BOOK REVIEW / Shrinking the crowned heads of Windsor: 'Inheritance: A Psychological History of the Royal Family' - Dennis Friedman & Susan Hill: Sidgwick, 14.99

NOT A bad idea, 'a psychological history of the royal family'. Most studies of psychological inheritance are handicapped by a shortage of information after two or three generations, but the royal family offers rich biographical material at every stage.

Dennis Friedman and Susan Hill begin with Queen Victoria, and aim to show how certain psychological traits and behaviour patterns have been passed on down the family. The most striking pattern, of course, is bad parenting. Owen Morshead, George V's librarian, told Harold Nicolson: 'The House of Hanover, like ducks, produce bad parents. They trample on their young.' And an earlier courtier, Charles Greville, wrote in his diary in 1848: 'The hereditary and unfailing antipathy of our Sovereigns to their Heirs Apparent seems thus early to be taking root, and the Q. does not much like the child.'

In fact Queen Victoria dumped her heir, Edward, in the arms of a wet-nurse immediately after his birth, and did not look at him again for six weeks. Hence, perhaps, the astonishingly degage tone in which she always wrote of him - 'He is still so idle and weak,' she complained when he was 17, while his father commented: 'I never in my life met such a thorough and cunning lazybones.'

King Edward VII's queen, Alexandra, made a better show of maternal affection - indeed, she insisted on her children addressing her as 'dearest little Motherdear' well into their adulthood - but she was none the less capable of writing to her son, George, on his 14th birthday: 'So old and so small]]] Oh my] You will have to make haste to grow, or I shall have the sad disgrace of being the mother of a dwarf]]]'

The present Queen seems to have had a happier childhood than most royal children - nevertheless, her parents left her for five months to tour Australia when she was just eight months old. She repeated this habit of absenteeism with her own children (though she did make the effort to phone them every day) and Prince Philip was abroad for five of Charles's first eight birthdays. Prince Charles was only carrying on the family tradition when he chose not to cancel an opera engagement merely because his son had fractured his skull.

Dennis Friedman is, on the face of it, well qualified to write this study, being a psychiatrist with a special interest in problem families. But one hopes that the problem families that come his way receive a more intellectually rigorous diagnosis than is offered in this book. Given the mass of material he had to work on, he flaps his hands and shuffles it round a bit, and goes tut-tut. He completely fails to do the really hard work, which is sorting out to what extent the royals were unusually bad parents and to what extent they were merely following the (to our eyes) bad parenting customs of the time.

One can hardly blame Queen Victoria for not having read Freud or Bowlby, though Friedman seems inclined to. He also writes the sort of twaddle that so easily gives psychiatry a bad name. Retailing the somewhat dubious 'fact' that Prince Charles insists on people leaving his presence backwards, he opines: 'It is obvious that he does not feel happy or comfortable when people have their backs to him and that he sees this as a rejection, having been sensitised to being 'turned away from' by frequently absent parents so often as a child.'

This brings him with a hop, skip and jump to Prince Charles's hobby of collecting lavatory seats: 'To use a lavatory seat it is necessary to turn one's back on it. When Charles adds to his collection he acts out his own sense of rejection. The lavatory seat becomes a metaphor for his wish to retaliate against all those who, at one time or another, have turned their backs on him.' This is combined with a lot of daffy stuff about how collecting small pots or wine glasses is a compensation for poor breast-feeding and how 'The mountaineer is compelled to climb the icy slopes of breast-like peaks, constant reminders to him of the cold disappointment that he once had in his struggle to feed.'

Pish and tush. I wish a really good psychiatrist (Anthony Clare, for instance?) would tackle this subject. It is a worthwhile one - but not in this hopelessly botched attempt.