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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

“The Decline and Fall of the House of Windsor”, by Donald Spoto

480 pages, Simon & Schuster, ISBN-13: 978-0684815442

The Decline and Fall of the House of Windsor could best be summarized as a survey of the British Monarchy from Queen Victoria to the present and, as such, is an interesting and trashy read indeed – but along the way Spoto recounts stories both well-known and relatively unknown royals, rehabilitating somewhat forgotten figures (such as Edward VII’s long-suffering consort Queen Alexandra) and recasting familiar subjects (such as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Wallis Simpson) in a different light. Spoto is adept at pointing out major breaches of protocol if not outright violations of the British Constitution made by King George VI, the Queen Mother, and Queen Elizabeth II along the way and is able to explain some of the arcane rituals of the monarchy, peerage, royalty, and nobility in a comprehensible and easy to understand manner. His coverage of the Wallis Simpson affair involving the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) is particularly well told and perhaps the most engaging chapters in the book.

Donald Spoto is an American – and by that I mean that he approaches a subject – royalty – with a skeptical eye, never forgetting that he is a citizen of a country whose entire political system was designed to prevent a monarchy from being established. This attitude stands in refreshing contrast to the bulk of American writing on the Windsors, who seem to stimulate some atavistic longing for royalty on the part of writers who should know better. Spoto’s previous works have been biographies of Hollywood celebrities, and this book extends and refines his musings on the history and implications of modern society's obsession with media-generated fame.

The overarching theme of this book is celebrity as an intrusive phenomenon that is slowly stripping the Windsors of their ancient royal mystique – a glamour which requires distance from the masses to remain viable. Spoto generates a certain amount of sympathy in the reader for the tribulations of what one realizes, after all, are a very ordinary (perhaps even downright mediocre) group of human beings who have done little to merit the attention so relentlessly thrust upon them by the media and their (it must be said) fans and followers. That said, Spoto, with his gift for creating vivid impressions of personalities with a few concise phrases, leaves the reader with a very unpleasant picture of a family gone seriously awry psychologically and dominated by a line of mean, selfish and grasping women who keep their weak male relatives on a very tight leash (all of which may be hallmarks of dynasties in decadence).

The most heartbreaking sections of the book deal with the present Queen Mother’s repulsive treatment of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and will certainly make the reader think twice when he or she sees the next photograph of the smiling, befrilled, Dowager Queen Mary, for an iron heart lies behind that mask of sweet little old lady. Equally affecting is Spoto’s history of the Diana Years; he depicts a family ruthlessly using a teenage girl as a brood mare, then becoming vindictive when she refused to do exactly what they told her to do (in fact, the activities of the entire clan in recent years, as reported by Spoto, cast serious doubt on their fitness for the role their birth has expected them to play). I was unable to avoid a certain feeling of contempt for these people and their ridiculous courtiers.

The Decline and Fall of the House of Windsor is well researched and well annotated, but quite out of date. Since its publication Princess Diana, the Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret have all died, as have other figures such as Princess Alice. Spoto leaves us with the image of Diana and Prince William and Prince Harry enjoying the Magic Kingdom at Disney World and posits it may be the closest they come to an actual Kingdom, but the events that have transpired since then seem to have changed things dramatically. Still Spoto’s book is handy ammunition for republican sentiments and won’t be well received by ardent monarchists, but along the way it renders its subjects more human and less regal. Spoto’s fair, frank, and honest assessment of the Windsors, warts and all, is certainly one of the better books written on the royals. While his assessment of the future of the monarchy is bleak the events since that time seem to indicate a somewhat happier future. But it is evident light has been allowed in on the magic and the spell that bound subjects to sovereigns has indeed been broken.

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