Royal biographer who relished a dynasty
Tuesday 27 May 2003
Theodore Ian Wilson Aronson, writer: born Kirkwood, South Africa 13 November 1929; died Frome, Somerset 13 May 2003.
Theo Aronson made a valuable contribution in the field of royal biography, producing over 20 well- researched, friendly and informative volumes. He was also well known as a commentator in television documentaries, with a fund of historical knowledge. He particularly enjoyed a dynasty, where he would swing effortlessly from branch to branch, seizing a Coburg here or a Schleswig-Holstein there.
His early books enjoyed a good success. C.P. Snow described his writings as "bright with intelligence and human wisdom". They were published in Britain, the United States, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Holland and Belgium, often with extensive serialisation. Gradually, however, the mood changed, and Aronson recognised that publishers wanted more directly commercial topics, such as a biography of Princess Margaret.
His father, Philip Aronson, had emigrated from Riga in Latvia to Tregaron, a dry and dusty village near Kirkwood in South Africa's Eastern Cape, in 1914. There he owned a store and the local cinema and married a teacher, Hannah Wilson, a pillar of the Anglican community. Theo, born in 1929, was educated at Grey High School, Port Elizabeth, and studied art at the University of Cape Town.
As a child he met George VI on his 1947 visit to South Africa, talking to him with a group of other children in a railway siding. In the 1950s, as a part-time waiter in London in a Chelsea restaurant, he once served Princess Margaret and a party of her friends.
He joined the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson as a designer, working there for five years, both in London and South Africa, and was promoted art director. While in London he met Brian Roberts, who was his partner for 46 years, and who has written a number of South African histories and an admired biography of Randolph Churchill, Randolph (1984).
Theo Aronson was always drawn to history, particularly to the history of the 19th century. Inspired by a visit to the tomb of Napoleon III at Farnborough, he began to research the Bonapartes. His first attempts were not published, but then he wrote The Golden Bees: the story of the Bonapartes (1964), a domestic history of the family from Napoleon's birth to that date, which enjoyed an instant success and made it possible for him to become a full-time writer.
He began his new career at Kommetjie, a small fishing village in the Cape Peninsula, travelling extensively for research. In 1979, disenchanted with the political regime in South Africa and finding research facilities difficult, he and Roberts moved to Britain.
Aronson's books were a mixture of the biographical and the dynastic. The Golden Bees was followed by Royal Vendetta: the crown of Spain, 1829-1965 (1966), which told the story of the struggle for the Spanish throne between the Legitimist and Carlist branches of the Spanish royal family, and then The Coburgs of Belgium (1969, first published in the US as Defiant Dynasty, 1968), about four kings of Belgium from Coburg, "the stud farm of Europe". The Fall of the Third Napoleon (1970) described the collapse of the second French Empire. Aronson was drawn to the megalomania, theatricality and over-bearing vanity of the Kaiser, the central figure in The Kaisers (1971).
He then produced Queen Victoria and the Bonapartes (1972), which described the strange friendship between the Queen and the French imperial family, following this with Grandmama of Europe: the crowned descendants of Queen Victoria (1973), encompassing many of the less well-known descendants in Yugoslavia, Denmark, and Greece. A Family of Kings: the descendants of Christian IX of Denmark (1976), a study of Danes on European thrones, was described by Steven Runciman as "readable, judicious and well-informed". In Royal Ambassadors (1975), Aronson combined his knowledge of Britain and South Africa by studying those British royals who went to South Africa between 1860 and 1947, while in Victoria and Disraeli (1977) he examined how Queen Victoria brought out the romantic qualities in her exotic prime minister. He contrasted the romantic young figure of Bonnie Prince Charlie with the drunken, disillusioned figure he became in Kings Over the Water (1979).
His authorised biography of Queen Victoria's last surviving granddaughter, Princess Alice: Countess of Athlone (1981), was based on a close acquaintance with the Princess, whom he met in 1974, and by this time his reputation as a writer of merit afforded him interviews with the Queen Mother, Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, and other members of the Royal Family, who continued to assist him with his later works, granting him rare interviews, entertaining him, in the case of the Duchess inviting him to stay at Barnwell.
Aronson respected the privilege given to him, which he found both rewarding and inhibiting, and he abided by certain stipulations. Princess Margaret asked him not to quote her direct, while Prince Charles asked to see what was written before it was published. "If members of the Royal Family, in their very vulnerable position, have given their trust, they do not expect to be betrayed," he wrote. His book Royal Family: years of transition (1983) was one that profited from many anecdotes direct from the Royal Family.
His Crowns in Conflict: the triumph and tragedy of European monarchy 1910-1918 (1986) was a study of the First World War fate of 12 embattled monarchs, but his next three books dealt with the perennially interesting subject of love in its various emanations. The King in Love: Edward VII's mistresses (1988), an elegant account of "a singularly unprepossessing protagonist" and three mistresses, Lily Langtry, Daisy Warwick and Alice Keppel, was judged by one reviewer "a story of lust rather than love". Napoleon and Josephine (1990) was an intimate account of that couple, while Heart of a Queen (1991) dealt with Queen Victoria's romantic attachments.
Though he was by now well respected, and widely known to television viewers, the 1990s were not an easy time for a writer such as Aronson. This was the age in which the Princess of Wales confided in the tabloid journalist Andrew Morton, while publishers became more demanding of scandalous revelation in order to secure vital serialisation deals.
Likewise, rising young writers would cut their names by declaring writers such as Aronson old-fashioned. The Royal Family at War (1993), a comprehensive survey of the Royal Family's activities in wartime, was given sharp treatment by the then ambitious young historian Andrew Roberts, who nevertheless conceded that, despite "a strong saccharine after-taste", the book was "well written and cleverly organised . . . with an admirable feeling for characterisation".
Aronson was pressed to enter more dangerous territory. Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld (1994) was not a conventional biography but a study of the Duke of Clarence's sexual orientation (also refuting most of the nonsensical theories that he was Jack the Ripper), a book which shocked some of Aronson's more staid readers, dealing as it did with male lust and emissions in back parlours. "Intensely detailed," wrote one reviewer cryptically, while Kenneth Rose decried the exercise as "impertinent" and suggested that libraries would keep the book under the counter and disgorge it with reluctance. So unlike his earlier works was it, that one friend teased the author: "There can't be two people called Theo Aronson?"
He then wrote Princess Margaret: a biography (1997), which proved his best-seller and was certainly superior to an earlier authorised work by Christopher Warwick, which inspired me to dub him "Warwick the Myth-breaker".
Ill-health brought Aronson low after that and, aware that he would not have the energy for intense research, he summed up his life in the highly enjoyable Royal Subjects (2000). It would be unfair to his scholarship in earlier works to describe this as his best book, but it was a jewel of a book, by turn amusing and touching.
A kind and generous man with a rich sense of humour, Theo Aronson had a laugh that was whole-hearted and powerful. He was devoid of that blend of malice and rivalry that sometimes pervades the world of writers. He was the first port of call for many a crank promising a fortune for revealing that he or she was the fruits of an impregnation performed by a nonagenarian monarch, and he loved the misunderstandings that accompanied his life as an author. One afternoon a fan addressed him over the garden wall of his cottage in Frome, to thank him for the pleasure he gave her. She then pointed to his crop of roses.
His papers bear testament to the generosity with which he handled all enquiries. This limitless patience and good-humoured approach to life won him many friends. He was held in particularly high esteem by that group of experts who gather for an annual weekend of royal discussion at Ticehurst, and Paul Minet kept many of his books in print.
Theo Aronson was a man at ease with himself. One evening in 1996, he was waiting for a train at Paddington and decided to have a bite to eat. He later wrote:
Sitting under the soaring glass roof of the station, I experience one of those rare moments of complete contentment. My private life, as always, is very happy and, if one is even a relatively successful writer, there are worse ways of earning a living.
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