In the death of Princess Alice of Athlone at 97 last Saturday the Queen lost not only first cousin twice removed but also a great aunt by marriage. Under the circumstances, it might seem humane to allow a period of time to elapse for her to get over this double shock before petitioning her to turn her mind to the Royal Marriage Question. Even so, it seems by no means impossible that events will overtake me, and by the time this anguished appeal is published there will be dancing on the village green of Combe Florey, and the fountains will be running with cider. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished, as the bishop said to the actress, although on the last occasion I declared such a public holiday – when the Palace officially denied that Princess Anne had any intention of marrying Lieut. Mark Phillips – our rejoicing turned out to be premature.
Meanwhile, the country will have been distressed to learn that the Royal Family’s holiday at Sandringham has been all but spoiled by the number of reporters and press photographers who are waiting outside against the possibility of an announcement. Not to put too finer point on it, the Royal Family is said to be furious. A few people will have been cheered by the news that a press car was peppered with shot by a Royal shooting party which included Prince Phillip and the Prince of Wales, but for more loyal citizens the knowledge of Royal displeasure will have lain heavily across their enjoyment of the New Year’s holiday with much the same effect as the knowledge of the sufferings still attendant on the great Italian earthquake disaster.
Before proceeding to my main point, that the Sandringham Holiday Disappointment Shock Horror was, unlike the Italian earthquake disaster, avoidable, I would like to digress for a moment on this new Royal prerogative of shooting the press. No doubt it will turn out to be the most popular thing any member of the Royal Family has done since the Restoration, or at any rate since Prince Philip squirted some photographers with the garden hose. But ordinary landowners like myself who struggle to maintain the country’s pheasant supply have long been groaning under a law which forbids us to shoot or even trap poachers, just as ordinary householders must somehow live with oppressive legislation against shooting burglars, even if they are black. No doubt the shooting was completely accidental, but even so there are laws – or used to be – against discharging firearms within gunshot of a public highway, as well as extraordinarily strict rules (when I was a boy) against pointing – let alone firing – guns at anyone.
Perhaps the Royal Family feels itself to be quite literally under siege at Sandringham, like the Russian Imperial family at Tsarkoye Selo, or General Gordon at Khartoum. Of all the Royal residences, Sandringham seems the least calculated to encourage this misapprehension. In fact it is the only one I have ever coveted. I was distressed to read, a few years ago, that the Queen had designed and arranged a smaller house for herself on the Sandringham estate leaving the magnificent Edwardian barracks built by her great-grandfather as a monument to the sort of house thought suitable for wealthy German immigrants anxious to be accepted as English gentlemen. I saw that more as something worse than a dereliction of duty. Marie Antionette was for ever building herself little bergeries and we all know what happened to her. The temptations of the smaller house are obvious and should be resisted. Nobody asked my advice on the matter, but had it been asked I should have suggested that we owners of large houses, Ma’am, have a practical as well as moral reason for putting up with the greater inconvenience. Lesser mortals lose their awe of us if we move. This may be regrettable, even irrational, but it is unquestionably so. Disorderly journalists in Norfolk may prove a small step from the march of women on Le Petit Trianon at Versailles in 1789.
However, absurd these anxieties may seem, I cannot escape the conclusion that the survival of the monarchy must ultimately be settled in these few weeks while the Royal Marriage Question is being thrashed out. So far, as I say, it seems to have been handled with extraordinary ineptitude, but since Christmas and New Year were allowed to pass without a statement being forthcoming either way – and since the Royal Family now appears to be suffering almost as much as from the press siege as poor Lady Diana Spencer was suffering a month ago – certain observations have to be made.
It would obviously be wrong to expect the Palace press office to deny every speculation or false rumour put about by William Hickey or Nigel Dempster or even by my colleague Grovel on Private Eye, authoritative though his observations usually are. Equally, it would be wrong to expect the Palace to deny that the Prince of Wales was romantically involved with any girl whose name might be linked with his. But Lady Diana is not any girl. She is the daughter of a friend of theirs whose life has been made utter hell for the past month. The least they could do, under the circumstances, would be to issue a formal denial if there were no truth in the rumours, or if the Palace had decided that for some reason Lady Diana was not suitable. Similarly if Lady Diana had not been interested in the idea, there was never anything to stop her saying so. This is something she has heroically refused to do.
Various explanations suggest themselves: 1) Prince Charles cannot make up his mind, is suffering from nerves, feels he is being improperly influence in his choice. 2) There is disagreement with the Royal family about the match. 3) Lady Diana can’t make up her mind. 4) Prince Charles is not that way inclined.
Number 4 need not be an insuperable objection, even if it is true, which I am almost sure it is not. Many kinds of people marry and have children, and it is certainly not too much to expect of someone with Prince Charles’ background when the survival of the monarchy is at stake. Its position is not secure, nor the need for it so obvious, that it could survive an unpopular or inept monarch. Prince Charles seems to have the necessary qualities to an exceptional degree, combining the required Boy Scout outlook with a sense of humour which will certainly prove more necessary as time goes on. I doubt whether the monarchy would survive for long under King Andrew.
I do not believe that number 3 is the true explanation because I doubt whether Lady Diana would be allowed to get away with it. She would have been told to make up her mind in double quick time. Similarly, I doubt whether number 2 contains much of the truth, as I have the feeling that in any serious argument of this sort, the Queen wins.
So we are left with number 1. The Prince can’t make up his mind, isn’t sure whether he’s in love, is suffering from nerves. To do him justice, we none of us know Lady Diana. She seems enchanting, but she may be hopelessly immature, or nervous, or irritating in some way. No doubt the Queen and Prince Philip, like good modern parents are bending over backwards to let him decide the matter for himself, so that he can never say he was improperly influenced.
Well, I suffer from no such constraints and in any case feel that the modern parents are nearly always wrong. Prince Charles’ demeanour at present is both callous and wet. We all have to make up our minds, and can never be absolutely sure we are right, I married at 21 and might have been making the most ghastly mistake, but the only thing is to take the plunge and stick with it. If he doesn’t marry now, he almost certainly never will. Go to, young man.