18 August 2015

Book Review: Princes at War

Deborah Cadbury's latest tome seeks to follow-up with the aftermath of 1936 abdication and its marketers hope to build on the popularity of the award-winning film, The King's Speech, to help propel interest. Unlike the movie, however, Princes at War, focuses on all four royal brothers, albeit somewhat unequally. It is perhaps natural that a group bio would spend more time on the two more "important" brothers, but I'm always excited to get to learn more about the less well-known royals.

The book has several strengths: moments of vivid narrative, a re-examination of the motives of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (Wallis apologists will not be pleased), and a fairly detailed overview of World War II in Britain.

However, I wanted more royal brothers--and their royal wives (this is a blog about royal ladies, after all)--than war history. We get a very quick peek at the incredibly adventurous life of the Duchess of Gloucester before her wedding, and the many war-induced stresses within the family of the Duchess of Kent. But, I could not get enough stories like the Gloucesters' harrowing voyage to Australia and the impact of the Duke of Kent's war-time death. Maybe I'm just "over" the Windsors to be terribly impressed by the incredible amount of effort that Cadbury expended in researching and writing about them. Despite "new" sources, the Windsors' story has been re-hashed so many times that it just doesn't feel all that new to me.

On the other hand, I quite enjoyed much of Cadbury's narrative style. At the beginning, she drops the reader smack in the middle of the Abdication Crisis, employing a technique often used in fiction and creative nonfiction. It is an enticing morsel that makes the reader want to come back for more. Similar morsels are sprinkled throughout the book--I particularly enjoyed her vivid recounting of the D-Day invasion. Other parts of the book are less dynamic in their presentation, even occasionally a bit dry.

Cadbury draws upon new source material, which provides some new insights into the motivations of and relationships between the brothers, particularly regarding the eldest, King Edward VIII (aka the Duke of Windsor) and the youngest, the Duke of Kent. She uses these sources to help flesh out some familiar themes: the hostility of the Royal Family toward Wallis Simpson the Duchess of Windsor, the high-flying early adulthood of the Duke of Kent, and the alleged Nazi sympathies of the Windsors. At points, especially early in the book, she relies a bit too heavily on the letters of royal friend Betty Lawton-Johnson.

She does provide insights on the initially tentative but ultimately powerful relationship between George VI and Winston Churchill; very interesting, very good, but separate from the relationships between all four brothers. In general, I wanted more about the familial bonds, tension, and love among all of the family members. The sections about the younger brothers often seem too detached from the overarching theme of brotherhood; their stories are dropped in, more or less chronologically, before Cadbury returns to the more well-addressed conflict between the older two brothers and the overall progress of the war in Britain.

It is a somewhat short book, an easy and enjoyable read, and it includes some lively details that I have not seen elsewhere. Overall, I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the British Royal Family. It definitely leaves me hungry for more. If her next book is about the Gloucesters and the Kents, sign me up for an early edition!

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