BOOK REVIEW / Something for them to do: 'The Royal Family at War' - Theo Aronson: John Murray, 17.95 pounds

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The Independent Culture
A CURSORY glance at this book's title suggests that it is yet another account of the tantrums and traumas by which the House of Windsor was blighted and divided in the aftermath of Edward VIII's abdication. But although these unedifying quarrels receive some attention, Theo Aronson's primary concern is to provide a deferential and undemanding narrative of what the royals did between 1939 and 1946. For it is the author's belief that the Second World War was crucial to the making of the modern British monarchy.

The details of royal endeavour in wartime are well known, and Aronson adds little. King George and Queen Elizabeth visited the blitzed areas of London and the great provincial cities. Buckingham Palace was bombed. Queen Mary took up residence at Badminton, where she cleared ivy and did her knitting. Princess Elizabeth joined the ATS. The Earl of Athlone went out as Governor General of Canada, the Duke of Gloucester was made Governor General of Australia, and the Duke of Windsor was sent off to be Governor of the Bahamas. Less fortunate were the Duke of Kent, who was killed in an air crash, and Viscount Lascelles, who was briefly a prisoner of war.

In more gifted hands there could be real drama and pathos in recounting these episodes. But Aronson's treatment, based on the standard biographical sources and topped off with some unexceptionable royal reminiscences, is totally devoid of historical perspective or intellectual weight. There is no attempt to compare the Royal Family's performance in the First and the Second World Wars. The considerable criticisms of the wartime monarchy go undiscussed. The family quarrels are passed over with embarrassed brevity. And the book is written in a tone of unctuous reverence which 1992 should have banished for ever.

But for all its bland inadequacies, it is not without a somewhat inadvertent contemporary relevance. In the first place, Aronson shows how important the Empire was in providing employment opportunities for the House of Windsor. Proconsular positions - 'going out and governing New South Wales' - were an ideal way of filling the time. Now that such posts have vanished, it is much more difficult to find appropriate things for the Windsors to do. No wonder so many of the family spend time ruining their marriages, and that the Prince of Wales is talking to his plants. As Lady Bracknell might have said, it gives them an occupation.

This book also shows how successful the monarchy was, for a brief time, as a low-key and unostentatious enterprise. For the duration of the war, ceremony was abandoned. The gold sticks and plumed hats were put away; gas masks and Spam were in. As a result, the Second World War was the closest that 20th-century Britain has ever come to having a bicycling monarchy. And despite some criticisms, this unexpected experiment in royal austerity seems to have worked rather well; indeed, its inconspicuousness was more appreciated than the elaborate Elizabeth-and-Philip regime by which it was soon replaced.

In short, the real lesson of the war years, for the monarchy, is that modest dutifulness is the surest way to popularity and survival. As Clement Attlee observed during the 1930s, 'great and numerous residences, an army of attendants, a titled entourage and the habitual observance of elaborate ceremonial' had long since become out of date. The Second World War amply vindicated that critique. And so, in a different way, have the years since. Aronson's book may have been written in defence of the House of Windsor. But it is a sign of the times that it merely provides more evidence that something must be done.