The Governess by Wendy Holden,
Marion Crawford became governess to the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in 1933. She was not an obvious choice; her background was unconnected to high society and she had left wing sympathies. In this fictionalised account of her life Marion is a strong willed young woman who wants to make difference, and probably did in an unexpected way. Marion, or “Crawfie, is apparently not mentioned much in the official accounts of the royal family’s life, as she was seen to have betrayed their privacy by writing her own story. This is how the author starts this intense novel, with an elderly woman waiting for a sign that she is important to the two women she devoted her life to for so many years. At one point she says to the young Margaret “I sacrificed my happy days for you, you see.”, and much of this book is about her choices being affected by others.
The story is about national events from Marion’s perspective, an insider but never truly on the real inside when trouble arose. This is a well researched novel which takes a particular line of narrative which blends assumptions with objective history. It makes no claim to be a documentary, and some of the story may be inaccurate, but overall this is a novel which is secure in its settings and makes sense of some grey areas. It is the story of a strong woman who is determined to ensure that two girls would have contact with a world beyond the palace walls. Marion’s desire for her own life conflicts with what is perhaps the greater need of a girl destined to be queen, and the events which shaped her. This is a perceptive and intensely written novel of big events, human relationships and the reality of life in royal households at a significant time.
At the beginning of Marion’s story she is an idealistic teaching student who finds a sharp contrast between the rarified atmosphere of a private boys’ school and the harsh nature of life in Scotland’s poorest slums. She is determined to make a difference, especially when she comes across Valentine, a student at Edinburgh university who has great ambitions to change the whole of society. She is seduced in several ways, as well trying to help Annie, a small girl in terrible poverty. Marion is persuaded to take a holiday job with the then Duchess of York’s sister, and is firmly persuaded to transfer to the Duke’s household. From there she is a witness to the inner workings of royalty, the personalities that led to an abdication and its effects. A time of war, the developing personalities of the girls and much else is explored in depth.
There is another story of Marion’s own life and relationships alongside the royal progress, of a woman from a modest home, struggling to find the right clothes, the right words for dealing with unique situations. It is at once a personal story of daily life in an impractical world of protocol and tradition, as well as reflecting the remarkable people ranging from royal dressmakers to heads of state. There is loyalty, betrayal, affection and many different kinds of love. It is moving and powerful looking at a significant time from a specific point of view, a personal progress through an unusual life.I found it an enjoyable and intriguing read. I recommend it as a book with real depth for anyone interested in the life of a woman at the heart of affairs with an unusual perspective of the development of a queen.