James the Third by Maggie Ballinger – An alternative history of the British Royal Family when a baby boy is born

James the Third by Maggie Ballinger

This is a book which imagines one fact in the twentieth century – that not long before the death of George IV, the Queen’s father, the Queen Mother gave birth to a son, James. Apart from this fact, this novel sticks closely to the facts: Princess Elizabeth is the heir after James, King George still dies on 6th February 1952, the same difficulties arise with the royal offspring and their marriages. In addition to an impeccably factual insight into the progress of the royal family with that additional twist, there is also the story of  a London based family, specifically Lil and Peggy, born at the same time as Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, who are ardent royalists. Their story and that of their close family runs alongside their more famous namesakes, providing a commentary from the point of view of the people of the country at the time. 

This is a fascinating book which is carefully written with notes which do not distract but are there for those who want to look up the facts of a time, as well as the more arcane rules of inheritance. It blends facts with a little fantasy so well it is hard to see the join, and it is easy to view a royal story with one addition. The characters, which range from the very real, like Prince Charles, through the fictional King James and the completely imaginary Peggy, are all given real depth and dialogue. The settings, from the slightly shabby palace interiors to the homes of  postwar London are well drawn, with an excellent grasp of the aspirations of young women for their most desirable bathrooms and so on. This is not just a saga of royal life and times; there is a freelance reporter who is keen to get a life changing scoop from his royal watching. In addition, the young James begins to adopt clever and understated disguises in order to leave the formality of royal life in order to blend with people in pubs, mining towns and other places in order to hear what they really think. This is an enthralling and entertaining book which I greatly enjoyed, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

The author, of necessity, has introduced new characters within the royal household, including Professor Eustace Heggarty, who is asked to advise King George when Prince Charles is born. As it seems unlikely that he will have a direct male heir at that point, he wants to know if he can invest his first grandson as Prince of Wales. The academic is taken aback and gives his opinion, but is as surprised as anyone when he is asked to return to advise on the new status of the infant James. Perhaps aware of his own failing health, King George asks him to stand as godfather to the baby, and when his majesty dies, becomes a constant presence in James’ life. KIng James is allowed to grow up without the pressures of his full royal role, as the Queen Mother is given the status of Regent. With real insight Princess Elizabeth is seen as doing the actual paperwork behind the scenes, as still concerned with the duties of her royal role. 

This is such an enjoyable book with so many fascinating aspects and at least one mystery. The research is impeccable into the royal households, the people who live and work there, and the little details of royal life with a twist. It is also excellent on social history as narrated by Lil and Peggy, from life in Woolworths to reactions to situations like grammar schools, televised royal events, and much more. I can thoroughly recommend this book to those who are interested in life within and around the royal family as well as those who have memories or research into British life in the second half of the twentieth century.