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Review: Sarah: Letters and Diaries of A Courtier’s Wife 1906-1936 ed. by Alfred Shaughnessy

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Courtiers, those nameless officers, gentlemen and ladies who serve the royal family in a very personal way–accompanying them on the royal rounds (equerries and ladies-in-waiting), run the professional side of their “household” (plan the tours, pay the bills, arrange the meetings with celebrities, do-gooders and others) and, at least until William and Harry seem to have stopped it, pretty much shared their day-to-day lives. In the days of King George VI (the Queen’s father) and before, “the Suite” as these folks were known lived in. Oh, not 24/7/365–they took turns. Someone was said to be “in waiting” for a period of weeks or a few months then he/she would return home for a brief visit until it was time to be in waiting again.

Sarah Shaugnessy met and married Piers “Joey” Legh and equerry to the then Prince of Wales who would later be Edward VIII and after abdicating to marry the “woman he loved,” Duke of Windsor. Sarah was a well-placed American (a descendant of President James Knox Polk) and a Canadian officer, heir to the Baron Shaugnessy, a Canadian peer.

Joey Legh is perhaps best remembered for accompanying the newly abdicated King into the first days of his exhile. He returned to serve the new King, George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth. But first he had to survive long, boring tours of the empire with man when he was the wildly popular, golden-haired Prince of Wales.

Sarah’s letters and diaries tell us nothing much! Had her second son, Alfred Shaughnessy, not been the creator of the 1970’s tv show Upstairs, Downstairs, I doubt this would have been published! Like Lady Mary Crawley of Downton Abbey (or Lady Georgina Worsley of Upstairs, Downstairs) Sarah did little but change clothes, dance, dine, lunch and watch men shoot birds out of the sky. Here are the few remarks that caught my eye–the first in horrible contradiction of today’s political correctness!!

“Met two horribly masculine women today. Motor convoy drivers, hair short etc. Made me all creepy.” This the year bobbed hair started in Paris!

“Lady [T]’s conversation isn’t fit for the drawing room. I was disgusted and shocked.” Well, 1919 was  a simpler time. [Well, best not say it in the street and frighten the horses I always say.]

My favorite moments came from Joey–not Sarah. His letters home from royal tours and when away on duty provided a few fun glimpses of what the staff really thought. First though, is a tiny little aside that endeared him to me:

“Philip Sassoon arrived with Austen Chamberlain in the Rolls-Royce, which we both know so well….”

I do wonder how much “woo” Captain Legh pitched in that Rolls to make it so memorable! Quite an omission for a man who was the dictionary definition of the stiff upper-lip.

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Joey and Sarah later in life.

It is Joey’s very frank remarks on his boss–the future Edward VIII–that make it worth reading thru all the vapid diary entries on which of the many men in love with her Sarah should accept. He also has absolutely no love what-so-ever for Lord Louis Mountbatten (as he was back then) better known to viewers of Netflix The Crown as Prince Philip’s maternal Uncle Dickie:

“Mountbatten is distinctly on the fresh side. He is very noisy and, although a good fellow at heart, is very youn g[twenty] and will have to be kept in his place.”

Few, if any, managed the feat of keeping Dickie “in his place.” His “fresh” conduct became so bad that both he and the Prince of Wales had to have a telling off by the staff to return them to conduct becoming of gentlemen. I’ve read Dickie’s laborously boring diaries of those tours. How Joey and the other members of the Suite kept themselves from homicide, suicide or alcoholism is beyond me.

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Lord Louis Mountbatten and the Prince of Wales in a canvans swimming pool on board their ship on a royal tour.

By far the most interesting part of this story is that Sarah’s sons by her first marriage, Tom and Freddy, failed to produce sufficient male heirs to the Shaughnessy Barony. So, in a Downton Abbey-like scene, The Nanny star, actor Charles Shaugnessy, succeeded to the title well after this book was published. Yes, “Mr. Sheffield” became a real Lord and finally outranked Lord Lloyd-Webber!

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Sarah: Letters and Diaries of A Courtier’s Wife 1906-1936

Rating

2.5

For a better perspective on all of this read

 

Tommy

King’s Counselor: Abdication and War by Sir Alan “Tommy” Lascelles

 

P.S. This review is nearly as long as the book!

 

 

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