George V by Jane Ridley – a ‘superbly un-dull’ biography
Ridley’s book about the seemingly inscrutable monarch is quite ‘wonderful’
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Few monarchs have been as “discreet and inscrutable as George V”, said Ysenda Maxtone Graham in The Times. Britain’s king from 1910 to 1936 was a man who hid behind “many layers”: not only his nicotine-stained beard and thick Victorian frock coat, but also his “all-consuming, conversation-avoiding addiction to shooting and stamp collecting”.
His diaries, written up every night, chronicle the minutiae of his days – right down to the time he had breakfast – but give “no evidence of an inner life”. One characteristic entry reads: “I have got to go to London I regret today, on account of the political crisis & shall lose my day’s shooting at Six Mile Bottom”. You’d think such a man would make a hopeless subject – and yet against the odds, Jane Ridley’s biography succeeds in being “superbly un-dull”.
It achieves this by not concentrating excessively on its central subject, said Max Hastings in The Sunday Times. As monarch, George was witness to a “procession of extraordinary events”, from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914 – which obliged him to “miss a planned pheasant-shooting date with the archduke” – to his “eldest son’s manic affair with Wallis Simpson”, which after his death led to the abdication crisis.
Ridley devotes a sizeable portion of her book to such events, and also to George’s charismatic wife, Queen Mary, whose fondness for shopping led to her becoming known as the “kleptomaniac Queen”.
Ridley contends that George himself was not so much dull as ordinary, said A.N. Wilson in the TLS. And this proves to be a “revelatory distinction”. For it transforms what might have been the biography of a dullard into one “about innate, quiet decency surviving in an indecent, rowdy world”. The result is a “wonderful” book – the best royal biography I’ve read in decades.
Chatto & Windus 576pp £30; The Week Bookshop £23.99 (incl. p&p)
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