BOOKS OF THE WEEK
SOME sharp criticism has of late been levelled at the publication of confidences by royal servants. The majority of courtiers have no access to political secrets. The Private Secretaries and perhaps the Keepers of the Privy Purse are among the exceptions. The office of Private Secretary is quite a modern one ; the line began with Sir Herbert Taylor as late as the latter end of George III's reign. Since then the importance of the post has been increasingly recognised, and no one has ever seriously suggested that any of the distinguished men who have held that office could betray confidences or would be detected in blabbing. Yet in the past decade two books have been published based on the family letters and personal memoirs of the most confidential of royal servants, which have thrown a very intimate light on life in royal palaces and on the humours and even frailties of the actors behind the scenes.
Both these books were based on the writings of Ponsonbys, father and son. Sir Henry was for 25 years to 1895 Private Secre- tary to Queen Victoria ; Sir Frederick, his second son, spent 40 years in Court service as a Secretary or Keeper of the Privy Purse and died in 1935 as Treasurer to King George V. These facts demand a reasoned examination. In the first place, neither father nor son committed the act of publication. In each case, the publica- tion was decided by the writer's son. Sir Henry wrote daily letters to his wife, partly as a safety-valve. Court life, especially at Balmoral, in his day required it ; there were in it features of the penitentiary and indeed of the Mad Hatter's tea-party. He never designed those letters for _publication. His second son, Frederick, arranged them in some sort ; his youngest, Arthur, edited and pub- lished them. He did it discreetly and admirably. He claimed that his book contained no disclosure of secrets, no sensational revela- tions ; it disposed of a few vulgar legends. That claim is justified. His book is a classic in its genre.
Sir Henry's second son, Fritz, wrote his own memoir for publica- tion. He set a time-limit for its appearance, the death of the Queen's last - child. In the nature of the man (an acknowledged wit, a raconteur, most outspoken, already suspect for his publication of the Empress Frederick's papers), and in the circumstances of writing, there was much more probability of indiscretion than in his father's case.
When we examine his book, we reach some clear conclusions. There are distinct grades of disclosure. Revelation of the foibles of a great man or woman usually enhances rather than detracts from the character (Sir Henry's letters enhanced both Queen Victoria's greatness and the importance of his own office). State secrets are revealed from State documents ; the Archives hold them. Consent to their publication must be obtained from the fountain-head, which becomes a consenting party.
Sir Frederick's manuscript • was clearly not always reliable historically, though his adviser and his editor did much to make it more so (Mr. Cohn Welch needs no apology for the number of his clear and accurate footnotes). The character-sketches are shrewd and admirable, and those or the Sovereigns he served are exceptionally valuable ; there is a deal of wisdom and good sense from the store of his vast experience which made him for many years the final arbiter on court etiquette and precedent, and, as such, his book will be a vade-mecum to his successors. Perhaps there is rather a surfeit of Edwardian country-house parties, though some of them are as amusingly described as Creevey's ; and it is just to add that a big proportion of the book concerns very trivial matters, the jealousies of courtiers and Service chiefs and the hunt for decorations.
But it is not the royalties who suffer in reputation. Sir Frederick was a wit without malice, a raconteur too nimble to rely on detrac- tion. He was brought up by his parents to treat royalties not as demigods but as human beings, if he would get the best out of them. That may shock some, but must win the approval of others, including royalties themselves, who well knoW the importance he attached to the institution of monarchy. But a comparison of the treatment of the John Brown legends, as a single example, in the books of the two brothers does suggest that Lord Sysonby was
often less discreet and less accurate than his brother, Lord Ponsonby (a view which would have surprised King Edward).
Apart from the wit and gaiety, however, there is permanent value in his memoirs ; and no greater disservice could have been done to his book than the decision to sell a " pre-view " to a Sunday news- paper. Some books may respond to such treatment in some news- papers. The effect of the pre-view on Sir Frederick's was to suggest a total triviality which is not there, a vulgarity to which he was a stranger. The soul of his book was sold for a mess of pottage, but the now published memoir will redeem it in due course. To make quotation from it in a brief review is as difficult as to select three objects to represent the wealth of the British Museum. The reader can take it up and open it at any page and will read on (with chuckles) longer than he intended. If he has the misfortune to be old and the good fortune to have known Fritz Ponsonby, he will hear _again the voice of that prince of Edwardian entertainers, discoursing over the wine, of which he was as sound a judge and connoisseur as of " men and women and royalties " ; pungent, pointed, polished, yet without vital indiscretion and never treacherous. He is particu- larly interesting about his own share in saving from hopeless con- fusion the ceremonies of Queen Victoria's funeral ; on Asquith's famous visit to King Edward at Biarritz after Campbell-Bannerman's resignation, regarding which (he says) The Times allowed Repington to trounce the King by way of a personal revenge ; on his own disappointment in the curious circumstances of the- offer to him of the Governorship of Bombay ; and on King George's accident in France. He confirms the accepted truths of the guarantees extracted from King George V in the constitutional crisis of 1912, and his account of how the Russian Empress's " valuables " arrived from Russia at Buckingham Palace reads like an Oppenheim shocker.
For my part, I acquit these Ponsonbys, father and son. They were faithful servants of the Monarchy, whose greatness they under- stood, upheld, enlivened and enhanced. Between them they have done much, with a golden sense of humour and proportion, to make royalties understandable to ordinary folk, who else might see their faces as flat as the woodcuts in old school history books. And in giving them life, they have not given them away. There are courtiers who have things they can sell and sell them—well. There are others who have things they can tell and tell them—well. These last are rare. It is all a matter of taste and selection.