A King”s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor (Putnam’s, $4.50) has that primary ingredient for success: the compulsion to make you turn the page. I do not see how it can fail to be the most popular autobiography of the mid-century.
Edward VIII was born in 1894. “Gangan, his great-grandmother Queen Victoria, who was to rule for his first seven years, held him on her knee in his christening robes for that famous photograph of the Four Generations; as a child he visited her at Windsor, Osborne, and Balmoral and was never to forget the relics of her widowhood with which she engloomed her household. Victoria’s children and grandchildren ruled the courts of Europe; in the year of his birth, there were twenty monarchs on the Continent where today there are six. His grandfather Edward VII, whom he adored, had created at Sandringham and Marlborough House “a second court,” to which the new wealth and the new talents of the new century were admitted. His father was a disciplinarian trained in the Navy but not too well equipped for the storms later provoked by Lloyd George and the Liberals. It is gainst this heritage and the pageantry of Britain at her prime that he begins the story of the boy who was born to be King.
His Victorian boyhood was a time of golden serenity and, for the young Prince, a time of highly personal contrasts. He dreaded the austerity of Balmoral; his favorite place of all was Sandringham with his grand father in residence, when thirty guests or more would come down for the autumn shooting — each man with his own valet, each lady with her maid. He recalls the sumptuous luncheons served in the open under a marquee with the large group photograph to follow, the day’s kill spread in rows that might total 2000 pheasants. He sees again The Big House on the Hill blazing with lights, being made ready for the evening festivity as the grandchildren came in for their evening kiss.
His home place was York Cottage, the smaller establishment a quarter mile distant from Sandringham, where he, Bertie, Mary, and the younger brothers were brought up. Here he was placed in the care of Finch, his Admirable Crichton; here he suffered the unhappy tutoring of Mr. Hansell; here he was allowed a maximum of instruction but a minimum of intercourse with boys of his own age, inducing that shyness that was to cost him plenty later; and here after the formal Summons to the Library, he received the scoldings from his father for being dirty, late, or ot herwise inadequate which made him never cease to dread that room.
One delights in the portraits in these early chapters and chief of them the portrait of his father. George V was never to forget his fifteen years in the Navy. He came reluctantly ashore with “a gruff, blue-water approach to all human situations, a loud voice, . . . and a damaged eardrum.” We see him consulting the barometer the first thing in the morning and the last thing before he goes to bed. We see him writing in his diary — a document, to judge from the quotations, with as much intimacy as a ship’s log — or sitting absorbed over his stamp collection, or reading The Times. His life aboard ship had taught him the value of a quick nap and he could fall asleep instantly and wake up fifteen minutes later as if an alarm had gone off inside his head. He was a fine shot. Few in Great Britain could teach him anything about sailing a boat. Punctuality was a fetish. The sense of procedure was inbred; even at Christmas, “we children were always shown our presents last.” One gathers that he got across to his oldest son only rarely, and then in hesitant words. “He believed in God,” writes the Duke, “the invincibility of the Royal Navy, and the essential rightness of whatever was British.”
As the book moves closer to our own time, the self-portrait of the Duke is more clearly defined. We see his disappointment at not being allowed to serve in the Navy after having been trained for it; we feel his bitterness at being excluded from combat duty in the First World War (“as Heir Apparent I was to discover that my trophy-value exceeded my military usefulness”). He has made us understand his dislike of cricket, of Buckingham Palace, of formal clothes and the rubber-stamp of office. And on the other hand, he has made us sympathize with his love of his grandfather, his happiness at Sandringham, his desire for privacy, his groping for independence, his need for exercise, his zest for travel and dancing. We see that he has the tastes of a squire who will always prefer the country to the city.
Of some tastes he tells us very little. Of his tastes in food and drink, in books and music, nothing is said. These are for his own living quarters and the door is shut. Through the door, one sometimes hears the sound of laughter but what they are laughing at we are not told. Very little mirth runs through this book. The tone is agreeable but not relaxed.
There is much to admire in his reserve. It never prevents him from being candid about his own limitations and it never exposes him to special pleading in describing those crucial days leading up to the Abdication. This is the most revealing and historic episode in the book. At a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street, Mr. Chamberlain grumbles that the King’s indecision is ruining the Christmas trade; Mr. Baldwin in his mock humility discloses that he has made a deal with the Opposition not to form a new Government, thus forcing the ultimatum: Renounce her or abdicate. Mr. Churchill, who rises to speak for the King, is howled down. So “The King’s Party” is snuffed out. “When the history of this episode comes to be written,” said a friend, “it will be realised that your nobility in refusing even to test your popularity was a sign of true greatness, and probably saved the very existence of the Empire, . . . I must humbly express my intense admiration for your obvious and inflexible determination not to encourage a ‘King’s Party.’ It was within your power to create Civil War and chaos. You had only to lift a finger or even to come to London and to show yourself, to arouse millions of your subjects to your support.”
These decisive pages are written with dignity, self-restraint, and with divided loyalty to the Throne, the family, and the Duchess.
I have left to the last the question of the skeptic: Did he really write it? The answer is to be found in large part in the Author’s Note. There, by name, the Duke singles out those who helped him in the preparation — his friends, his courtiers, his secretaries, his editor, and his amanuensis. He had reams of clippings and official papers and stacks of photographs to draw from. He had his own diary and access to his father’s. For three years the sifting, assimilating, and writing went on, most of it in France with an occasional trip for research to London. With him through all of this was Charles J. V. Murphy, one of the ablest Editors of Life, an amanuensis who had earlier proved to be of constant help to Admiral Byrd. I have looked for Murphyisms: “tycoon” is a word from the Luce vocabulary and so is the phrase “Christmas at Sandringham was Dickens in a Cartier setting.” But these are rare. In the last analysis, this is the Duke’s book. He lived it and, like many an English author before him, he rewrote it almost entirely in galley proof. In the final going over he spent every day for three months working with his editor, changing, polishing, testing. It would be fun to see those galleys.
Irish sunlight after rain
I remember thinking, the first time I saw the Abbey Players, that the actors looked as if they had walked in right off the streets. They were playing The Whiteheaded Boy, and the good humor, the exuberance, and the awe with which they responded to their situations were the very essence of unaffected Irish temperament. Walter Macken is a talented young Irishman who has distinguished himself as an actor, a playwright, and a novelist, and in his new novel, Bain on the Wind (Macmillan, $3.00), he has captured the refreshing spirit of his country. His story is laid on the coast of Connemara; it is the tale of a fishing village, and of the fishermen and their women; it is the story of the rivalry between two brothers: Tommy, the bright acquisitive scholar, fighting for the scholarship which will enable him to escape from the drudgery of the sea, and Mico, broad as a barn and always conscious of the big birthmark which covers half his face. Mico’s knowledge, much of it learned from old Gran, is of the sea, the small ships, and the ever changing wind; his strength is for the nets and for the tiller in the Storm; and since his mother has never let him forget that no woman will want him, his humility is the key which unlocks the loyalty of the villagers. These people are as natural as Irish sunlight after rain. Pa, the little old schoolmaster; Gran, once so powerful and now the fading seafarer; Twacky, the plucky little runt; Jo and Peter, the young lovers; and Maeve, so fresh in her youth, so grief-stricken after the storm, who comes to Mico in the end.
Indeed, the book had me in its pocket up until the very end. The children tide-caught on the fairy island where Mico stands off the plague of rats; the weary home-voyage on which Gran acknowledges that he is through with the sea; the hurling match in which Peter is almost beheaded; the terrible storm at Claddagh; the moonlight search for the sand eels when the lovers’ hands meet; the fight against the invading English trawler — these are told as if I had seen them taking place. It is only the rampaging climax which seems to me melodramatic, but a book as good as this should not be scolded for its last five minutes.
Undoing the expert
Stephen Potter is a master of what I call the dead-pan style. Two years ago he published with apparent solemnity a volume entitled Gamesmanship, or, The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating. In it he described those little devices like overpraising a long hitter in golf; those little plays — “ploys” he terms them — like arriving late for a tournament match and limping onto the tennis court with a heroic half-apology to make your opponent feel sorry for you; those little stratagems like a time persistently whistled off key at a billiard table, which will enable the poor player to outwit his better. The book was founded on sound psychology as any elderly competitor, if pressed, will acknowledge; the incidents were inspired by many of Mr. Potter’s friends, as I discovered when I visited the author in London; and because the book was as true as it was funny, it eventually found its way into the hands of a good many thousand gamesmen in America.
Now Mr. Potter, still as solemnly as if he were a professor lecturing on immortality, has extended the psychology of Gamesmanship to what he calls “the simple problems of everyday life.” Lifemanship (Holt, $2.50) is the art of intimidating the expert. “A good Lifeman,” says Mr. Potter, “is always alert and ready for the slight put-off, the welltimed provocation, which will get the other fellow down.” The Lifeman — that is to say, you, myself, the average layman — is always in danger of being talked to death by an authoritative bore. To protect us Mr. Potter has written a chapter on Conversationship in which he shows how a monologuist can be interrupted and thrown off the track by a loaded question, a French quotation, or other form of Glaciation (“two or three lines of a stanza from Spenser’s ‘Faery Queen’ is probably as good an allround silencer as anything”).
There is an excellent chapter on Week-endmanship in which the indolent nonplaying guest learns how to walk off with the girls, and other instructive sections on Reviewers, How to be Press Photographed, and Telephone Management. Mr. Potter argues that since all experts are necessarily fraudulent, like the psychiatrist who knows very little about anatomy, they are slightly afraid that the Lifeman will find them out. Here is how it’s done.
We have all of us ground our teeth as we have listened to the oleaginous voice of a radio commentator whose words and opinions we despise. Such a newscaster is Christopher Usher, the hero of Edwin O’Connor’s first novel, The Oracle (Harper, $2.75). Christopher has come a long way from the sports page where he had his beginning; for nine years he has enjoyed the backing of a prosperous manufacturer; and from the casual pilfering of news notes, his ego has swelled until he regards himself as the infallible seer. Then in the best scene of the book, while his contract hangs fire, Christopher is scaled down by the Vice President of the network. The deflation does not last, but in the violence of the setback this portrait of what Variety calls “the gabbers” is drawn with sharp, deft strokes. Like Saki, Mr. O’Connor has produced a caricature which comes outrageously close to reality.