Monday, 16 November 2015
Skeleton-in-Waiting by Peter Dickinson
[Princess Louise is visiting her grandmother’s former lady-in-waiting when she first meets Mrs Walsh]
The strange woman turned at the voice, acknowledging for the first time that there might be someone else in the lobby. Her movement and attitude, as much as the face that now came into view, revealed the cause of Aunt Bea’s behaviour, which Louise had taken for characteristic fluster at finding a different caller on her doormat from the one she’d been told to expect. There was more to it than that. In this dim light, and seen with Aunt Bea’s vague vision, the woman was Granny.
The moment you looked at her properly, of course, she wasn’t. Granny wouldn’t have used a stick or worn a neat grey suit with a matching toque. The large brooch in the toque would have been more her line, if the diamonds were real. You couldn’t imagine this woman flinging an arm out in one of Granny’s whirling gestures, or calling you by absurd and largely invented Russian-sounding endearments, but she stood as straight and carried her head with the same challenge. Her face was from the same mould.
commentary: This is the follow-up to the same author’s King and Joker, which I very much enjoyed recently: both books feature an alt-history view of the British Royal Family, and a different line of descent. King Victor and Queen Isabelle now reign, with their two children Prince Albert and Princess Louise – she is our point of entry into the books. More in the previous entry.
Although very much about the same people, this is a totally different book. There is a lot more connection with the actual time it was written – Mrs Thatcher and the Falklands and the IRA well to the fore. Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery – who set me on this track – didn’t like this one, but I liked it at least as much; it made more sense to me as a mystery and as a satirical picture of the UK. I liked the idea of investigating an old Romanov family, a history of the lost Royals of Central Europe. There was one plot shard which, weirdly, seemed so identical to the first one that I thought it couldn’t be right, but there it was. But I still enjoyed the characters and the gentle unravelling of Mrs Walsh’s story.
When it was published, Princess Diana was still apparently happily married to Prince Charles and – disregarding tabloid exaggerations – we commoners didn’t know there was anything wrong in the relationship. Reading this book is quite startling: no character is exactly Princess Di, but you would certainly say that Dickinson knew some real insider gossip…. Mind you, I don’t agree with his contention that the mothers of the UK would be influenced in their child-rearing practices by any Princess and her ways. And the book reminded me (tangentially) of one of the things that puzzles me: Diana was one of the most loved, most popular and most famous figures of the past 40 years. So where are all the young Dianas named after her? It’s not a name you come across often at all – the Louise of this book is a far more common name I would say – which somehow seems quite surprising.
I loved Louise’s lady-in-waiting Carrie: ‘street-cred accent, Laura Ashley clothes, cynico-anarchist politics, Filofax-organised days.’ I think we all knew her in London in the 1980s. And I liked the King’s theory that there always had to be a UMRF – Unpopular Member of the Royal Family – so when the current UMRF died, another one needed to be found.
Special Bizarre Theory probably only of interest to other Dickinson fans: I do like these books, and I don’t know if it’s my anti-Royalist sentiments that hold me back from the strongest praise. Dickinson specializes in getting inside the heads of his characters – he tries to describe their flow of thoughts in a remarkable and most unusual way. He puts thoughts and random decisions and observations into his books, which in most literary works would be the actual thoughts of the writer (not sure I’m explaining this very well), and they usually have a great ring of authenticity for the character. But then you know that he never was a Royal Princess in her 20s, so it IS a feat of imagination. So to make a comparison: I love and revere the Bridget Jones books, but the author was a woman of similar age who had lived that life, so they are an achievement in many ways, but not as an outstanding feat of imagination. But Peter Dickinson you could imagine writing a Jones-esque book just out of his head.
So I think my problem with these books is that he’s wasting his time doing this: he should have either done a much denser and longer series of books on this theme – he obviously had his alternate history ready in his head, the detail is astonishing - or spent more of his time on one of his other projects, eg imagining what it would be like to be a young woman who has changed her species (to take an actual example from his oeuvre).
Love to hear what any other Dickinson fans think.
The top picture is Grand Duchess Xenia, sister of the last Tsar of Russia. The lower one is Grand Duchess Tatiana, a Romanov daughter who died in the Russian Revolution.