William Kuhn, author of a new novel published today, Mrs Queen Takes The Train, was inspired to write his book after he spent several months working in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. In this charming essay, he reflects on the experience - including brief encounters with some minor royals - and we let him plug his new book in return. Sound fair?
BY WILLIAM KUHN: The question of how an ancient institution survived into the modern era, with all its absurdities and anachronisms, but also with enduring appeals to service, continuity, and curiosity about the inside of palaces, makes for an intriguing historical problem. Having written about the history of the British monarchy in varieties of non-fiction, I wanted to see whether I could tell that story in a new way.
To write my previous books, I did months of research in the Royal Archives, in the Round Tower of Windsor Castle. There, I discovered a little bit of how the modern monarchy works behind the scenes. My first point of contact was the stationery: heavy paper with a grain and a royal crest engraved in red at the top telling me I couldn’t come to work on papers “belonging to Her Majesty The Queen” while I was still a graduate student. I waited a few years, finished my PhD, and wrote again. This time the response came back with a carefully phrased “maybe,” but only if I specified the papers I wanted to see, which was difficult as the Archives did not publish their holdings. More correspondence crossed the Atlantic before they reluctantly agreed that I could come and look at papers on Victorian ceremonial.
I approached Windsor Castle feeling a little wound up, as our letters to one another had not been, at least by American standards, very friendly. I was waved in by a policeman at the front gate, who had my name on a list, and sent to an interior desk where there was a man in a Windsor uniform, designed by George III, and looking faintly preposterous, the colors mainly navy and scarlet. He telephoned the Archives and I was buzzed through a locked door to climb up several hundred stone steps to the Round Tower. Inside, there was thick blue carpet, paneled walls and, to my surprise, helpful archivists wearing skirts over the knee. They showed me to a ninetheenth-century desk where papers were already laid out. The desk was in front of a thin window, suitable for medieval warfare, but with a tremendous view of the towns of Windsor and Eton, the surrounding Berkshire countryside, and the terrifically loud noise of jets landing at nearby Heathrow airport. Is this sound what The Queen has to put up with every day? That was my first thought.
It was not long before I was deep in Queen Victoria’s handwriting on the yellowed pages. It was magic to be able to pick up a piece of paper she’d written on and it was hell deciphering her illegible script. Someone rang a loud hand bell in mid morning. This was the sign for all the archivists and researchers, perhaps 10 or 12 people, to go downstairs for coffee and a cookie in the kitchen, an oddly-shaped room fashioned out of the tower, with a modern sink on one end, and chintz-covered chairs set up in a circle. There, under the guise of polite chitchat, the archivists enquired about what I was finding in the papers and what I intended to write about them. It was the best-mannered and most subtle interrogation I’ve ever been through. Somehow, I managed to persuade them that I was not a tabloid spy aiming to bring down the monarchy with revelations about a Victorian queen’s indiscretions. I liked them and they liked me. I was in and this led to some fun.
There was the time I was walking through the Home Park at Windsor and encountered the Princess Royal with a fierce dog. He approached ahead of her, barking furiously, and I put down my hand for him to sniff, which seemed to enrage him further. When we drew level with her, she said, “It’s a pity to be so shortsighted because it makes you rather rude.” Did she mean the dog was shortsighted, or that my friend from the archives and I were rude because we should have recognized her and taken a different path when we saw who it was? All the staff is warned to make themselves scarce when members of the royal family are in residence. A year or so later, a magistrate fined her when her dog bit a passer-by in the Windsor Great Park.
Or, there was the time when The Queen’s youngest son, Prince Edward, came to the archives to do some research on his ancestor, the Duke of Windsor, for a film his production company was making. He stood in the kitchen of the Round Tower chatting amiably over instant coffee with the different staff members and researchers. He washed his own cup before he left.
Or, there was the time I went to a staff Christmas party in the palace when The Queen came through in frozen tiara to ask someone standing near me, “Have you finished your Christmas shopping?” She said it stiffly, as if she were shy, and the question were one of half a dozen she’d composed in advance as armor against embarrassment. In those days, Diana was still married to the Prince of Wales. She came to the party, too. She had on a long red dress and pumps with a low heel covered in red satin. There was a room with a band playing within earshot and a gardener asked her if she’d dance with him. She looked at him provocatively, as if relishing the chance to do something the rest of the royal family would never do. “Of course!” Off they went, hand in hand, in the direction of the music.
The people who work for the royal family are just as interesting as members of the royal family. They look upon their jobs and their employer with a mixture of devotion and detachment. They love nothing better than making light of all the trumped up celebrity worship around the royal family. Capturing what seemed to me a moment of human diffidence in The Queen, and the irreverent dedication of the people who work for her, is what lay at the heart of my sitting down to write Mrs Queen Takes the Train.
What would happen, I wondered, if the sovereign boarded a public train without her usual entourage of ladies-in-waiting, private secretaries, and detectives?
Everyone is a little down sometimes and needs some cheering up, even Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second. Her adventure begins a few years ago when The Queen has just turned eighty. She feels her age and her body is no longer as flexible or reliable as it once was. The younger generation doesn’t care about the same things she does, and even the younger members of her own family can’t seem to stay out of the sensational newspapers. Each new week seems to bring a new scandal that rocks the institution to which she has given her life. On top of that, the government is committed to budget cuts that will reduce her to nothing. Not only have they abolished the royal yacht, Britannia, but also the prime minister has now told her he can no longer fund the royal train. She’s left with the gloomy and battered feeling of “What next?”
She knows she needs to do something to dispel her dark thoughts and decides on a visit to the Royal Mews after luncheon. She adores feeding the horses an apple, or even a wedge of cheese. A passing storm leads one of the stable girls to loan The Queen her hoodie for protection as she returns to the palace. To her amazement, some workman doesn’t recognize her when she tries to go in a back entrance with the hoodie covering her headscarf. An idea strikes her. If she’s truly anonymous, why not attempt a visit to Britannia, now permanently moored in Scotland as a tourist attraction? It’s the happiest of her remembered happy places and she feels sure that going there will improve her mood. Determined to adapt to changed circumstances, she feels it’s time for her to learn how to take the public train. With a little help from Rajiv, a young man whom she meets by chance behind the counter at a cheese shop, and who, she assumes (incorrectly) hasn’t recognized her either, she boards an express from London’s King’s Cross that will take her to Edinburgh and Britannia.
Apart from Rajiv, inside the palace, a butler, a young equerry, a lady-in-waiting, and The Queen’s long-serving dresser have all discovered that she is missing. They decide to go after The Queen, but are hampered by the customs and rivalries of the antique institution in which they serve with sometimes wavering loyalty. By train, by plane, and by overnight bus, the chase is on. Will they find The Queen in time and what will they dare to say to her when they do? Will The Queen manage to give her depression the slip? And what will they say to the all-powerful head of Britain’s internal secret service, MI5, who knows what’s happened, has the equerry’s phone number, and demands they turn over the search to her?
Find out in Mrs Queen Takes the Train.
The Royalist would like to thank Powells for permission to reprint this piece.
Sixty years and hardly a slip.