History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

21 December 2009

Happy Holidays!

Whatever your family traditions, the Hoydens would like to wish you a happy holiday season. We'll be back in the new year with more history and more books!

15 December 2009

Literary Cocktails, Jane Austen, and Discovering Characters

In November, I visited New York and had the great treat of staying with Lauren and sharing a wonderful evening of drinks and writer talk with Lauren and Leslie. That's the three of us to the left right at the appropriately named Bookmarks in the Library Hotel. Leslie wrote a great post about our evening on her blog. While discussing research methods, Richard III's marriage, and the vagaries of a writer's schedule, we sipped literary-themed cocktails (Leslie had the Dickens, which I think was brandy based, and Lauren and I both had the Hemingway, which had vodka, elderflower liqueur, and a float of sparkling wine).

I’m fortunate to have a lot of great friends, but there are some things that only fellow writers understand, particularly fellow writers who write in a similar area. Like all the Hoydens, Leslie, Lauren and I write historically set books. Even more specifically, Lauren and I both write books about espionage during the Napoleonic Wars. A few minutes after I walked through Lauren’s door, we were sitting on her sofa sipping wine and discussing the finer points of obscure Napoleonic intrigues, the challenges of writing books that cross genres, the delights and frustrations of primary source research, “what’s next” in both our series. We went on talking the whole trip, over brunches and dinners and cups of tea. We saw a riveting production of Hamlet with Jude Law and a great cast and talked about the Shakespearean references in both our books. We talked about Jane Austen, who plays a role in one of Lauren’s upcoming books, in light of the wonderful exhibit at the Morgan Library.

The exhibit was fabulous. I got chills looking at Austen’s letters, trying to decipher the words, noting that her handwriting was neater in the manuscript pages of Lady Susan than in the letters to her family, seeing first-hand the the crossed lines (turning the letter and writing crosswise to get the maximum use out of expensive paper) one reads about in Austen and other 19th centuries writers. There esearch gems such as a board game from 1809 called Journey Round the Metropolis: An Amusing and Instructive Game with pictures of London sights and an 1811 book called Ellen or the Naughty Girl Reclaimed with instructional stories for children illustrated by cut out figures. I think a rather prosy relative will present the book to young Jessica Fraser in one of my future novels. Jessica will enjoy playing with the cut outs but wrinkle her nose at the text.

The exhibit also included a print of a portrait Austen said was Jane Bennet Bingley. I’ve always loved the letter of Austen’s in which she talks about attending an exhibition and finding a portrait of Mrs. Bingley. She adds that she looked for a portrait of Mrs. Darcy but didn’t find one, which she puts that down to Mr. Darcy not wanting to let go of any portraits of her. What I love about this letter, as I told Lauren, is that it shows Austen imagined her characters having a life outside the pages of her novels.

Which is just what Lauren and I were doing throughout my visit (including at a wonderful brunch at the Atlantic Grill in the picture below). Talking about our characters, their pasts, their interconnections, events we envisioned for them in the future. Questioning each other about spoilers for future books (fortunately neither of us minds knowing spoilers) and how various characters’ paths might cross. Of course we both write series, which lend themselves to this sort of speculation, but I’ve always loved continuing the stories of books I read in my head after I turn the last page. I think it’s one reason that the books I write have always been interconnected.

I love the idea of Austen looking for her characters among the paintings at an exhibition. Much as today we look for our characters while watching a movie or turning the pages of a magazine. Such as when I watched the recent adaptation of Little Dorrit and thought Matthew MacFadyen would make a wonderful Charles. Or thinking how like Mélanie Eva Green was in Casino Royale. (Though neither of them was who I had in mind when I wrote Secrets of a Lady or Beneath a Silent Moon).

When I blogged about this on my own website, Susan commented, "I’ve certainly seen photos or paintings or actors who make me think of a character in a book: On reading Mary Balogh’s 'The Notorious Rake' I immediately pictured Daniel Day Lewis as Lord Edmond Waite. When I read 'Atonement', I thought Heath Ledger would make a perfect Robbie Turner. Much as I like James MacAvoy and think he’s totally adorable, he just doesn’t have the physical presence I thought Robbie should have. And I don’t see Michael MacFadyen as Charles. I like MacFadyen, but I think of Charles as having stronger features and coloring — an external expression of his passion and intelligence. Richard Armitage fits my image of Charles much better, but you are the author so you are certainly entitled to see whomever you like in the role."

Which goes to the fascinating idea of how the reader is a partner in the story and each reader reads a slightly different book. (Actually, having watched North & South several times while doing holiday preparations, I could definitely see Richard Armitage as Charles; of course it's hard to quarrel with Richard Armitage as just about anyone :-).

Do you find yourself discovering characters (your own or other writers) in movies or paintings or photographs? Writers, do you think about your characters ongoing lives after the story ends or between books in a series? Readers, do you do the same with books you read?

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14 December 2009

Maternity Clothes

I was discussing this over the weekend with a costumer friend, so I thought it might be fun to talk about here on the blog.

For most of the Georgian era pregnancy itself doesn’t seem to be something that was celebrated or treated as something to be memorialized. The safe delivery of a child certainly was, and it is that, not the pregnancy, that tends to show up in letters and diaries. In contrast to the myth of pregnant women being “confined” alone and unseen, most reports show that they were out in public attending (and even hosting) events right up until the end.
There are few examples of clothes that were devoted specifically to maternity. There are several possibilities as to why this might be (and the truth is probably some combination of them all). Firstly, most images show that women simply wore their normal clothes, with editions such as aprons, shawls, and special waistcoats to cover the growing belly (the apron was so common a symbol of pregnancy that little girls playing dress-up would wear one when playing “house” and pretending to be pregnant). The fact that women’s skirts rode up in the front, or that things didn’t close fully doesn’t seem to have been of much concern. Secondly, if they did make special clothes, they probably altered them after, or passed them on to be worn by friends and family until they were worn out. Thirdly, they simply weren’t considered important enough to save.

There are also descriptions of women wearing stays during their pregnancy, as well as an etching of a pattern for them (c. 1771).

For more information on pregnancy and early motherhood see “What Clothes Revel” by Linda Baumgarten. It has a whole section on this topic, complete with many excerpts from period diaries and letters.

Image, clockwise from the top right: An 18th century quilted gown laced over a matching waistcoat for pregnancy; The same gown as worn when not pregnant; A gown designed for a nursing mother, c. 1825-1830. The top panel lifts to expose an underbodice with slits; Detail from Diligence & Dissipation, c. 1796 The unwed pregnant woman is shown descending the stairs, her belly covered by an apron.

11 December 2009

Little Men in Floppy Blue Pajamas

Have you ever taken a train through the High Sierras? Through mile-long tunnels and along tracks that cling to mountainsides overlooking deep canyons?

The most spectacular and dangerous routes were hacked out solid rock by hand by small (110 lb), tough, energetic Chinese laborers who hauled off the earth and rock in tiny loads and, as winter approached, worked 3-shift, 24-hour days and slept in tent cities at night.

Back in 1865 what were seen as those strange little men with their dishpan straw hats, pigtails, and floppy blue pajamas proved themselves the equal of burly Irish immigrants also hired to work on the railroads. At first, the railroad bosses judged the Chinese too frail and unmechanical for such work. [Had they known history, of course, they might have recognized the tremendous grit and cleverness of the Chinese, exhibited in the building of the Great Wall (also hacked by hand out of mountainsides) and the invention of clocks, gunpowder, paper, ceramic glaze, etc.]

The little Chinese men–actually farm boys from Canton–came to California originally to rework tailings of gold mines left by the ’49ers. Finally formed into railroad crews of from 12 to 20 men with their own cook and Chinese headman, the men proved quick to learn, slow to complain, and unfailingly punctual! (Irish workers were said to be a headache–promoting strikes, drinking up their earnings, and brawling.)

The Chinese amazed everyone: they didn’t strike; they didn’t get drunk; they bathed every day and drank boiled tea instead of the dirty water that sickened everyone else. They did gamble and occasionally had fights among themselves, but overall they were looked on as disciplined, efficient, reliable working machines. They were called Celestials. (The Irish were called Terrestrials.)

Clearing the path for the laying of railroad track encouraged competition among crews. Fifty-seven miles from Sacramento the Central Pacific Chinese crew ran into a shale mass in the flank of the Sierra, 200 feet above the gorge of the American River. Track would have to be laid along a ledge with no footholds, 1400 feet above the raging river below.

The Irish took one look and began protesting because it was so dangerous. The Chinese took over and triumphed. Lowered down the face of the cliffs in wicker baskets, the Chinese crews pounded holes in the rock, stuffed them with black powder, and set fuses. They were then hauled out of danger, and when the smoke cleared the hunks of rocky mountainsides had come tumbling down. The Chinese crews lost not a single man during this dangerous enterprise; they were paid $35 per month and that didn’t include food or lodging. They lived in on-site wind-whipped huts or dank caves and ate Chinese delicacies shipped from San Francisco and prepared by the Chinese camp cook.

Blizzards in the winter of 1866-67 all but stopped progress, but the Chinese continued to bore tunnels through solid rock, even though the men were often cut off by snow and had to eat stockpiled food while dodging avalanches. Tunnels were cut under the snow for access from lodging to work site.

The Great Track-Laying Race occurred after this bitter winter when both sides, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, were to connect in the desert. By this time, the Central Pacific crews included Irish men. For a time the Irish and the Chinese crews competed in clearing grading, with neither side warning the other of impending explosive blasts.

The Great Race between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific began when each railroad owner wanted to beat the other to the connecting. Guess who won?

The Central Pacific’s combined Irish-Chinese crews managed to lay 10 miles of track in 12 hours and thus proved their superiority. The burly Irishmen would lug the iron track sections and drop them in position, and the Chinese would hammer them in place, by which time there would be another section of track waiting.

Thus was America built.

Source: The Railroaders [The Old West]; Time-Life Books, New York.

09 December 2009

Law and Literature

A few weeks ago, I was on a panel at the Massachusetts Bar Association with three other lawyers turned author. When asked if my legal training had any impact on my writing, I blithely declared that the two had nothing to do with one another, other than both taking up space in my life at the same point in time. Law? Nineteenth century spies? Couldn't be more different.

In retrospect, that isn’t entirely true.

It isn’t just that I took terribly useful vocational classes at law school like Ancient Athenian Trials, on the theory that you never know when you might want to write a crime thriller set in Ancient Athens (apparently, there are still embarrassing pictures of me in Ancient Greek garb defending Eratosthenes floating around out there somewhere. Thank you, Harvard Law School Gazette). Law has all sorts of bearings on the world I write about and the characters I create, whether they realize it or not. The chance decision of a legislator or a judge can change the entire course of a character’s life—even when that decision takes place years before in a case that has nothing at all to do with that character.

It makes more sense than it sounds. My favorite example of this is Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753. You know all those novels where the lead couple is frantically dashing towards Gretna Greene? The entire elopement industry, in both fact and fiction, was spurred by this one piece of legislation, which decreed that the marriage of individuals under the age of twenty-one required parental consent, as well as that banns be published or a special license acquired in order for the marriage to be deemed valid. Marriages contracted in Scotland, which had its own set of laws, were not subject to these requirements, hence the mad dash for the nearest town across the border: Gretna Greene.

I’ve been thinking about this because the indirect consequences of impersonal legislation play a defining role in the lives of the characters in my latest book, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, which is set in India in 1804. Under the Governor-Generalship of Lord Cornwallis (yup, the same Lord Cornwallis who was forced to surrender to those pesky Colonials at a little place called Yorktown), laws were passed banning anyone with one Indian parent from serving in the East India Company’s army or civil service, the main source of income and advancement in British India. This meant that any offspring of an English father and Indian mother were banned, by birth, from most means of gainful employment. Only the more lowly trades remained open. James Skinner, later famous as Skinner of Skinner’s Horse, was apprenticed to a printer, from whom he ran away. Many took service as mercenaries in the armies of local rulers, a practice which exposed them to suspicion from both sides when war broke out between the British and the Mahratta Confederacy.

In The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, my hero, Alex (based loosely on a real life figure, his compatriot, James Kirkpatrick, Resident of Hyderabad), whose mother was Welsh, is reliant upon the Company for his livelihood, first as a captain in cavalry regiment, later as a member of the diplomatic corps. At the same time, his two half-brothers, product of his father’s liaisons with local ladies, are both banned from following in his footsteps, a source of deep conflict for Alex, who finds it difficult to serve and uphold an institution which excludes his family—although, for financial reasons, he has no choice but to do so. Cornwallis’ legislation, passed when Alex’s younger brothers were little more than toddlers, changed the whole course of his life and provides much of the backbone for the book.

So perhaps law has had an impact on my writing after all…. And if you’re looking for an attorney to defend an ancient Athenian, I’m your girl!

04 December 2009

Bronte on the block

I wrote yesterday at the Riskies about the opportunity to view Dickens' original manuscript of A Christmas Carol online and that got me thinking about ownership of items; and also Kathryn's post yesterday in which she stated:

I am glad that Ms. Austen left no DNA behind.

Don't count on it. It seems that all the time possessions, papers and other artefacts come out of the woodwork as collections are sold or treasures unearthed in attics. How long before someone finds Jane Austen's hairbrush?

But today I'm cheering on the Bronte Parsonage Museum, because it's the day when Christies of NY is holding an auction of items from the William E. Self Library which includes a first edition of Wuthering Heights, owned by her sister Charlotte and with Charlotte's pencil notes for a second edition. The Museum naturally feels that the book, and the other Bronte items should be in the museum. I agree--I think it would be a tragedy if these items disappeared into the hands of a private collector--and I'm wishing them luck.

Also coming up this month, yet more Bronte items on sale through Sotheby's in London on December 17, when Charlotte's writing desk and Emily's drawing box will go on the block. (Photos courtesy of Sotheby's.)

Sotheby's is a fantastic research site, as well as a massive timesuck, by the way. The same auction also includes the only known letter from Byron to Stendhal, in which Byron defends the character of Sir Walter Scott:

I have known Walter Scott, long and well, and in occasional situations which call forth the real character - and I can assure you that his character is worthy of admiration, that of all men he is the most open, the most honourable - the most amiable...

The letter is dated May 29, 1823 when Byron was preparing to leave for Greece.

There's also a letter from Shelley regarding the publication of Frankenstein, in which he represents a "friend" who is not available to discuss the manuscript or terms of publication, written on August 22, 1817 when Shelley and Mary were living at Great Marlow in Buckinghamshire.

I know when I'm researching or blogging about historical items my first thought is that I'd love to own something like this. I'm hoping that the Bronte Museum has raised enough money to buy the books and furniture that surely belong there, because if they are bought by a private collector it's very unlikely any of us will ever see them.

Yet at the same time I understand the lure of owning something that was used by a known person, or a letter written by a favorite author.

What do you think? What would you like to own and what would you do with it? Donate it to a museum? Gloat over it, wearing cotton gloves, in the privacy of your own climate-controlled vault?

UPDATE: The results of the auction have been posted at BronteBlog. Not all bad news.

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03 December 2009

Jane Austen and Galileo's fingers

The kind of history news I love--straight from the CNN headlines: "Galileo's Missing Fingers Found in Jar" and..."What Really Killed Jane Austen?"

Apparently, three fingers were cut from Galileo's hand on March 1737 and a tooth removed from his lower jaw, when his body was moved in Florence (removing body parts as relics from the sanctified dead was a common practice at the time).

The jar with two of the fingers and the tooth went missing in 1905, and only recently resurfaced when somebody brought them to a museum in Florence. The actual cause of Galileo's death remains to be determined...but at least now with fingers and a tooth, there is enough DNA to spare for testing--which could shed some light on the blindness that afflict Galileo late in his life and during his final illness. To read the whole article check out: http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/europe/11/23/galileo.fingers/index.html

Today CNN posted: What Really Killed Jane Austen?

Now in almost every bio I've read or seen about here, the assumption was that she died of consumption, or tuberculosis...but apparently a doctor asserted in a paper he published (in 1964) that she died of Addison's disease (a failure of the adrenal glands). Katherine White, a social scientist who is a coordinator of the UK's Addison's Disease Self-Help Advisory Group says no way---Jane had none of the symptoms: headaches, sleepiness, slurred words, difficultly remembering words--that Jane Austen even wrote a comic poem to her sister 48 hrs before her death was proof she did not suffer from Addison's.

Without DNA, the retrospective diagnosis of Addison's disease (a condition barely recognized in Jane's lifetime) or lymphoma (another refuted cause of her death), will never be proven. Tuberculosis, which rampant in her time even amongst the middle class (milk was unpasteurized), is still the best guess.

Personally, I am glad that Ms. Austen left no DNA behind. We will really never know what killed her. Even the image of her posted here (a painting by Ozias Humphry, believed to be of Jane when she was about 14) is not a sure thing---but I'd prefer to have a mental image of her just like this.

Most of us I am sure, don't really need to know what really killed Jane Austen, or even Galileo. The work they left behind has given them immortality.

But the deaths of historical figures interest me, mostly because so many were premature or untimely. Have you ever researched the final hours of a famous historical figure?

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02 December 2009

Margaret & Peter: The Princess and the Equerry

Royal history -- and the Romance genre -- are filled with star-crossed love affairs between a pair of social unequals. The Romance formula tends to follow the Duke and the Babysitter trope where the man is the lofty brahmin while his lady love is the Cinderella figure, daring to love above her station. However, romance novels inevitably deliver the happily-ever-after, although the road to the altar may be a rocky one.

Sans happy ending, the story of the real-life romance between Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend rocked the headlines of the mid 1950s.

Younger sister to Britain’s current Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret Rose was born in 1930 to the Duke and Duchess of York. The girls’ father would ascend the throne as George VI on the December 10, 1936 abdication of his older brother Edward VIII—to marry his lover, the twice divorced American Wallis Simpson.

But within twenty years another star-crossed Windsor romance would make headlines.

Group Captain Peter Townsend, slender and sensitive, was a decorated RAF pilot for his bravery at the Battle of Britain. In 1944 at the age of twenty-nine he was made a temporary equerry in the service of George VI. Townsend had a wartime wedding in 1941 to a girl he barely knew, Rosemary Pawle. His royal appointment came with a grace-and-favor cottage at Windsor and he and Rosemary moved in with their two young sons.

But Townsend’s job required him to travel with the king, leaving Rosemary stuck at Windsor with their children—and Townsend with plenty of time to become acquainted with the princesses. His first impression of the fourteen-year-old Margaret was that she was “unremarkable,” though he did notice that the color of her dark blue eyes were “like those of a tropical sea.” He gets points for poetry but none for syntax. Townsend was also impressed with the way the adolescent princess would make “some shattering wisecrack,” after which, “to her unconcealed delight, all eyes were upon her.” During family gatherings, although Margaret was not the most important person in the room, she was well aware at how to become the center of attention.

As a young girl Margaret had the reputation for being the “palace brat,” in the words of a courtier. But after Elizabeth wed their cousin Prince Philip of Greece on November 20, 1947, for the next several years, she would be regarded as one of the world’s most glamorous and eligible bachelorettes. The American Press dubbed her “Britain’s No. One item for public scrutiny,” opining that “People are more interested in her than in the House of Commons or the dollar crisis.”

Physically, she was the perfect package, a pocket Venus dressed in Christian Dior’s radical and exceptionally feminine “New Look,” accessorized with peep-toe platform heels. And when she wore Dior, ten million Englishwomen followed suit. At a whisper over five feet tall, Princess Margaret (she dropped the “Rose” in 1947) was “perfectly made” with a waspish twenty-three-inch waist and thirty-four-inch bustline. Young adulthood had mellowed the golden hair of her childhood to a rich shade of brown. Her mouth was a sensuous red pout; her eyes, as Group Captain Peter Townsend so rhapsodically observed, were deep pools of dark blue, and her kilowatt smile and vivacity made her the life of every party. Where the other females in her family were dowdy, Margaret was the epitome of chic.

She was now mature enough to make official visits on her own. In February 1948, she toured Amsterdam, accompanied by equerry Peter Townsend. Tongues wagged as she danced every number with him at the ball hosted by the International Culture Center in her honor. Townsend would later write in his memoirs, “Without realizing it, I was being carried a little further from home, a little nearer the Princess.”

The princess was gaining a reputation as a party girl. Her coterie of friends, known as the “Margaret set,” consisted of the age’s society belles and young lordlings. Naturally, there was rampant speculation as to which of these “chinless wonders” she would marry. Shocking polite society at the age of nineteen, Margaret was caught smoking in a West End restaurant, affecting the louche, 1920s style of using a long ivory cigarette holder. Not only did her behavior cause a national commotion, but, predictably, it sparked a trend. Margaret’s cigarette habit, which she flaunted in a photograph taken at Balmoral when she was fifteen, would catch up with her in time, snuffing out her life when she was in her early seventies, although she came from a family of long-lived women.

But heart and lung problems would arrive decades in the future, and might just as well have been light years away for a teenage princess who was hell-bent on being the center of attention wherever she went. And she was fully aware of her allure. She once dared a dance partner to “look into my eyes. Do you realize that you are looking into the most beautiful eyes in the world?” With a bit of self-mockery Margaret admitted that she was parroting a newspaper quote about her, but in many ways she believed her own press.

Yet Group Captain Peter Townsend saw his own version of the princess, asserting, “Behind the dazzling façade, the apparent self-assurance, you would find, if you looked for it, a rare softness and sincerity. She could make you bend double with laughing; she could also touch you deeply.” If those sound like the sentiments of a man in love, they were. The very married equerry had fallen hard for the boss’s daughter, describing her as “a girl of unusual, intense beauty, confined as it was in her short, slender figure and centered about large purple-blue eyes, generous, sensitive lips and a complexion as smooth as a peach. She was capable, in her face and her whole being, of an astonishing power of expression. It could change in an instant from saintly, almost melancholic, composure to hilarious, uncontrollable joy. She was by nature, generous, volatile. . . .”
By then Townsend’s marriage to Rosemary Pawle was headed for rocky shoals. In August 1950 he was promoted to Master of the Household, a permanent position requiring a one hundred percent commitment to King George.

The infatuation between courtier and princess was mutual. In his memoirs Townsend recalled falling asleep in the heather one afternoon after a picnic and being gently awakened by someone protectively covering him with a coat. It was Margaret, her face almost close enough for a kiss. Townsend whispered to her, “You know your father is watching us.” Margaret laughed, and left to rejoin the king, who had been leaning on his walking stick, observing the socially mismatched couple from a distance. “Then she took his arm and walked away, leaving me to my dreams,” the equerry wrote.

A true Daddy’s girl, Margaret was devastated by her father’s death on February 6, 1952. The ascension of Elizabeth to the throne also meant eviction from Buckingham Palace, where the new sovereign would reside with her young family. Margaret and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, as George VI’s widow would now be styled, moved into Clarence House, adjacent to St. James’s Palace.

Peter Townsend was on hand to console Margaret during the mandated period of court mourning for the late king, claiming in his memoirs that “the King’s death had left a greater void than ever in Princess Margaret’s life.” The death of George VI also meant that Townsend was out of a job. Luckily, the Queen Mum liked him, and appointed him Comptroller of her Household.

But he had something to cry about as well. A couple of years earlier, his lonely wife Rosemary had taken a lover, John de Laszlo, the son of a prominent society portraitist. Rosemary’s infidelity may have triggered a switch in Townsend’s subconscious: the freedom to fantasize about a deeper relationship with Margaret.

On December 20, 1950, the thirty-eight-year old Townsend had been granted a divorce on the grounds of Rosemary’s “misconduct” with de Lazlo, making the courtier the “innocent party” in the proceedings. Two months after the decree was issued Rosemary and de Lazlo married.

In Time and Chance, Townsend’s memoirs, which were published in 1978, he wrote, “It was then [February, 1953] that we made the mutual discovery [in an empty drawing room at Sandringham] of how much we meant to each other. She listened, without uttering a word, as I told her, very quietly, of my feelings. Then she simply said ‘That is how I feel, too.’ It was, to us, an immensely gladdening disclosure, but one which sorely troubled us.”

Peter Townsend’s memoir described their mutual passion in terms that might be familiar to Romance readers: “Our love, for such it was, took no heed of wealth and rank and all the other worldly conventional barriers which separated us. We hardly noticed them; all we saw was one another, man and woman, and what we saw pleased us.”

According to the lovestruck equerry, “Marriage . . . seemed the least likely solution; and anyway, at the prospect of my becoming a member of the Royal Family, the imagination boggled, most of all my own. Neither the Princess nor I had the faintest idea how it might be possible to share our lives.”

And yet, Townsend insisted that they intended to become united in every way, “God alone knew how—and never be parted.” Queen Elizabeth was said to be sympathetic to their wishes; but the Queen Mother, despite liking Townsend personally, was very upset by the news. In fact, no one was particularly enthusiastic about Townsend as a viable beau for Margaret. For one thing, the courtier’s romantic aspirations were far above his station; for another, his divorce, despite the fact that he had been the injured party, was a permanent blot on his social status.

However, the stickiest wicket was that because Margaret was under twenty-five years old, she was still subject to George III’s Royal Marriage Act of 1772, which meant that she required the sovereign’s permission to wed someone. But the monarch is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and. As much as the queen might have wished her sister to be happy, Elizabeth could not therefore condone or sanction her marriage to Townsend.

Yet the queen didn’t quash her younger sister’s expectations entirely. Instead, she advised Margaret (who was still only twenty) to wait until she was twenty-five, when she could apply directly to Parliament for permission to wed Townsend and the decision would be in their hands

However, Margaret’s little romantic secret revealed itself after Elizabeth’s coronation ceremony on June 2, 1953. As the royal family was processing out of Westminster Abbey, the Fleet Street press discovered that the princess had a tendre for Peter Townsend. She approached him outside the abbey, and in an affectionate, intimate gesture, delicately plucked a bit of fluff off his RAF tunic (in which she thought he looked especially sexy). Unlike today, where the news would be tweeted across the Internet within milliseconds, the British press maintained a discreet code of silence about the event—for a while, anyway. Twelve days after the coronation, on Sunday June 14 The People broke the news by insisting that there was no truth at al to the “scandalous rumors” being spread about the affinity between Margaret and the Queen Mother’s Comptroller of her Household, asserting, “It is quite unthinkable that a Royal Princess, third in line of succession to the throne, should even contemplate a marriage with a man who has been through the divorce courts.”

It was time for the palace to step in and perform some damage control.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill also agreed that a scandal had to be avoided. He ordered the Attorney General to review the government’s constitutional position on such a matter and to poll the various prime ministers of the dominions within the British commonwealth for their opinions on a potential marriage between Margaret and Townsend.

Queen Elizabeth was pressured to send Townsend away on some distant diplomatic posting but was hesitant to do so, unwilling to destroy her sister’s happiness. Only after she was assured that the commonwealth ministers as well as the British Cabinet ministers opposed such a match did Her Majesty banish Margaret’s beau. Given a choice of locales, Townsend chose Brussels, the closest of his options, not merely because he might be able to visit the princess from time to time, but because it put him in proximity to his young sons. His Belgian assignment would keep him on the Continent for two years.

But the couple’s enforced separation didn’t make the thwarted royal love affair fade from the headlines. Journalists were quick to deride the palace’s outmoded mores and the Cabinet’s cowardly and hypocritical stand, given that some of the ministers were themselves divorced. Their unanimity in favor of Margaret’s right to choose her own marital destiny was overwhelming.

Michael Foot, a future Labour Party leader, wrote in the Tribune, “This intolerable piece of interference with a girl’s private life is all part of the absurd myth about the Royal Family which has been so sedulously built up by interested parties in recent years. . . . The laws of England say that a man, whether he has divorced his wife or been divorced himself, is fully entitled to marry again. In some respects, those divorce laws are still too harsh. But no self-appointed busybody has the right to make them still harsher. If these laws are good, they are good enough for the Royal Family.”

In Townsend’s absence, Margaret kept up her usual schedule of appearances, duties, and obligations; the couple communicated almost daily by letter or phone. Their close friends were certain that the couple were true soul mates and were deeply in love.

Margaret turned twenty-five on August 21, 1955 and reunited once again with her beau at Clarence House on October 13. As the queen’s permission was no longer a factor in their ability to wed, the kingdom held its collective breath to see what would happen. For the next nineteen days the couple endeavored to escape prying eyes and the pop of paparazzi flash bulbs while behind closed doors the subject of their marriage was discussed by representatives of both church and state. Clerics argued that it would be an affront to the Anglican religion, and the couple’s lay supporters insisted that the church doctrine was both outmoded and hypocritical. Why, even the current prime minister, Anthony Eden, had been divorced!

In the best of scenarios, a bill could be introduced into Parliament that would permit Margaret to marry Group Captain Townsend and permit her to retain her title and rank; her Civil List income would increase upon her marriage, as no doubt her husband would be expected to accompany her to state-related appearances. But Margaret would have to wed Townsend in a civil ceremony (as the church would not recognize the divorced groom) and agree to a two-year banishment from the United Kingdom. She’d have to renounce all rights to the throne, even though she was dropping further and further down the line of succession with each new niece or nephew. Townsend, who was a nice enough bloke, but had a tendency to waffle when the going got rough, wasn’t sure he wanted that responsibility; perhaps he was asking the princess to sacrifice too much.

For someone as literally entitled as Margaret, the dilemma was huge. And her own deeply held religious convictions were most likely a factor as well—or would be, in the long run. And—in the long run—once the first flush of newlywed-dom paled, would she regret her decision? She was a vivacious party girl of twenty-five; Townsend was a stay-at-home type of forty-one. What would happen if that sixteen-year age gap began to feel even wider as the years progressed and the still vital Margaret felt yoked to a paunchy, balding couch potato?

Her reasons may never fully be revealed or understood, but the result remains the same. Margaret issued a tidy statement of renunciation that reads like it came from the pen of a palace flack:

I would like it to be known that I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend. I have been aware that, subject to renouncing my rights of succession, it might have been possible for me to contract a civil marriage. But mindful of the Church’s teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before others. I have reached this decision entirely alone and in doing so have been strengthened by the unfailing support and devotion of Group Captain Townsend. I am deeply grateful for the concern of all those who have constantly prayed for my happiness.”

Resigned to the inevitable, on October 31, 1955 Townsend declared, “Without dishonour, we have played out our destiny.”

Reaction to the renunciation was mixed. The inimitable wit, Noël Coward, who must have numbered himself among those who “constantly prayed for [Margaret’s] happiness,” quipped, “I hope that they had the sense to hop into bed a couple of times at least, but this I doubt.” Coward also remarked wryly, “She can’t know, poor girl, being young and in love, that love dies soon and that a future with two strapping stepsons and a man years older than herself would not be very rosy. . . .”

If you were writing their story, how would you have altered the plot, in order to reach a happy ending?

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