Alathea the diarist is repeatedly charmed but often mystified by her heroine. It is an unequal relationship, bound in the end to cause Alathea unhappiness. For a start, Alathea is too old at sixteen to be a real friend to Lilibet when she is thirteen (Margaret is at this stage nine or ten). Though slightly arrested in her development (her first period occurs in this diary), she is surely too old to be going to Girl Guides and dancing lessons; but most of her regular contact with the princesses revolves around these two activities. High points are racing demon and bicycle rides to Frogmore.
Inevitably, she sees less of the princesses as they all grow up. She hopes that Princess Elizabeth will make her a lady-in-waiting but even that hope is dashed. In an Afterword, Naylor-Leyland explains that Alathea did marry eventually, but to a “tricky” younger son (of the Earl of Dudley) and never had children. She was invited to Princess Elizabeth’s wedding but not to her Coronation and admitted in her diary that, “my star waned a long time ago”. But the Queen did occasionally invite her to lunch at Buckingham Palace and when she was in hospital towards the end of her life, she sent her flowers – as did Jools Holland.
Her years in the palace infected poor prim, snobby, artless, old-fashioned Alathea with red-carpet fever. She struggled with the exigencies of ordinary life and common people. She admitted that with a different background she’d have been taken into care. She was never to achieve her three ambitions — to become a lady-in-waiting, marry the heir to a great ancestral pile and have children — though she stayed in contact with Elizabeth until she died in 2001. Her diaries, edited by her nephew’s wife Isabella Naylor-Leyland, are her legacy: unconsciously funny, astute, poignant and historically fascinating.
Besides this entertaining cattiness, the diaries have a more serious appeal in the social history they record. The terror of the war is vividly conveyed, showing how not even the most privileged were exempt: “Woken up at five thirty by another explosion … I lay in speechless horror watching my walls rock violently from side to side.” After another raid, Alathea learns that “the Pearces’ house had been hit and one of the sons killed”. In July 1944 she is walking home at night when she encounters a flying bomb “coming straight at me”.