The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Two hundred years ago, a relative of Princess Diana’s, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, wrote that, ‘the secret springs of events are seldom known. But when they are, they become particularly instructive and entertaining.’ This week, Paul Burrell allowed the public to see the most secret of secret springs surrounding the Royals. The result has been the kind of reversal of truth that historians dream about but rarely find. Not since the famous ‘casket letters’ affair of Mary, Queen of Scots has a batch of correspondence proved so revealing or damaging. But while Mary’s letters were almost certainly forgeries, Earl Spencer has no such defense. All this time the public assumed the worst about Prince Philip and the best about him. Now, we know that the former was much closer to Princess Diana than his portrayal by the media ever allowed, and that the latter was actually much more distant.

The Burrell scandal is a reminder of how prone the Royals are to having their innermost thoughts become hostages to fortune. Considering how many times over the centuries, they have tried to retrieve embarrassing letters it is amazing that they continue to write them. As a silly young prince, George IV wrote some particularly cringe-worthy letters to his mistress, the actress Mrs Robinson, in which he called her ‘Perdita’ and signed himself ‘Florizel’ after the main characters in her play. In between adolscent fantasies of elopement he made large finanical promises which she subsequently used for blackmail when her funds ran short. Prince Charles’s great-great grandfather, Edward VII, also got himself into great trouble with his epistolary activities, with letters constantly ending up in the wrong hands. His correspondence with Lady Mordaunt actually appeared in the press – although ironically this was the one relationship which was probably platonic. The public could sort of forgive him his numerous affairs, but not the fact that they were available for perusal over coffee and buns. As Prince Charles himself has discovered, the public loves the sin but hates the sinner.

The truth is, the Royal family only seems especially dysfunctional because its letters have received the most scrutiny. In fact, the present generation of Royals is one of the more normal. The letters of Princess Caroline and George IV, for example, the last couple to divorce before Charles and Diana, reveal a spitefulness between them which far surpasses the unpleasantness of the Windsor marriage. George foisted his mistress, Lady Jersey, onto Caroline’s entourage, while she deliberately made friends with his ex-mistresses in order to taunt him. He routinely described her as ‘the vilest wretch this world was ever cursed with,’ and wrote that he shuddered ‘at the very thought of sitting at the same table with her.’ Prince Charles may not have been discreet about Camilla Parker-Bowles but at least he did not insist that she be made his wife’s Lady-in-Waiting.

As for relationships between eldest sons and their parents, although Prince Philip makes clear his contempt for Charles, his feelings are a great deal milder than those expressed by the Hanoverians. For various reasons every Hanoverian generation, from George I to Queen Victoria, conceived a violent dislike of toward its heir. In the 1730s, Queen Caroline of Ansbach went so far as to complain about Prince Frederick, “My dear first born is the greatest ass, and the greatest liar, and the greatest canaille, and the greatest beast, in the whole world, and I most heartily wish he was out of it.” Some years later her wish was granted since Frederick did die young, after being hit on the head by a cricket ball.

Princess Diana’s ancestors were not much better at parenting. Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough , the matriarch of the Spencers, and founder of the family’s great wealth, fought viciously with her children and their spouses, and later with her grandchildren, and their spouses. ‘Milord,’ she wrote in a typical letter to her son-in-law, the Duke of Montagu, ‘I have received your gracious letter. I am sorry you are a cuckold, my daughter a whore…’

By the end of the 19th century such unvarnished vitriol had gone the way of public hangings and bear baiting, and families were much more polite towards each other. But a quick glance through the Royal archives reveals the same harsh relationships which seem to have dogged every generation. Queen Victoria’s letters regarding the Prince of Wales almost seethe with animosity. ‘Bertie is not improved since I last saw him, she wrote after he was a married man with children. ‘His ways and manners are very unpleasant. Poor dear Alix! [Princess Alexandra] I feel so for her.’ But as for ‘poor dear Alix’, she willfully ruined the life of her eldest daughter, Vicky. The girl was never allowed to marry, make her own friends, or even develop her own hobbies. She lived at her mother’s beck and call and died an embittered woman.

In publishing the Royal family’s private correspondence, Diana’s former butler, Paul Burrell, has lowered the bar for disloyalty. And yet, in spite of his duplicity we probably owe him a debt of gratitude. As every biographer and historian will testify: bodies and buildings turn to dust, memories fade, but letters hold the truth forever. Thanks to Burrell and his squirreling ways, the history of Diana’s life will have to be revised. Moreover, he has uncovered the real worth of the Monarchy. In an age of email and telephone, the Windsors still write to each other. For this reason alone, they should be kept on at Buckingham Palace.

Copyright© 2003 The Times