The Royal Governess: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth II's Childhood

The Royal Governess: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth II's Childhood

by Wendy Holden


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“This captivating page-turner whisks readers back in time to Buckingham Palace in 1933…A majestic story that delves into the incredible life of Queen Elizabeth II before she took her place on the throne.”—Woman’s World
Sunday Times bestselling author Wendy Holden brings to life the unknown childhood years of one of the world’s most famous figures, Queen Elizabeth II, and reveals the spirited young governess who made her the icon we love today.
In 1933, twenty-two-year-old Marion Crawford accepts the role of a lifetime, tutoring the little Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose.  Her one stipulation to their parents the Duke and Duchess of York is that she bring some doses of normalcy into their sheltered and privileged lives.
At Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Balmoral, Marion defies stuffy protocol to take the princesses on tube trains, swimming at public baths, and on joyful Christmas shopping trips at Woolworth’s. From her ringside seat at the heart of the British monarchy she witnesses twentieth-century history’s most seismic events. The trauma of the Abdication, the glamour of the Coronation, the onset of World War II. She steers the little girls through it all, as close as a mother.
During Britain’s darkest hour, as Hitler’s planes fly over Windsor, she shelters her charges in the castle dungeons (not far from where the Crown Jewels are hidden in a biscuit tin). Afterwards, she is present when Elizabeth first sets eyes on Philip.
But being beloved confidante to the Windsors comes at huge personal cost. Marriage, children, her own views: all are compromised by proximity to royal glory. In this majestic story of love, sacrifice and allegiance, bestselling novelist Holden shines a captivating light into the years before Queen Elizabeth II took the throne.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593101339
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/23/2021
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 154,871
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Wendy Holden is a British novelist of comedies of manners. She's authored ten Sunday Times top ten bestsellers and has sold over three million copies worldwide.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The classroom was gloomy. Everything was brown, from the desks with their lids and inkwells to the wooden forms and floorboards. Brown was the heavy Bakelite clock and brown the picture frame surrounding a bulge-eyed King George V and a flint-faced Queen Mary. A brown leather strap, or tawse, jiggled in the schoolmaster's bony hand. It looked well-worn, as if often used.


The sight of it made Marion wince. Corporal punishment, in her view, had no place in modern classrooms. Nor, for that matter, had Dr. Stone, the gaunt and black-gowned schoolmaster whose lesson she was sitting in on. "I was expecting someone much older," he had growled at her in greeting. "And male."


Marion could not imagine why Miss Golspie, the college principal, had sent her to observe such an establishment. Glenlorne was Edinburgh's most expensive private prep school. It was for the sons of the city's wealthy citizens, who would go on afterward to the major public schools. As Miss Golspie well knew, none of this appealed to Marion. Her interests were at the other end of the social scale.


It didn't help that Dr. Stone kept staring at her hair, and addressed all his remarks to it, as if making some satirical point. The new short crop was supposed to look chic, fashionable and emancipated. But did she actually resemble a skinned rabbit?


"Sit at the back," Dr. Stone told her hair.


Marion rallied. She had had enough of this. At least she had hair, short though it was. His ghoulish yellow cranium, on the other hand, had a mere few greasy strands plastered across it. "If you don't mind," she crisply informed him, "I'd prefer to observe from the front."


Looking for an unoccupied chair, she spotted one in the shadowy corner, seat turned to the wall. Through the wooden struts of the chair-back a tall white cone was visible. As she approached, she saw a letter "D." She blinked. Was it possible? In this day and age?


"You are proposing to sit on the dunce's chair?" The master's tone dripped acid amusement.


Marion did not reply. She picked up the humiliating headgear with her fingertips and dropped it lightly on the floor. Then she took the chair, sat down calmly and gave the class a smile. Two rows of boys stared back, round-eyed.


There was a sharp crack as Dr. Stone slapped the tawse on his palm. The boys jumped slightly in their seats. "This," he said with obvious reluctance, "is Miss Crawley."


"Good morning, Miss Crawley," chorused the boys.


"Crawford," she corrected gently. She had fully expected to loathe them, these little Scottish Fauntleroys. Instead she felt sorry for them. They looked so sweet, in their little gray blazers. They deserved better than this old sadist.


Another slap of tawse on palm. Another jump. "Miss Crawley is studying to be a teacher and is observing our geography lesson as part of her training." There was a contemptuous emphasis on "teacher" and "training."


From beneath their crested caps, the boys continued to stare at her curiously. Marion continued to smile brightly back. Take no notice of that rude old fossil, said the smile. Women can take degrees now, they can train for the professions. Tell your sisters! Tell your mothers!


Dr. Stone, having temporarily laid aside the tawse, was writing something on the blackboard. The chalk screeched with the movement of his bony yellow hand. The British Empire, announced the untidy scrawl. From the desk below the blackboard, a long thin stick was now produced. A collective intake of breath suggested this too had dispensed painful punishment in its time.


The cane rapped the glass covering a large map of the world. "Can you," Stone snarled, "see a color that appears everywhere?"


Several hands went up. "Is it pink, sir?"


There was a triumphant glint about the steel spectacles. "Indeed it is! Pink is the color of the British Empire! There is no continent on earth in which our great and glorious nation does not own territories!"


Marion shifted in her seat. Old-fashioned jingoism of this sort made her uncomfortable.


"So even if you are here"—the cane landed on the west side of Africa—"you are a British subject."


"They're the same as us, then, sir?" ventured a small boy. He flinched as the master rounded on him furiously.


"Not at all the same as us! They are colonial subjects!"


"But what's the difference, sir?"


"They," snarled Dr. Stone, "are uncivilized."



Back at Moray House Teacher Training College, she hurried straight to the principal, heart pounding with indignation, heels clattering down the beeswax-scented corridors.


"Come in."


Miss Golspie's office was light and modern, paneled with pale oak, lined with close-packed bookshelves and lively with colorful rugs, pictures and vases. The principal, as contemporary as her surroundings in a floaty frock of bright abstract print, looked up from her desk. From within a well-cut gray bob, her handsome, intelligent face expressed surprise. "My dear Marion. You look pale." She raised a brightly patterned cup. "Tea?"


"Yes please."


Miss Golspie poured another cup from her Clarice Cliff teapot, handed it over then gestured to the large tangerine sofa in the window bay. "Sit down and tell me all about it."


Marion sat down and told her all about it. She had been appalled by everything, but the uncivilized remark most of all. "It's so wrong to talk about people like that," she fumed. "We're all equal—or should be. How many other teachers are telling children such old-fashioned, prejudiced things?"


"Quite a few, I daresay," Miss Golspie said dryly. "In those kinds of schools anyway."


Marion's large eyes blazed. "I'd never work anywhere like that!"


The principal replaced her teacup in its saucer. "My dear, you can't ignore certain attitudes because you don't like them. Otherwise those attitudes prevail. If you want to change things you must stand up and defend the right."


"You make it sound like a war," Marion muttered.


"What else is the fight against ignorance?"


In the silence that followed, Marion sipped her tea. It had an unusual, smoky scent. "Lapsang souchong," the principal said with a smile, seeing the question on her face. "I grew very fond of it when I taught in China."


Miss Golspie's previous life had clearly been full of adventure, which in turn had informed her exotic tastes and engaged personality. She was the most interested and interesting person Marion knew, full of energy and ideas, a constant inspiration to her students. She was probably the same age as Dr. Stone, but there the resemblance ended. It was amazing to think they were on the same planet, let alone in the same city and profession.


"Why did you send me to Glenlorne?" she was calm enough now to ask. "It's hardly my kind of place."


The principal regarded her with bright dark eyes over the patterned rim of her teacup. "No, your kind of place is the slums."


Marion looked at her quickly. Miss Golspie had always supported her ambition to teach there. "Yes," she said firmly. "Someone has to."


Three years after the Wall Street Crash and the economic hardships that had followed, the belief endured that the condition of the poor was largely their own fault. But even if that were true, which Marion doubted, it certainly wasn't the fault of the children. Sheer professional curiosity had first led her into the stinking passages of Grassmarket, one of Edinburgh's most notorious slums, but pity and outrage had sent her back every Saturday ever since. The squalor and stink were bad enough, but it was what poverty did to the mind that took her breath away. Slum children had difficulty concentrating, their comprehension was slow and a near-starvation diet led to bad eyesight and impaired hearing. It took them ages to get through one simple book. The literacy rate was near nil, meaning that their chances of ever emerging from Grassmarket, getting a job and having anything resembling a rewarding life were near nil too. Unless she did something about it.


Miss Golspie was looking at her with thoughtful dark eyes. "I understand why you feel the way you do. But what about the other end of the scale?"


"The rich?" Marion was puzzled. "They don't need my help."


"You're sure about that?"


"Of course. They're the elite. They have every advantage."


"They have Dr. Stone," the principal pointed out. "And you just said you felt sorry for the children in his class."


"I do. Very."


"So what sort of advantage is that?"


Marion considered this. "I'm not quite sure what you're getting at," she said eventually.


Isabel Golspie leaned back in her chair and smiled. "What I'm getting at," she said, "is rather radical. I'm trying to suggest that, admirable though it is for you to want to help the very lowest class of society, the top of society need you too. And if you can help them, they can help the others."


Marion was completely lost now. But if Miss Golspie was suggesting she go to work at Glenlorne, she could forget it.


The principal calmly sipped her tea. "You've seen what it's like at an elite school. Those little boys will have power one day. And one of their main childhood influences will have been Dr. Stone. How do we grow a just society out of that?"


Marion stared down into her teacup, at the brown pool of tea, whose name she could not now recall. But she could remember the tawse, the dunce's cap, the fear on the little boys' faces. "I want to work in slums," she said, stubbornly.


"Which is precisely why you should teach the wealthy," suggested Miss Golspie. "Who else is going to tell them how poor people live? About feminism, equal opportunities, social justice and all the other things you care about? Not Dr. Stone, you can be sure of that."

Reading Group Guide

Readers Guide
The Royal Governess by Wendy Holden
Questions for Discussion

1. Love story, upstairs-downstairs story, history or tragedy: Which of these terms best sums up The Royal Governess, in your view?

2. If you were dividing the characters in The Royal Governess into heroes and villains, who would you put on which side?

3. Windsor, Sandringham, Balmoral, Buckingham Palace. Which place in The Royal Governess would you most like to visit?

4. If you could hear this same story from the point of view of another character in The Royal Governess, who would you choose?

5. Do you think Marion’s determination to show the princesses ordinary people’s lives has helped Queen Elizabeth II? In what way?

6. Are there other members of the British royal family who might have benefited from Marion’s down-to-earth influence? If so, who?

7. Does the recent lockdown due to the pandemic increase your understanding of Marion’s experience with the girls at wartime Windsor?

8. Meghan Markle and Marion have a lot in common. Both entered the royal family as outsiders with ordinary backgrounds and progressive feminist views. Both sought to modernize the Windsors. But is that possible within the strictures of the monarchy?

9. Did you notice certain characters changing throughout the story (the Duchess of York, for example)? How did your opinion of them alter?
10. Did Marion have good taste in men? Discuss.

11. How did you feel about the book’s ending? Did Marion deserve what happened to her?

12. Did The Royal Governess change your opinion of the British monarchy in any way? Do you feel different about the royal family now than before you read the book?

13. Which parts of the book stood out most to you?

14. Whenever Marion tried to leave the royal family, a major historical event prevented her from doing so. Do you think fate played a part in her story?

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