While researching his 1959 biography of Queen Mary, James Pope-Hennessy kept a notebook in which he jotted down secret thumbnail sketches of the people he’d interviewed and how they lived.
He asked for this notebook not to be published for 50 years — and you can see why. It’s full of hilarious, fastidious, ruthless descriptions of the appearances, domestic habits and unguarded remarks of a lost generation of aristocrats and extended Royal Family members.
This marvellous book consists of James Pope-Hennessy’s scribbled notes, written while researching his official biography of Queen Mary, which was published in 1959. It is as little about Queen Mary as The Quest for Corvo was about Baron Corvo. In the foreground are the aristocratic characters Pope-Hennessy interviewed while researching the biography. As he emerged from each interview he rushed upstairs to write down a description of the old relics he had just met. In writing these notes Pope-Hennessy has preserved for posterity the physical appearance, the interiors, the domestic habits and the voices of a lost upper-class generation. At the mention of Holland, the Duke of Gloucester remarks: “Funny shape for a country, Holland. Damn funny shape,” and then relapses into silence. There are gems on every page.
If the recent renaissance in Queen Mary studies has quietly euthanised one old tale, a host of others have risen in its place. The Quest for Queen Mary has given us Queen Mary the Motoring Enthusiast, Queen Mary the Ivy Killer and Queen Mary the Existentialist (she seems particularly to have admired Crime and Punishment). There are moments in the book of parody-defying magniloquence: Queen Mary, for example, announcing to a woman of the bedchamber, ‘I should like to die to the sound of a military march.’ And there are unanticipated streaks of bathos: the compulsively punctual Queen Mary being driven slowly around the streets of Leatherhead to ensure that she did not arrive early for a tea party.
Hugo Vickers — the most knowledgeable royal biographer on the planet — has put those interviews together, and has added his own faultless footnotes, to produce the funniest book of the year. Because the interviewees trusted Pope-Hennessy, their off-the-record comments are jaw-dropping... The Quest for Queen Mary is wonderful on the absolute oddness of royal life, and the quite bonkers things royals say to each other... Because of their unique position, the royal family end up behaving extremely strangely... Pope-Hennessy is certainly no courtier and is delighted to bash any sycophants... He has an exceptional eye for detail...
The dust-jacket photograph of Queen Mary looking regal in a tiara, with a literal stiff upper lip, might lead you to expect that this was going to be a book about her, but it really isn’t. A more apposite cover photograph would have been a group of 1950s aristocrats eating overcooked macaroni cheese in a chilly country-house dining room. For The Quest for Queen Mary is as little about Queen Mary as The Quest for Corvo was about Baron Corvo...It’s the layers of observation that make the book sublime. At the top of the layers is Hugo Vickers, ideal editor of these notes. His chapter openings in italics are indispensable.
It is a book about a biography, and very illuminating and entertaining it is, too... Pope-Hennessy was a fine writer and aesthete, but had never written a book of the first rank... Even if the colour was forcibly drained out of his book, it abounds in his notes... Vickers has edited these notes brilliantly, with footnotes that are witty and helpful... The book is a delight, though one does feel as if one has been admitted into a rather baroque zoo.
Vickers’s superbly edited text is the complete version... The pieces are uneven. Some of the interviews are research notes, sketchy and brief... The longer pieces which Pope-Hennessy worked up as essays for publication are brilliant. Like all the best interviews, these are stories about the hunter circling his prey, and they reveal as much about the interviewer as his subject... He had a novelist’s ear for dialogue and some of the essays are wickedly funny.