I wrote this review a fortnight ago, before the events of the last week. I’m always torn at times when there’s huge royal news, because I’m caught up between my ideals and the sheer spectacle of the event. It’s a trick that Kings and Queens have used throughout history, knowing that they are unpopular with some elements of society, they use the pomp and ceremony to charm and overwhelm them. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard someone interviewed this week and they’ve said ‘I’m not really a Royalist, but the Queen’s done a great job, or has been a constant presence in my life.’ In a time of recession and a cost of living crisis, I have still seen people subjected to a ‘pile on’ on social media if they’ve dared to suggest that the state funeral will be costing a fortune. Heaven forbid they mention the problematic aspects of Queen Elizabeth’s reign from imperialism to her steadfast support of her son Andrew. I think when someone has lived as long as Queen Elizabeth, there will always be societal changes that cast earlier choices in a bad light. However, I do have a complex relationship with the Royal Family, from really loving Princess Diana when I was a little girl, to learning more about the aspects I find worrying, such as the denial of the Queen’s two Bowes-Lyon cousins who had multiple disabilities and were placed in an institution, but declared as dead. I hate the way Diana and now the Duchess of Suffolk were treated and how the love lives of Princess Margaret and even the now King, Charles III, were meddled with by older family members. I was shocked to realise that Prince Phillip’s sisters were married to members of the Nazi Party. The goings on behind the scenes are always fascinating though. The shadowy men in grey suits who actually run the show, schooled in the constitution and making sure that what comes first is the crown above all. It was this behind the scenes fascination that brought this book to my attention. I’ll admit that I’m usually a bit of a snob when it comes to celebrity books. Comedians and journalists are writing all the time, but when someone’s a presenter I never know what I’m going to get from a novel. I gave this a go because of how interested I am in the history of the Royal Family and I should admit to being an avid watcher of The Crown. I thought the story might be diverting at least, but I was actually pleasantly surprised to find myself truly involved with the story of Crawfie.
Fern Britton’s novel takes us back to London between the wars, a rather turbulent time of constant change; socially, economically and culturally. We travel back and forth between 1932 and 1936. In 1932 Marion Crawford is looking forward to a career as a teacher, when an opportunity presents itself. Unexpectedly, she is offered the role of governess to two Princesses. Elizabeth and Margaret are the granddaughters of George V from his second son, the Duke of York and his wife Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (our Queen Mum). Just four years later and a huge change rocks the royal household, George V’s death paves the way for his eldest son David to succeed him as King. Choosing the regnal name Edward VIII, he is a rather controversial figure amongst the establishment, often disregarding court protocol and conventions and sometimes appearing too political. Edward causes concerns in his choice of companion too, the twice divorced American Wallis Simpson. His abdication, to marry the woman he loves changes the course of history and everyday life for the princesses and their governess. This unexpected constitutional crisis means Crawfie’s life will change forever. It has already been an adjustment to become part of a royal household and now she finds herself in this new position with new responsibilities – governess to the future Queen. The author really does portray this change well, always relating back to how this feels for our heroine, an ordinary young girl given extraordinary responsibility. Marion Crawford is our representative in this novel; the ordinary person living in the extraordinary. As a result we see familiar events from history made immediate and brought vividly to life, with the same sense of wonder and bewilderment that Crawfie feels.
I felt I was in the hands of an expert storyteller as this novel unfolded and I did feel Crawfie’s trepidation at the changes this brought to her life. It was so refreshing to see a well documented part of history told from the angle of a worker in the household, but someone who is neither upstairs or downstairs, but in that liminal role of governess. She is respectable, but not royal. She works for the family, but isn’t a servant. It’s a unique position, but sometimes a lonely one too. She is at the very heart and the future of the Royal Family, but will never be one of them. The author really brought this home to me, the individual working with the Royals must be available whenever they’re needed, no matter how lowly the position. It’s her future and position in this household that Crawfie must consider when she falls in love with George. He may be the love of her life, but can she choose him over her life with the princesses? I loved the sense of loyalty she feels, both to the Crown and her young charges. If she chooses them, their lives will become her life and they will be her children. Would this loyalty be repaid?
I won’t spoil the book by talking about the reality of Marion Crawford’s decision at this time and how her life played out, but she was torn between George and the royals her entire life. The author has told a story that’s an incredible glimpse into the Royal Family at this turbulent time. I felt like I was there as a fly on the wall! I ended up whipping through the story so quickly, possibly because it flows beautifully. There is no doubt about the extensive research that’s gone into the novel, but it wears this research lightly and never lapses into telling us what happened rather than showing us. This is both charming and thought provoking, giving us a glimpse of what it means to have a sense of duty, whether as a Queen or her governess. This was made all the more poignant this week, when most people who were asked what they admired about our Queen said it was her incredible sense of duty. Of course that duty can be eased by the riches and privilege of being a head of state. It must be so much harder to have such a strong sense of duty and loyalty without those benefits or the companionship of a family. Fern Britton has really brought a minor player in the history of our Royal Family to life with this novel and it would draw me to her writing in the future.
Published by Harper Collins 9th June 2022.
Meet The Author
Fern Britton is an English television presenter and journalist who has worked in current affairs and Newsrooms since 1980. In the 1990’s she hosted Ready Steady Cook for the BBC and through the 2000’s presented ITV’s flagship daytime magazine This Morning. Since then she has discovered the joy of writing novels and The Good Servant is her tenth. It is a breakaway from her usual theme of Cornish village life by the sea. The Good Servant focuses on a real woman who spent her twenties and thirties devoted to Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret as children. Fern lives in Cornwall with her four children and three cats.