Friday, October 26th, 2012...9:30 am
You’ve Got Mail: Princesses Say the Darnedest Things
A letter to American raconteur Alexander Woollcott from British author Marie Belloc Lowndes dated April 28, 1937, begins, “Dearest Alec, Here are two little news stories of those royal children.” I wish I’d come across this letter back in June during the festivities associated with the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. It would’ve offered Houghton Library a nice opportunity to join in the celebration—Belloc Lowndes’s “royal children” were the 10-year-old Princess Elizabeth and her younger sister, Princess Margaret.
Belloc Lowndes opined, “The first I really think very funny in its macabre way, so typically childlike…,” and proceeded to type:
A prolific novelist (one book per year from 1903 through 1946), Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes garnered a reputation for her murder mysteries and probing psychological character studies. She is perhaps best known for The Lodger, a novel based on the Jack the Ripper murders. Published in 1913, the book became the basis for five adaptations for the silver screen, including Alfred Hitchcock’s first major film, the 1927 silent movie “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog.” Belloc Lowndes’s brother was poet and historian Hilaire Belloc, the man responsible for the beloved, if peculiar, Cautionary Tales for Children.
Alexander Woollcott was a New York journalist, drama critic and radio personality, infamous for his caustic wit. Despite his savage tongue, or perhaps because of it, he gained considerable respect and notoriety during the 1920’s and 1930’s. He was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, along with his friend and rival wit Dorothy Parker and the comedian Harpo Marx. He wrote a column for The New Yorker called “Shouts and Murmurs” from 1929-1934, and his CBS radio show “The Town Crier,” which ran from 1933 to 1938, was a popular success, a forum for Woollcott’s acerbic literary critiques and biting anecdotes.
Belloc Lowndes and Woollcott met during one of the American’s trips to London in the late 1920’s. They became good friends, hosted each other on both sides of the Atlantic, and carried on a regular correspondence from 1928 through Woollcott’s death in 1943. The Alexander Woollcott Correspondence at the Houghton Library contains over 100 letters from Belloc Lowndes to Woollcott; unfortunately, we don’t have the other side of the exchange.
Of course, the Princess Margaret story recounted by Belloc Lowndes refers to the abdication of King Edward VIII in December of 1936. (The King’s family had always known him as “David,” the last of his many given names. Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth were the daughters of George VI, Edward’s brother, who succeeded him on the throne.) Edward’s affair with American socialite Wallis Simpson and his intention to marry the divorcée rocked Britain and captured the attention of much of the rest of the world. By her own admission, Marie Belloc Lowndes was consumed with what she called “the Great Subject.” Indeed, the royal affair, the abdication, the marriage, and the subsequent comings and goings of the ostracized Duke and Duchess of Windsor were primary topics of the letters to her friend Alec from autumn 1936 on through December of 1937. Several lengthy entries in her diary for January 1937 are devoted to “the crisis” as well.
Like many citizens of the Commonwealth, Marie was quite taken with the royal family, and she delighted in passing on news of the royals to her American friend, himself a lover of storytelling and no stranger to gossip. In fact, Alec may have solicited stories for his own retelling in his essays or radio broadcasts, for on April 20, 1937, Marie wrote,
I am going to stay in Windsor Park next week, next door to Royal Lodge, so I hope to get some little original story to tell you, hoping it will be in time for your purpose. I have found out two things which may interest you. One is that the Princess Elizabeth is one of the innumerable devotees, on this side, of the book Little Women. Also that she and her little sister, together, I presume, with their small friends, delight in playing charades. As I expect you know, Royal personages are particularly fond of the theatre. It is a kind of outlet for them. (MS Am 1449 (1017))
On April 9 of the same year she wrote of the Princess Elizabeth
as an exceptionally intelligent child…the King said to some friend when talking over the little Princess and her future, that she had always been, almost from babyhood, instinctively self-possessed and unshy, and that though she has what in England are called ‘pretty manners.’…Her father said that she has a kind little heart…She seems to have the true Scotch tenaciousness as regards love of home, and from another source I was given a vivid account of the child’s bitter tears when she learnt…that [her parents] were going to be King and Queen, and that they would have to move to Buckingham Palace. (MS Am 1449 (1017))
Princess Elizabeth had just turned eleven and Princess Margaret was almost seven when their father ascended to the throne. A photograph of the girls was published in the official souvenir program for the coronation, a copy of which is held by the Printing and Graphic Arts Department here at Houghton. Interestingly, Houghton owns a copy of the same program in Braille.
This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.
[Thanks to Emily Walhout, Reference Assistant, for contributing this post.]