own. Hope you get some better weather soon!

  12. I also enjoyed those books and since you’re a fan of the Mitford sisters, you’d love The Bolter by Frances Osborne. You may recall one of the Mitford cousins referred to as The Bolter and her granddaughter wrote a fascinating biography about her grandmother and her decadent life in Africa. She ran with a pretty racy crowd. You might also enjoy the two books about Clare Boothe Luce by Sylvia Jukes Morris. Both fascinating! I’m on the waiting list for the ebook Lady In Waiting from the library. It should land in my inbox within the next week or so. Can’t wait.

  13. Haven’t read any of these biographies, but I’m obsessed with The Crown, so I should look them up. When our library closed for Covid, we ended up with any checked out book for the duration. Just before, my hold came up on “The Other Side of the Coin: The Queen, the Dresser and the Wardrobe.” It has great reviews, but I must confess I haven’t read it yet. The pictures look wonderful. 😉 I’ve been reading novels that take me away and binging shows I haven’t seen before. But I will definitely get into it when I see the library about to reopen. I’m sure it still has a waiting list.

  14. Have you tried any of the Mitford Mysteries by Jessica Fellowes? They’re not particularly deep, but they’re quite fun – main character/sleuth is ladies’ maid to the Mitford daughters and has a front-row seat to their antics.

    1. Yes, I read the first in the series a couple of years ago. I love Julian Fellowes’ books, but didn’t admire Jessica’s writing as much as her uncle’s.

  15. It’s been a while since I’ve been down a deep rabbit hole. I’ve always loved C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books and when I saw Shadowlands back in the nineties it made me interested in his life. I read the biography by A. N. Wilson and then the autobiography Surprised by Joy. I learned so much not just about Lewis but the time he grew up in, the educational system, his brilliance, his friendship with Tolkien and his conversion to Christianity. Back then you weren’t really educated unless you could read Latin, Greek and other languages.

    The other rabbit hole I entered was reading the biography of Daphne du Maurier. I had been enjoying many of her books and I wanted to know more about her. What a family and what a life. I learned how landscape could almost be a character and how there was a generation of men who served in both WWI and II. These two reading experiences were quite remarkable.

    1. Hmmm. I must look for a biography on Daphne du Maurier. I loved her books when I was a kid, and the various movies made based on Rebecca. I also read, a year or so ago, a novel called Mrs. de Winter by mystery writer Susan Hill. It’s one of those next chapter kind of books, which picks up a few years after Rebecca ends. I found it very good. Well written and completely in tune in style with du Maurier’s work.

  16. Perfect timing. I’m reading The Saga of the Mitford Family right now and loving it. Now that I’ve read your post, I’ve got lots more great info to look into. Thanks!

  17. I so relate to your rabbit hole experiences. Reading and learning and researching are in my DNA. You have certainly created interest and a path I am destined to follow with your reading suggestions. As always, your blog is so appreciated, regardless of when it shows up in my inbox. Thank you!

  18. Yes. I wanted Anastasia to have survived. It’s my name ( a saint’s name), so I felt a bit of kinship with her. Also, she was so beautiful. I am partially Eastern European. Incidentally, my father’s name is Nicholas.

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