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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

“The Marlborough House Set”, by Anita Leslie

321 pages, Doubleday, ISBN-13: 978-0385014489

Upstairs, Downstairs; Jeeves and Wooster; Pride and Prejudice (the Colin Firth one); Aristocrats; Downton Abbey – for anyone and everyone who is enamored of these looks inside the British aristocracy, have I got a book for you: The Marlborough House Set by Anita Leslie – or should I call her Anita Theodosia Moira Leslie Rodzianko King? – tells the tale of the Prince and Princess of Wales (Albert Edward, “Bertie”, and Alexandra, “Alix”) and the intimates who dedicated themselves to keeping this amoral and peripatetic (and yet interesting) man amused. They were the “fast” set of their day as judged by Bertie’s mother, the oft unamused Queen Victoria, and anyone else who wasn’t blessed to be in it, and Anita Leslie will tell you why. And we could have asked for no better guide, either, as Leslie was perfectly placed to interview the subjects of which she writes: she was the eldest of three children born to Sir John Randolph Leslie, 3rd Baronet, a first cousin of Winston Churchill, and Marjorie Ide, the youngest daughter of Henry Clay Ide, the United States ambassador to Spain and Governor-General of The Philippines (bluer blood outside of the Royal family would be hard to find).

However, if you are expecting a book featuring an in-depth exploration of the people, the period, and their influence on their country and the world during this pivotal moment in history, this isn’t it; Leslie’s style is that of a gossipy great-aunt whose tale contains few logical transitions and spotty continuity, complete with some lovely old photos from the author’s collection or those of her parents’ friends. She will also tell you who, and how, and when, and while you come away from the book realizing that there was a lot more than grouse shooting and hands of rubber bridge happening at those house parties, you also wish you knew so much more. She focuses on several individual members (some of whom were actually members of “The Souls”, a group that was the antithesis of the “Set” in question), giving all the gossip, well-known and not-so-well-known. She tries to debunk several stories extant about the participants (e.g. how Lord Randolph became infected with syphilis, which we now suspect he wasn’t) using supposedly insider information, but her sources are almost all anonymous: not at all useful or usual in a book that is supposed to be historically accurate. Furthermore, her lack of actual citations, either in book or manuscript form, (she mentions books and people’s names but does not connect these to actual incidents) is contrary to proper writing practices.

At the end of this book, Anita Leslie quotes at length from the diaries of English poet and writer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt on the death of King Edward VII and used the turn of phrase “pleasant little wickednesses” in reference to monarch who gave his name to the era and about whom the major and minor personages in this book revolved, the sun to their planets and moons and asteroids. Leslie has written several books on the Edwardian Era and the people involved and she seems to find their hypocrisy amusing; she’s entitled to her opinion, but it would make for better history if the author remained an observant reporter rather than an active participant.

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