From gothic novels to dystopian Y.A. blockbuster franchises, there is no genre of literature that hasn’t put its own spin on the trope of “withdrawn young girl is sent away to relatives and arrives at intimidating new location that feels, at first, cold and distant.” Perhaps her family’s circumstances are reduced. Perhaps the parents simply have no more attachment left to spare. The place to which she is sent might be a crumbling manor that looms large in the background as the girl either descends further into melancholy and/or finds affection in an unlikely source. Alathea Alys Gwendolen Mary Fitzalan Howard, while from the realm of the real, lived a life that seems conjured straight from the fictions.
The castle in The Windsor Diaries: My Childhood With the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret (Atria) happens to be the historic Cumberland Lodge at Windsor Great Park, where Howard, grandaughter of the Viscount Fitzalan of Derwent, was sent to stay with her paternal grandfather and rather stuffy aunt Magdalen (whom she dubbed “the Tigress”) as the Second World War came to ravage England. From age 16 to 22 she was a dedicated and meticulous diarist, unfailingly recording the goings-on of her life as the royal family’s welcome interloper. In a world where our only royal visibility is through our screens, invasive paparazzi photos, and strictly controlled public appearances, Howard’s observations imbue the reader with an intimacy of the casual, everyday life of 20th-century British royalty: going skating with Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret at Frogmore, going to see the horses with the Duke of Beaufort, disparaging governesses who levied unfairly hard math problems at her, mooning over naval officers. Turns out, even destined monarchs aren’t immune to fixations on gangly boys—Howard describes a charmingly human moment of giggling with Princess Elizabeth over the future queen’s future husband, Prince Philip (“P was her ‘boy’ ”). In the ageless phenomenon of teenage girls’ fascination with their chicer, sleeker, more glamorous counterparts, Howard immediately handed over her devotion to Margaret, seven years her junior and the more charismatic of the two sisters. (“Margaret is sweet and makes one die of laughter.”) A withdrawn teenager, deprived of affection from her own parents, she recorded her mother’s unkindness in matter-of-fact, pitiless sentences, transcribing cruel gibes and unfavorable comparisons to her younger sister, Elizabeth Anne, with exhausted acceptance. (“Mummy thought I had a vague, puffy look…”; “Mummy loves telling me how well EA fits in in the country! It has ceased to annoy me, EA and Mummy wearing trousers in the winter.… I have learned it is always best to be tactful with Mummy.”)
When viewed against the modern-day spectacle of the British royal family, currently embroiled in a battle of attrition against one of their own who dared to defect and doing ham-fisted crisis control as allegations of a member’s flagrant racism are made, Howard’s bucolic descriptions of tea and skating seem like museum exhibits of a vanished world. But beyond her teenage preoccupations, her diaries reveal an outsider’s deep anguish and profound loneliness not at all at odds with what we know of the monarchy today. “It’s exasperating,” she writes, “all these people plotting and scheming behind your back to send you to places you don’t want to go to.”
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