Where we really do judge a book by its cover
December 21, 2006
A Royal Affair: George III and his Scandalous Siblings by Stella Tillyard, 2006, Random House, New York. 352 pages, $26.95.
There are a great many more people than you might think who spend
their days investigating, scrutinizing and critiquing the world of
royal scandal. And I'm not just talking about the allegation that
American spies bugged the late Lady Diana or the long-running
controversy over whether Camilla Parker Bowles has the face of a
quarter horse or Shetland pony. No, I'm speaking of historical scandal:
the titillating idea that King George V was a bigamist; whispers that
George I had two German mistresses; tales of Edward VIII enjoying the
ladies as much as sport or even booze.
Oh yes, there are many people who get off on that kind of filth. I'm
certainly not one of them, and neither are any friends, family members,
colleagues, mild acquaintances or strangers I happen to meet on the
street, but I've heard stories. Man, have I heard stories…
Which brings me to Stella Tillyard's hefty new tome, A Royal Affair: George III and his Scandalous Siblings.
Though the thought of wading through such a massive history book
consisting of nothing more than tawdry tales wrapped in petticoats and
powdered wigs gives me hives, I could easily see this book astride my
home or even office bookshelf.
Wrapped in one of those really nice dust jackets, the book just
screams pop history. There's a giant painting of one of those old 18th
century British guys in red coat—presumably Georgie himself—and a few
smaller images of some snooty rich people of the time. The fact that
none of those people look even remotely fetching is a sign that this is
a serious book about boring people who must have done something
important, even if that important thing was getting it on with the
One obvious problem presented itself instantly: in the cover's upper
right-hand corner is the name Stella Tillyard, the book's author. Now I
happen to know for a fact is NOT actually her real name. No sir, her
real name is DR. Stella Tillyard. With blatant fraud like that
perpetrated on the cover, how can anyone trust the contents?
Thankfully, this reviewer doesn't have to contend with whatever
might be inside the book—only the important issues of how the book
looks on a person's shelf and, most tellingly, what it says about that
Now some people perusing your bookshelf might see A Royal Affair
and sniff loudly, insinuating that it's silly for an American in the
21st century to have such a big book on something so ridiculous as a
300-year old royal scandal. To them you can laugh in their face and
read from one of the many (OK, four) extremely eloquent quotes on the
back of the book from people far smarter than you or your idiot friend.
"Elegant, intelligent, and immensely entertaining," writes Sarah Dunant, author of In the Company of the Courtesan. "When history is as colorful and compelling as this, who needs fiction?"
Who indeed. And if that doesn't work, you can always just pick up
the book and hit your friend upside the head—it's heavy and hardbound
and should at least shut him the hell up. MTW
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