Since The Crown has reignited our interest in all things royal, here’s a look at the novels and biographies that will briefly lift the lid on life close to the monarch:
The Queen and I by Sue Townsend
It’s 1992 and instead of that ‘nice’ John Major or ‘perfectly agreeable’ Neil Kinnock, the republican Jack Barker has won the general election and banished the Windsors to live on a council estate in the Midlands. The Queen is visited by a social worker and has to learn to make a cup of tea; along with the Queen Mother, she adapts to her new circumstances splendidly — other members of the Royal family, less so. A sequel, Queen Camilla, was published in 2006.
The Uncommon Reader — Alan Bennett
On similarly send-them-to-the-Tower territory as Sue Townsend, this subversive slender volume opens with The Queen stumbling into a City of Westminster mobile library parked outside Buck House and emerging with a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett. Her Majesty’s subsequent literary odyssey brings her into conflict with both equerries and corgis (they destroy volumes by Ian McEwan and AS Byatt).
The Darkness of Wallis Simpson — Rose Tremain
The woman for whom Edward VIII gave up his throne lies bedridden, nearing the end of her life, in her house in Paris in the titular short story of this collection. Wallis’s recollections of ‘the pale little man’ are fading, but her lawyer is determined to extract her memoirs…
The Other Boleyn Girl — Philippa Gregory
A portrayal of Henry VIII’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn, told by the sister whom he threw over, Mary. The queen of historical romance, Philippa Gregory, has been accused of taking historical liberties — but fans of The Crown are unlikely to be bothered by that.
Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer
Most of Georgette Heyer’s are ‘Regency’ romances, but this is the only one in which ‘Prinny’ himself, the Prince Regent appears (albeit briefly). It’s not the most edifying of cameos; he makes a pass at the heroine and she has to fend him off.
Red, White and Royal Blue — Casey McQuiston
YA (Young Adult) literature has a whole sub-section of what might be termed princess-inspired fantasy. This queer rom com sees the son of the American president falling in love with Henry, Prince of Wales. A New York Times best-seller, it’s been optioned for film by Amazon Studios.
Victoria: A Novel of a Young Queen — Daisy Goodwin
A tie-in with the hugely popular ITV drama series which was written and created by the author, this novel focuses on the early part of Victoria’s life, up to her engagement to Prince Albert.
Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies/ The Mirror and the Light — Hilary Mantel
So pungent and vivid — the author famously researched the Tudors for several years before she wrote a word — you can almost smell Henry VIII’s suppurating leg ulcers. Mantel has said she attempted to duplicate ‘not the historian’s chronology but the way memory works: in leaps, loops, flashes’. Told from Cromwell’s perspective — but not by him — and in the present tense, the king’s chief minister is referred to as “he” throughout. Readers who grasped this quickly have tended to love the trilogy. Those who didn’t have been less impressed — viz the reviewer who gave Wolf Hall a one star review on Amazon ‘because it sounds like a Peppa Pig book’.
The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: the tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey – Leanda de Lisle
As gripping as any historical novel (indeed, Philippa Gregory used it as the basis for her book, The Last Tudor), this account of the Grey sisters wears its scholarship lightly. The ‘Nine Days Queen’ is presented as an assertive figure, embracing her destiny, rather than the passive victim of history.
Ma’am Darling — Craig Brown and Lady in Waiting — Anne Glenconner
Two very different portraits of Princess Margaret. Craig Brown’s mischievous take reinvented the biography, whilst Lady Glenconner wrote hers ‘because so much trash’ has been written about Margaret ‘by people who have never met her’. But the enduring impression the book leaves is of her late husband, Colin Tennant — who thought nothing of biting a taxi driver for taking a wrong turning and took his virginal bride to a live sex show in Paris on their wedding night…