How Obsessively Reading About The Royal Family Got Me Through a Breakdown
For Robert Leleux Finding the One Family More Messed Up Than His Own Was a Life-Saver
In 2016, when I was 36 years old, I had a crack-up that led to many things, among them being diagnosed as manic-depressive and obsessively reading books about the English royal family.
How “unwell” was I?
There was an afternoon that July when, holding my rocks glass and no more than usually sloshed, I saw the paisley pattern of an Oriental carpet writhe like bacteria under a microscope. On another not-unpleasant night, I truly believed I was Ava Gardner. (For how, I asked, could I know so much about Ava Gardner without actually being Ava Gardner myself?)
And then, one Sunday morning, around 8am, I began to feel an excruciating ripping sensation in my head like the un-Velcro-ing of a shoe. If you’d asked me what was happening, I’d have said that my brain was detaching itself, twisting in my skull, readying for ejection. I lay on the sofa, quivering like aspic, prepared for my head to come apart in my hands.
At this point, my husband dragged me to a very good psychiatrist who prescribed a mood stabilizer that knocked me out for two days. After which, I awoke depressed, but not loony, and stayed in bed for six months, where I barely spoke to anyone and read books about the Windsors.
For the next two years, until I reliably regained my sanity, such reading bloomed into compulsion. To my great surprise, I ended up reading hundreds of books about the Royals. There were marvelous works, such as James Pope-Hennessy’s biography of Queen Mary (the current Queen’s grandmother and doppelganger) and Caroline Blackwood’s The Last of the Duchess (a gothic tale about the slow, wretched death of Wallis Simpson). And there were a lot of scurrilous stinkers, such as Wendy Berry’s The Housekeeper’s Diary and Patrick Jephson’s Shadows of a Princess, two of many rotten tell-alls about Princess Di. But no matter what they were, I read them, and this amounted to an unexpected therapy.Had patrilineal convention been observed, and had they not been so keen to conceal their Teutonic origins, the Royals’ surname would now be Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg-Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
Unexpected because I was one of those children bribed to read “the classics” (fifty bucks for Middlemarch), and I’ve never quite shaken the notion that literature ought to be improving. Reading entirely for topical interest, not to mention deliberately reading garbage, was a new experience. Unexpected also because I’m from Texas, where even if you’re not a Republican, you’re a republican. So, if you asked me what I thought, politically, of an institution that seems to exist solely for the purpose of looking down on you, I’d say to hell with it.
And yet… with my life upended, I was attracted by the fantasy of the stable society that royalty represents; to a conception of the world in which identity is fixed and pre-ordained. In Craig Brown’s delightful Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, he offers an anecdote of A.N. Wilson’s:
Someone… spoke of the common phenomenon, in all ranks of society, of dreaming about the Queen, and said that in their case these dreams brought feelings of peace and benediction, as if they had been in the presence of God. “Quite right, too,” said Princess Margaret firmly. “After all, the Queen is God’s representative in this realm.”
Of course, I found (find!) this social cosmology offensive and absurd, but during my depression, I also found its fairy tale certainty strangely comforting. (Surely, I’m not the only one: I indeed think the inevitable, enduring quality of Her Majesty is precisely what most people find so appealing about her. In a line sadly cut from Alan Bennett’s play A Question of Attribution, but repeated in his Diaries, Queen Elizabeth says, “I don’t like it when people clap me… After all, I’m there. It’s like clapping Nelson’s Column.”)
So, in 2016, when I no longer recognized myself, I envied those with titles, not for their cash and castles, but for the more profound privilege they enjoyed, that of knowing exactly where they stood. Alan Bennett is one of the great observers of royalty, and in another of his plays, The Madness of George III, Dr. Willis remarks that “the state of monarchy and the state of lunacy share a frontier. Some of my lunatics fancy themselves kings.” Well, I never fancied myself a king, but I understood the impulse. It wasn’t authority I craved; it was some acknowledged self.
Family troubles were among the many reasons I’d lost my way. I’d recently learned that my father, in his new marriage, had spent years denying my existence: Baffled strangers from his previous life would insist they remembered an older son, and he’d swear they were mistaken. Pitifully, this revelation was a contributing factor to my breakdown. And so, there was another way in which the Windsors, governed as they (until recently) were by the laws of primogeniture, a key aspect of that offensive and absurd cosmology, seemed enviably stable: Their sons might not all succeed them, but at least they could not be erased.
For many of us, the Windsors are the only family we know generationally besides our own. Some readers may think that overstated, but since public permanence is the point of the royals, they do lend themselves to a kind of long-view commentary that’s unique outside of one’s own relations. How many people do you know whom you can compare to his great-uncle? Or even to his uncle, as is so tempting to do when one speaks of Prince Charles (if, indeed, one does).This was the lasting therapeutic conclusion drawn from my Royal readings: They’re just as fucked up as anybody.
To use a rather shopworn example, we may look at Charles, and marvel at how like his Uncle David’s (the previous Prince of Wales, the late Edward VIII) his life’s trajectory has been; at how peculiar it is that, just as Edward VIII (in a tale so commendably told in Lady Frances Donaldson’s eponymous biography of him, and in countless lesser volumes) fell helplessly in love with Wallis Simpson, a rather plain divorcee for whom he sacrificed everything, so Charles would evidently have given all for Camilla (as is rather cheaply, but thoroughly conveyed in Caroline Graham’s Camilla: Her True Story, and in countless lesser volumes).
And speaking of Camilla, how very remarkable it is that she captured the heart of a future king, just as her great-grandmother, the beguiling Alice Keppel, did Edward VII’s (Charles’ great-great grandfather), as one will relish reading in Diana Souhami’s lively Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughters. Or in the charming Edwardian Daughter, a memoir by Camilla’s grandmother Sonia Keppel.
Or you might prefer to read about Sonia’s hoydenish sister (and thus, Camilla’s great-aunt) Violet Trefusis—of whom Nancy Mitford, as recorded in The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, quipped “Violet Trefusis never refuses”—in Vita Sackville West and Virginia Woolf’s Love Letters or Harold Nicholson’s Diaries or in Nigel Nicholson’s hair-curling Portrait of a Marriage. (Sometimes, in pursuit of royal insight, I slummed it with mere aristocrats.) But you see my larger point. This is a literature so boundless that it might well possess an unhinged mind.
And since the Windsors are the only other family with whom I, at least, can play this game of inter-generational analysis, it was inevitable, at least while I was nuts, that I would compare them to my own. (Hasn’t children’s literature, after all, habituated us to compare our lot with princes’? And yes, I’m aware that the best of us, from Christ to Gandhi, have always advised to identify down; to see ourselves in the least of our brothers. But frankly, when you’re having an off day, it’s more fun to talk about Fergie.)
As I lay in my sick bed, patterns emerged. (My husband says that “patterns emerged” is, in terms of mental health, English’s most worrisome phrase.) My grandmother’s icy stoicism was so like Her Majesty’s. My grandfather’s mannered brutality so like Prince Philip’s. My father’s fecklessness like Charles’. My mother’s marital sadness like Diana’s. Etc, etc. In fact, I came to feel that, in modern life, this was one of the principal functions of the Windsors; to provide an opportunity for reflecting upon one’s family foibles, and for processing them.Even, and especially during my depression, the inscrutableness of the Royals felt deeply familiar.
(Is this, I’ve often asked myself, and to borrow a previous era’s vernacular, largely a “homosexual preoccupation”? It is extraordinary just how many of the best royal chroniclers have been gay: Aside from the previously mentioned James Pope-Hennessy, Alan Bennett, and Harold Nicholson, there’s Cecil Beaton and Noel Coward and Osbert Sitwell and Chips Channon and Peter Coates and Max Beerbohm and James Lees-Milne and Nicky Haslam, and so forth. After reciting such a list, it is tempting to repeat a request made by the Queen Mother of her rather lavender footmen, as recounted in William Shawcross’s official biography of that game lady: “Would one of you old queens get this old queen a drink?”)
And as with one’s family, interpretation of the Windsors seems to depend almost entirely upon whom one consults. In 2016, my mind reeling, I called upon my mother when furious with my father, and when I softened, my tender-hearted Aunt Rose. I mean, we know this, right? That all biography is autobiography; that it always says as much about the writer as it does about the subject. But the Windsors provide a dizzying demonstration of this phenomenon. Except for the Queen (for whom reverence is generally shown), it seems that everyone in the Royal family, as in my family, has his kind biographer and his cruel.
If you want a happy account of the Duchess of Windsor, read Lady Diana Mosley’s, and if you want a vicious, read the tireless Andrew Morton’s. Even “saints” aren’t exempted: Though Shawcross sugar-coats the Queen Mother, Lady Colin Campbell dips her in acid. As one whose opinions regarding his relatives, whether they’re goodies or baddies, fluctuate wildly according to mood—in fact as a memoirist who has come to believe that so much of memoir is a matter of mood—such biographical variations seem deeply familiar.
Even, and especially during my depression, the inscrutableness of the Royals felt deeply familiar. Despite the lessons of literature and experience, I could never know them. Just, as it turns out, I would never really know my father.
And this was the lasting therapeutic conclusion drawn from my Royal readings: They’re just as fucked up as anybody. It wasn’t until 2018, when my fugue state lifted, that I realized the true madness of my behavior. As it turns out, the Windsors are a very peculiar people to turn to in search of the stable society. They’re queer as folk, and never queerer than when attempting to appear normal.
For starters, had patrilineal convention been observed, and had they not been so keen to conceal their Teutonic origins, their surname would now be Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg-Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. So, you know, they’re people of the soil, who just happen to travel with their own toilet seats and aren’t allowed to eat garlic or have custody of their children or wear black when not in mourning, and who (or at least this was true of Charles as late as 1985, when he was a thirty-seven-year-old man) continue to sleep with teddy bears that are regularly sent for mending to their retired childhood nannies.
Nobody’s normal, and no one’s choices can withstand scrutiny, and everyone’s life is littered with grief and strangeness. All rather common life lessons to learn at the palace.