Review: Vivien Horler
The Windsor Diaries 1940-45, by Alathea Fitzalan Howard
My mother, who was 14 and living in Cornwall when World War II broke out in 1939, would occasionally talk about the privations of food rationing. They were allowed something like one egg and 50g of butter a week.
But for the upper classes, things were a bit different. Here is Alathea Alys Gwendolen Mary Fitzalan Howard describing the menu for a dinner at the home of the Duke and Duchess of Kent at Windsor in April 1945, just a month before the end of the war.
“We ate curried eggs and lobster, chicken in aspic and salad, and chocolate soufflé, orange salad and pastry cornets, filled with real cream and we drank Champagne and coffee.
“I sat next to Freddy Shaughnessy, who took a violent fancy to me though I don’t think him attractive.”
Alathea was born privileged – had she been a boy she would have become the Duke of Norfolk – and she moved in the topmost of upper circles. Before the war she – and the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret – had lived in London, but when the bombs started falling the royal family moved to Windsor Castle for their safety, and Alathea was sent to live with her grandfather and aunt in a grace-and-favour house in Windsor Great Park.
This meant the three girls – Alathea was 16 when the war broke out and a couple of years older than Elizabeth – were ideally positioned to socialise.
Alathea was often lonely as her own family weren’t close, and she loved being invited to the Castle for teas, dances, art lessons, dinners and walks with the princesses.
The diary starts on January 1 1940 and the first reference to the princesses is on January 21 when “Lilibet rang up to ask me to skate. She, Margaret and the King picked me up in the car and we drove to the lake in front of the house. … Queen came down and watched. Played hockey with about six other people – policemen and chauffeurs etc from Royal Lodge. Great fun. Lilibet is so much nicer by herself than at Guides.”
There are passing references to the development of the war, bombs in London and Windsor, nights spent in the cellar during air raids, but most of the diaries – as they would be for a teenager – are about Alathea’s social life, how she feels, about her friends, who might marry her. After she turns 18 she has to do war work, and joins the Voluntary Aid Detachment where she works as something of a skivvy at a Red Cross lodge, which she does not much enjoy. (At home the servants did the skivvy work.)
Alathea is– probably inevitably – a snob. After taking part in a rehearsal with the princesses for a concert at the Castle, she writes: “It’s very good but everyone I’ve met says it’s making them much too cheap. They really shouldn’t do it. They ought to get up little plays of their own with their friends but not dance with all the evacuees like this.”
With the breathtaking self-centeredness of a teenager she acknowledges she wouldn’t have spent as much time with the princesses had the war not intervened, and adds, after an outing: “It was wonderful fun and again I felt that all this was worth the war and also that these people were all that mattered in the world…” In the same paragraph she adds that Elizabeth has got her first grown-up shoes. “I’m so glad as her shoes are very bad.”
Alathea is very proper. She has a chat with a friend that upsets her. “…she praised the idea of the modern woman taking a more active part in the world and deplored my view of marriage as the only vocation of any well-born girl but I have been brought up in that tradition and never can I understand that anyone should entertain other ideals.”
Even Princess Elizabeth is more modern than Alathaea, having trained as a mechanic and military truck driver – something else Alathea disapproves of.
Alathea kept up her diary every day of her life until she died in 2001. Having no children, she left the diaries to her niece in law who has edited those covering the war years.
The niece, Isabella Naylor-Leyland, says in a foreword that she hopes nothing in the diaries will offend the royal family “as that is the last thing Alathea would have wanted. I like to think the childish comments that often appear are just that and nothing more.”
This book, often superficial, often quite charming, shines a spotlight on to a friendship that survived for decades (although it was never as close as Alathea would have liked) and also on to British upperclass lifestyles and beliefs that seem hard to credit today.