I didn’t admire Behind the Throne (double meaning fully intended) half so much as Tinniswood’s brilliant last book, The Long Weekend, in which he served up life in the English country house between 1918 and 1939; this volume, romping through several hundred years of history, wants for its beady focus. Nevertheless, it’s often delicious – as piquant as the green salad with which Edward VIII liked to eat his cold grouse.
The world of lord stewards, pages, grooms of the stool and so forth is an interesting one, but for the general reader not inexhaustibly so, and though Tinniswood maintains an intermittent focus on it he frequently wanders off into wider realms of gossip, which is a relief... Onwards he trots, jauntily... Tinniswood ends, rather abruptly, with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and a sentence of orotund fatuity that I shall treasure: “As we reach that royal death, the past collides with memory, and history, which has no place in the present, comes to an end in a welter of judgment.”
This book is a cracking read, packed full of stories which Tinniswood relates with verve and wit. He picks up the sort of details one wants to know, relating for instance how Elizabeth I modestly retreated behind a canopy when she sat on her close stool or chamberpot, while Henry VIII was watched by the groom of the stool. Tinniswood has an excellent ear for gossip, but he doesn’t lose sight of the bigger picture, and there are lots of nuggets of new research.
And the staff themselves were impossible to control. Behind the Throne, erudite and amusing, bulges with colourful scenes of barely managed chaos at court. Elizabeth I had 30 female attendants. Off duty, the girls had fun. Sir Francis Knollys, treasurer of the household, was troubled by their tendency to “frisk and hey about in the next room, to his extreme disquiet at nights”... From a fun, elegant narrative, Tinniswood rather freezes as he moves into modern times. It’s a shame, for there are many resonances. Elizabeth II has about 1,200 employees, the same as Charles II in the 1660s, but an increase of one third on Victoria.
Tone can be tricky when writing about more recent royals: oily and obsequious is horrible, while snide and snarky, often mistaken for a sign of acute intelligence by the stupid, is even worse. But Tinniswood gets it just right, never overly deferential, but humorous and distantly respectful. Our royals are human beings after all, not animals in a zoo...Behind the Throne is a wonderfully entertaining account of life through five centuries of royal households, and a succession of families that are entirely unlike and yet uncannily similar to our own. Hence, surely, the enduring fascination.