Jane Ridley’s book is the fourth major biography of George V and the only one unmarred by sycophancy, yet she seems to have more real regard for the king than any of her predecessors. John Gore’s authorised memoir, published in 1941, was royal hagiography. From it the monarch emerges as ‘frank, simple, honest and good’, though in Gore’s private opinion he was a ‘profoundly ignorant and rather stupid man’. In 1952 Harold Nicolson officially portrayed the sovereign as the virtuous father of his people, having been told that he was to perpetuate a myth and say nothing discreditable about his subject, whom he actually despised as a silly old bore with ‘the intellectual capacities of a railway porter’. Kenneth Rose, in his 1983 biography, made a disingenuous attempt to demolish the ‘hurtful legend’ that George V was a brutal father, evidently out of a desire to preserve his relationship with Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (not for nothing was he known as ‘Climbing Rose’).
Jane Ridley did not have royalty breathing down her neck and this account of George V’s life has many of the merits of Bertie, her biography of his father, Edward VII. It is candid, well written, based on wide research and full of piquant detail, some of it new. For example, while acknowledging Queen Mary’s acquisitive passion for jewels – her gowns had to be reinforced with buckram to bear their weight – Ridley casts doubt on the many stories about her kleptomania. She reports that when the king was discovered reading an unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he threw this ‘disgusting thing’ on the fire. And she records the king’s comment on learning of the death of his mother-in-law: ‘It is very hard on me: as it knocks all my shooting on the head.’
However, Ridley’s George V also replicates the essential misapprehension in Bertie. In both biographies, Ridley argues that an unworthy Prince of Wales developed into an admirable king. In her view, George V, like his sire, followed the trajectory of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal. Infantilised by his mother, terrified by his father, left virtually uneducated by his naval training, he devoted his youth almost exclusively to collecting stamps and killing animals. Still, Ridley maintains, he matured into a sovereign statesman. He became a ‘smart political player’ who ‘guided his country’ through a series of acute crises: House of Lords reform, the Irish Home Rule controversy, the First World War, the rise of the Labour Party, the General Strike and the Great Depression.
In fact, far from having a hand on the nation’s tiller, George was scarcely more than a figurehead. He had little power, though his position gave him a certain amount of influence, which he occasionally used to good effect, as in helping to bring to an end the war in Ireland in 1921. Usually, though, his prime ministers slapped him down. During the struggle over House of Lords reform, Asquith warned the king that it was not his function to arbitrate between rival parties, still less ‘to take advice from the leaders of both sides, with a view to forming a conclusion of his own’. When the monarch intrigued with generals against politicians during the Great War, Lloyd George told the king’s private secretary that his master was ‘encouraging mutiny’. Lloyd George was sickened by the court’s reactionary atmosphere, refused to play the flunkey himself, thought the sovereign empty-headed and treated him as a cipher. Baldwin reminded the king, when he attempted to interfere with parliamentary proceedings, of what had happened to Charles I.
Ramsay MacDonald was the obsequious exception, promising King George that the first Labour government would pass no radical legislation and even donning knee breeches to satisfy the royal obsession with sartorial propriety. Ridley claims that the monarch, suppressing his inner Toryism, helped to nurture Labour as the dominant party of progress. It’s true that the king pretended to political neutrality. Yet he was compulsively splenetic and was prone to right-wing fulminations, once saying to Kenneth Clark, ‘See that fellow over there. He’s a socialist. Give him a good kick in the arse for me.’ In fact, the king had to give Labour a fair deal because it was elected by the sovereign people. But during the financial crisis of 1931, he urged MacDonald to stay on as prime minister, which split the Labour Party and resulted in the formation of a National Government that was Conservative in all but name.
Ridley gives George credit, too, for positioning ‘the monarchy at the apex of the empire’. He perceived, she says, that his father’s ceremonial monarchy could be transplanted to India via the Delhi Durbar of 1911. Yet such pageantry had long been a vital part of the Raj, particularly since Queen Victoria’s elevation to empress, and in any case King George was too dim to have imperial visions. In the event, he made himself invisible by riding into Delhi on a horse rather than an elephant. Apart from the usual regal preoccupations with protocol, precedence, honours and dress, his interest in India focused on sport: he neglected his duties and instead shot twenty-one tigers, eight rhinoceroses and a bear. Ridley says nothing, moreover, about the king’s racial prejudices, which were not confined to anti-Semitism.
He bullied his children mercilessly in youth and harried them relentlessly in adulthood, so much so that his eldest son would have felt ‘nothing but relief’ had his father died. Despite the domestic despotism, Ridley asserts that he formed a ‘true partnership’ with Queen Mary, who was more influential than historians have recognised. Ridley does her best to humanise the queen, depicting her as sometimes warm-hearted when young, doting (though undemonstratively) on her eldest son, capable of laughing at broad jokes and showing some sympathy for the poor. But she acknowledges that Mary’s marriage was flagrantly dynastic and that she never stood up to her husband, measured her self-worth in diamonds and eventually retreated into ‘majestic frigidity’.
The subtitle of this biography, ‘Never a Dull Moment’, refers to the momentous events of George V’s reign, but the book’s real surprise is that its author, having laboured through the king’s deadly diaries, does not find him dull. There is overwhelming evidence that this is exactly what he was, not least of which is Max Beerbohm’s satirical refrain, ‘The King is duller than the Queen … The Queen is duller than the King.’ George was a sceptred Colonel Blimp whose intellect had been ossified by tradition. He presided over what Lord Esher described as a Rip Van Winkle court where nothing changed and life was ‘made up of nothings’. His routine was set in stone and he wore the same collar stud for fifty years.
It was, indeed, George’s stultifying predictability that helped to secure his dynasty at a time when other crowns and thrones were perishing. He bored for Britain and his subjects loved him for it. In the struggle for survival, dullness has always been the Windsors’ secret weapon.