That The Royals, the latest endeavor from Kitty Kelley, appears after the death of Diana is merely the luck of the devil, assisting a journalist known for a scavenger’s approach to digging up the dirt-encrusted facts and tinfoil factoids of a person’s existence and passing off mass for depth.
For more than four years, Kelley — author of noisy, best-selling tell-alls about Frank Sinatra, Jacqueline Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, and Elizabeth Taylor — has been reeling in stuff on the British royals, beginning with 1917, when King George V hacked off his German roots by changing the family name from the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the house of Windsor, and continuing until 1996, when the sons and daughters-in-law of Queen Elizabeth II were in full, tacky, divorced disarray.
Obviously the biographer, who was busy interviewing chatterers and gossipers, studying old newspapers and magazines, and citing other books, couldn’t have dreamed that a terrible modern tragedy would inflame global interest in the antiquated British monarchy, often referred to these days as ”the Firm.” With her well-known talent for investigative reporting (and with the participation of enough confidential sources), Kelley and her book would have made news even had Diana and her new beau Dodi Fayed remained alive to continue their jet-set romance.
But all that’s changed now. The experience of reading The Royals is inevitably, ineffably affected by the intense keening of recent weeks. (Warner Books moved the publication date up by six days, but the content has not been changed or updated.) Kelley’s portrait is of a notably messed-up family — yea, unto generations of screwups — to whom hidebound tradition, unfathomable wealth, and sclerotic insularity have done no favors: Each unhappy character is shown to be unhappy in his or her own way, and each character’s weaknesses, unchecked by exposure to the modernizing influences of democracy, are seen to only calcify with time.
And yet this is, God help us, a tonic following the near canonization of the People’s Princess. It’s not a bad thing to be reminded that the bitter PR endgame moves of Diana and Charles and the crass shenanigans of the Duchess of York were, Kelley suggests, no more or less than could be expected of a family where even the frequently feather-bedecked 97-year-old Queen Mother — the most beloved Windsor of the lot — is shown to be a tough bat. The author paints her as an ”incessant” drinker, inveterate gambler, and unyielding racist who determinedly protects ”royalty’s mystique by keeping its secrets,” including — if you can believe it — hiding documents regarding a separate WWII peace agreement with the Nazis. (Kelley also suggests that the Queen Mother was illegitimate and that her daughters were conceived via artificial insemination.)
The Queen herself is portrayed first as an ”obsessive-compulsive” child and later as a stingy, imperious woman with no time for her own children. According to Kelley, Prince Philip is a philanderer who makes his son Charles’ relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles look like courtly love. Princess Margaret is the unhappiest royal in the house, whose marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones (a showy homosexual who loved to dress in drag, says Kelley) was something out of —Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Diana is depicted as a strong-willed challenge for the palace (she outsmarted the Windsors in their own manipulation of the press), a woman given to food binges, raging battles with her husband, and poorly chosen love affairs. What else is new?
But tonic, while good for a splash, is not a thirst quencher for those of us wanting to understand what it’s like to walk in royal shoes. Kelley piles the details higher and higher, plumping out her research with conversations whose words she couldn’t possibly have heard, and comments from people whose insights can’t really matter. She hammers home certain themes: that the Windsors continue to be touchy about their non-English roots, that hypocrisy trips them up every time (claiming to abhor divorce and homosexuality, the family is torn by breakups, and the palace is run by gay men), and that if the monarchy is to survive (and it should, she suggests, since the populace needs ”enchantment”), the monarchs need to get some fresh air.
Stacks of gossip items — however impressively unearthed — are not, in themselves, the measure of a life, and even the passing prescient phrase (Diana saw herself ”as Mother Teresa in a crown”) is not enough to bring a person into view. In The Royals, Kitty Kelley serves up remarks (which, as Gertrude Stein said, are not literature) and snapshots. We may be amused but (as Queen Victoria might have said) we are not enlightened. C+