There is something about royalty that is so fascinating to me. What would it be like to be born into a world of privilege and power? How do they live? Who are their friends? What are their secrets?
The British royal family is my favorite, so I jumped at the chance to read In Royal Service to the Queen, by Tessa Arlen. Based on actual events and real people, the story is told from the perspective of governess Marion Crawford. Her charges were the royal Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose Windsor. What she experienced while working for and living with the royal family could give me an insider’s view of the dreams, disappointments, and triumphs of the famous family. Telling this story in a fictionalized account is a tremendous challenge. Daunting, really. I was curious to see if Arlen could pull it off.
Marion Crawford was a young Scottish woman when she accepted a summer job in 1931 as the governess to Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, the two young daughters of the Duke and Duchess of York. This would evolve into a permanent position in the household of the second son of King George V who would later become king when his brother Edward abdicated the throne to marry the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. We briefly touch upon this critical time in the life of Bertie and his wife Elizabeth who never expected to be elevated to the highest position in the land.
The story really begins to heat up after WWII in 1945 when Princess Elizabeth, the heiress-presumptive to the British throne, falls in love with Prince Philip of Greece, a young Royal Navy officer. Crawfie, as Marion is endearingly called by the family, is the only one in Elizabeth’s intimate circle who supports her choice of Philip as a possible husband. Marion herself has also fallen in love with George, a family friend who she wants to marry. This is a complicated situation for both ladies that will take subtle shifting of opinions of the king and queen on Elizabeth’s behalf, and patience and persistence for Marion. Over the next two years Crawfie is placed in a precarious situation—caught between her loyalty to Princess Elizabeth and risking her relationship with her employer Queen Elizabeth who we see really wears the pants in the royal family. After years of loyal service and personal sacrifice, Marion achieves her goals and sees Elizabeth and herself marry the men that they love, but at a great cost. A betrayal by her employer will sever her sixteen-year relationship with her dear princesses.
Novels about real people can be tricky. The author is reimaging events, creating scenes, and capturing personalities through dialogue that could really fall flat. Only the bravest and most talented writers can pull it off. It is immediately apparent that Arlen has done her research on this period of British history and the royal family. Any capable writer can do that. What places In Royal Service to the Queen above the fray is Arlen’s total understanding of the personalities and politics of the Windsor family and their sphere. Revealing the story from the perspective of a governess offered an intimate view that places us directly in the inner circle. This is where Arlen shines. She brings an astute understanding of the unique personalities of each of the family and their governess to vividly the page. For example, one scene was brilliantly crafted when Prince Philip is invited to tea with the family at the palace as a suitor to Princess Elizabeth. The king puffs on his cigarettes in between the few words that he shares, the queen with her Cheshire cat smile orchestrates the conversation like a lifeboat in a field of icebergs, her outspoken younger brother David Bowes-Lyon adds colorful comments and piercing questions that his sister and brother-in-law cannot broach, eager prospect Philip is open and candid, showing his un-royal upbringing, while the young Elizabeth is effervescent and eager for approval. Crawfie is there in support of her charge, observing and sharing with us the critical scene in the romance of the princess and the future of the monarchy.
The personal dynamics between the characters crackles and pops with energy throughout, and her heroine Marion is fierce, valiant, and believable. We never doubt her view and root for her happiness until the surprising end. My only quibble was with the pacing as I had wished that she placed more emphasis on the critical abdication as the inciting event of the beginning of the story to add more immediate tension.
I had the pleasure of listening to the audiobook narrated by Mhairi Morrison whose interpretation of Princess Elizabeth sounded eerily like actress Claire Foy in the same role in the TV series, The Crown. Arlen is an underappreciated historical fiction author who should find elevation from this beautifully written, impeccably researched, penetrating story of another underappreciated personality, Marion Crawford.
5 out of 5 Stars
- In Royal Service to the Queen: A Novel of the Queen’s Governess, by Tessa Arlen
- Berkley Publishing Group (June 29, 2021)
- Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (368) pages
- ISBN: 978-0593102480
Cover image compliments of Berkley Publishing Group © 2021; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2021, Austenprose.com