Theo Aronson

Royal biographer who relished a dynasty

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.

Hugo Vickers

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
News
news
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn