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Response to Review of The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-53

I am very grateful to Professor Chernock for her detailed and generous review. As Professor Chernock notes, when I finished writing the book at the end of 2018, I did not anticipate the events of this winter. The ‘resignation’ of Prince Harry and his wife Meghan from ‘the firm’ after a public feud with the tabloids and, rumour has it, other members of the royal family, was a moment of rupture in what has otherwise been an uninterrupted narrative of dutiful and domestic monarchy—at least since 1936 and the abdication of Edward VIII. This event was the single most important royal episode of the 20th century. Its legacy lives on in the values projected by the current monarch, Elizabeth II, and her heirs: duty is all; personal happiness and self-fulfilment must at least appear to come second to public service and self-sacrifice. Where Edward once failed, so it is again with Harry and Meghan, who have chosen to reject the rules of the game in order to pursue their own ambitions. This has seen them pilloried by hostile commentators who argue that the couple—much like the rebellious king in 1936—have let the side down.

The abdication is the formative event at the heart of the The Family Firm which influenced my analysis and arguments more than any other. I think it is worth briefly revisiting in order to explain why the 1930s was, indeed, a pivotal decade that witnessed innovation in the royal public relations strategy, rather than the kind of ‘intensification’ that Professor Chernock points to in her review. In the last years of George V’s reign (1910-36), the House of Windsor started to vocalise the idea that to be royal was to be inescapably burdened with duty. In Chapter Two of the book, I examine how, under the authorship of Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, the old king’s final royal broadcasts articulated this narrative of hardship and how, crucially, this earned him the respect and affection of the listening public. Certainly, the idea that the monarch and royal family were committed to carrying out public service is one that had an older lineage, stretching back to at least the Victorian period. However, it was only in the 1930s that the royals began to describe publicly how they placed duty ahead of private fulfilment. And it was only because of the new technology of radio that they were able to project this idea directly into the homes of millions in Britain and across the wider world.

It was ultimately Edward’s privileging of personal gratification ahead of the kind of duty publicized by his father that was his greatest failing in the eyes of conservative society. And herein lies further evidence of the significance of the 1930s as a transformative moment in the evolution of royal public relations. The version of duty that George V promoted in his final years on the throne was all the more powerful because it was deliberately anchored in tension with the new kinds of self-fulfilment that were being popularized at the time. More than ever before, ordinary British people aspired to live happy, emotionally enriched private lives. And yet, according to the royal public language developed by Lang and palace courtiers, members of the House of Windsor put their personal desires to one side in order to dedicate themselves first and foremost to the service of the nation. As Chapter One argues, the royal weddings of the 1920s and early 1930s elevated an idealised vision of family life, which simultaneously worked to remind the public that royalty had to forgo ‘ordinary’ pleasures like privacy. Thus, the increasingly intense media exposure of royal personalities in these years added to the public image of the ‘burdened royal’. After he succeeded his older brother, George VI became the definitive symbol of self-sacrifice as the court’s media strategy shifted once again, in order to highlight how the new king had—despite deep personal misgivings—taken on the symbolic weight of the crown in order to do what Edward could not: serve.

And, yet, the duke of Windsor, as he would subsequently be known, remained a firm favourite of many and perhaps even of a majority of Britons. Edward’s pursuit of romance ahead of duty endeared him to large sections of the population, who supported the king in his personal ambitions. Ideas of true love clearly resonated with some members of the public. Professor Chernock notes in her review that The Family Firm could have disaggregated more effectively between the groups in society most affected by the royal PR emphasis on domesticity and intimacy, and explored in greater detail how gender shaped people’s responses. I agree with her that the book as a whole could have done more to try to distinguish between the different emotional registers used by men and women to describe the parasocial relationships they forged with royalty. It was easier to do this in the chapters on the period 1939 to 1953 where, generally speaking, there is much more evidence that records ordinary people’s experiences. One challenge in researching The Family Firm was locating personal testimonies for the pre-1936 (pre-Mass Observation) period, which could shed light on the way the public internalised the monarchy’s public image. But in later chapters I was, for example, able to suggest—based on my analysis of more than 350 M-O reports on the 1947 royal wedding—that young women of the same age as bride-to-be Princess Elizabeth were often very moved by her love story because they sympathized with the image of a woman who aspired to have an ‘ordinary’, happy family life, but who seemed unable to do so because of her ‘extraordinary’ burdens as heiress presumptive to the throne.

Gender does feature throughout the book as a lens for examining how the media presented the public images of the principle cast of royals in ways designed to resonate with audiences. This ranged from the paternalism of George V, through the masculine sex appeal of the duke of Kent and a young Prince Philip, to the glamorous femininity of Princess Marina of Greece and the far less fashionable, though nevertheless ‘homely’, image of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. I’m afraid that my research did not uncover many ‘radical’ presentations of the royal family in terms of their gendered public images. Professor Chernock notes that a 26-year-old Margaret Thatcher interpreted Elizabeth II’s accession along feminist lines. But based on my encounter with the welter of Mass Observation personal testimonies collected in connection with the 1953 coronation, I would suggest the future Prime Minister was an outlier, and not particularly representative of her generation. Rather, for the majority of women, men, and children who tuned into the crowning and then went on to write about their experience, the new monarch was a reassuring symbol of youthful, maternal femininity.

This image of the maternal monarch certainly coexisted with broader definitions of an event that was notable for its ‘Commonwealth’ appeal. In response to Professor Chernock’s review, I would suggest future research looks more closely at how a distinctly ‘British’ formulation of monarchy, as explored in The Family Firm—which I believe was primarily defined by ideas of duty, self-sacrifice, and domestic intimacy—compares to formulations in different parts of the empire/Commonwealth in this period. There are many more books to be written on this topic, as there are many more books to be written on the regional and class dimensions of monarchy within the UK. These are themes that I tried to point to where the sources allowed for it—for instance, in connection with children’s essays sent to Mass Observation by schools in north and metropolitan England in 1937 and 1953. However, more work needs to be done to first of all discover personal testimonies like these at a local level, in order to then highlight more of the similarities and differences that have characterized the responses of a heterogenous public to the monarchy. While the protagonists of the The Family Firm are members of the House of Windsor, the real stars of the story are, as Professor Chernock notes, the ordinary people who took the time to write down their often idiosyncratic thoughts about the royals. One of my principal aims in writing this book was to give full expression to the range of opinion captured in their personal testimonies. I am therefore very encouraged by this review, and I hope that other historians will continue to expand our understanding of the ways different groups of people have made sense of the monarchy over time so that we might better understand its reach and significance in today’s world.