Now that Netflix’s “The Crown” has returned for a third season we will find the House of Windsor navigating a palace-size puzzle: how to reign with the traditional pomp and circumstance yet remain relevant amid the social upheaval of the 1960s and the political crises of the 1970s. Eager fans have some literary options to learn about - or refamiliarize themselves with - the Windsors of yesterday and today.
For insights into the current queen, start with “The Other Side of the Coin: The Queen, the Dresser and the Wardrobe.” Author Angela Kelly is personal adviser, curator and senior dresser to the queen, who gave permission for Kelly to share previously unreported anecdotes and images. This is Kelly’s second book; the first, “Dressing the Queen: The Jubilee Wardrobe,” was mostly photos, highlighting the outfits worn to mark the Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
Tidbits include: It was a coincidence, not a sartorial signal about European Union membership, that the queen wore a blue and yellow outfit to open Parliament in 2017, after the Brexit referendum (though the hat’s yellow flowers have been removed, Kelly writes, to prevent future comparisons); then-first lady Michelle Obama’s tactile greeting of Her Majesty in 2009 did not break royal protocol about touching the monarch; the mink and other fur trim on the queen’s clothing is being replaced with faux fur; and Kelly wears the queen’s shoes to break them in. The queen, one of the world’s most photographed women, longed for years, Kelly writes, to pose with her hands in her pockets. Although advisers, including her mother, vetoed the informal posture, Kelly added pockets to one of the queen’s dresses and made the desired photo shoot happen.
The book’s significance lies less in its revelations (Kelly fawns over the queen) than in the fact that she received permission to publish the book at all. After retired governess Marion Crawford published “The Little Princesses” in 1950, a treacly tome on her years with then-Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, “Crawfie” was evicted from the palace home she had been given and the royals never spoke to her again. The queen’s never-explain, never-complain approach over her historically long reign has had a few recent exceptions, though: Her participation in a documentary to mark the 65th anniversary of her coronation and an interview to highlight her Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy environmental initiative suggest that the 93-year-old monarch might be thinking about the historical record. She is also reportedly quite fond of Kelly, a former housekeeper from Liverpool who has worked for her since 1994.
For more on the queen’s wardrobe, there is “Our Rainbow Queen: A Tribute to Queen Elizabeth II and Her Colorful Wardrobe.” Journalist Sali Hughes, beauty columnist at the Guardian, writes that as someone who has built a career on fashion and beauty, she sees a role model not in Princesses Margaret or Diana, nor in Duchesses Kate or Meghan, but in the royal woman least celebrated for her style. “Clothing is not simply for Elizabeth II herself, but for the monarchy,” Hughes writes, and the queen has always understood that her job “is to be smaller than the throne.” “Our Rainbow Queen” touches on the queen’s color-block choices and dressing habits (three-quarter-length sleeves to accommodate waving; weighted hems to prevent embarrassment in wind) and includes pages of photos of the sovereign’s Technicolor wardrobe.
For those interested in revisiting the period when “The Crown” begins, there is Georgie Blalock’s “The Other Windsor Girl,” a historical novel tracing Princess Margaret’s life through her ill-fated love affair with Group Capt. Peter Townsend and later marriage to photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones. Through the perspective of a fictional lady-in-waiting, Blalock explores a creative interpretation of Margaret’s familiar, unhappy story: She portrays the princess as knowing as early as 1953 that she would not be allowed to marry Townsend without renouncing her royal privileges.
However inherently spirited a Margaret-centric novel might seem - and this one includes the princess delivering a tongue-lashing to Winston Churchill - the storytelling here is ultimately more weak tea than intoxicating cocktail. “The Other Windsor Girl” lacks the flashes of insight into the princess found in Craig Brown’s “99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret.”
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A more ambitious, and well-told, story set about the same time is “The Gown,” by Jennifer Robson. Focusing on two colleagues at Norman Hartnell’s fashion house in 1947, Robson weaves a portrait of life in postwar Britain through the experiences of Ann, a working-class Englishwoman, and Miriam, a fellow embroiderer who emigrated from France. As they painstakingly stitch flowers for Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown, each woman’s story unspools and the basis for their friendship is cemented. Robson alternates these with chapters on Heather, who discovers beautiful embroideries among her late grandmother’s possessions in 2016, as well as a photo of her nan with a famous artist and Holocaust survivor, and tries to trace their origin. Knitted together, the novel portrays the impact of the royal wedding as well as the power of relationships.
For those who want to dive into the world of the Netflix show, there is Robert Lacey’s official companion to “The Crown.” Lacey, a royal biographer and series consultant, published Volume I in 2017 (“The Crown: Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill, and the Making of a Young Queen, 1947-1955”). Its 10 chapters explore each episode of the first season, giving historical background and at points explaining where the drama diverged from history. Young Prince Charles and Princess Anne did not, as depicted, live with their parents in Malta when Prince Philip was stationed there with the Royal Navy but stayed in Britain with their grandparents. Philip’s flight instructor was not Peter Townsend. The tutor hired for the queen in Episode 7 was fictional and the young secretary who worked for Churchill a composite. The “Great Smog” in Episode 4 - the catalyst for Britain’s first clean-air legislation - ultimately killed about 6,000 Londoners in December 1952, almost the same number (5,957) killed in September 1940, the worst month of the Blitz. Chapters are accessibly written and include capsule profiles of characters and topics relevant to each episode, along with photos from the show. This month, Lacey is publishing a second volume that spans from 1956 to 1977. In the era of strategic, arranged unions, May was first engaged to the Duke of Clarence, eldest son of King Edward VII, whose premature death made his younger brother George the heir. After a suitable period of mourning, May was duly engaged to George, with whom she eventually had six children. Her devotion to duty made her eldest son’s abdication in 1936 unthinkable (“She felt the Abdication more than anything that happened to her in the whole of her life,” one niece observed, a particularly powerful statement given that three of the queen’s five sons died before she did).
For those who want to learn more about the dynasties and traditions that shaped Britain’s royal family, “The Quest for Queen Mary,” published in paperback in September, offers a fascinating look at the construction of James Pope-Hennessy’s official biography of the current queen’s grandmother, the consort of George V. “Quest” is a compilation of short profiles Pope-Hennessy wrote after he interviewed relatives and staff of the late queen in the mid-1950s; chapter introductions and footnotes offering context for names and references were later added by royal biographer Hugo Vickers. Through Pope-Hennessy’s journeys by plane, train and boat across Europe, readers meet an eclectic assortment of Imperial, Royal and Serene Highnesses, the German, Danish, Swedish and other royal nephews, nieces and cousins of the queen known to family as May.
Netflix has inspired widespread interest in the royals. A big question is whether viewers will remain loyal when “The Crown” resumes with a middle-aged monarch and its three biggest stars replaced. But it may not matter. With these and other tales of palace life, fans have myriad options to revisit the eccentric characters and quirks that helped make the drama’s early seasons so compelling.