“Royal upbringings can be very damaging if they make royalty seem remote from the people, who hate arrogance and entitled behaviour,” Holden says. “Crawfie felt that Lilibet and Margaret were living a formal, sequestered, Victorian life which had no place in the modern world. She thought this wasn’t good for them either personally, as people, or practically, as members of the ruling family. And so she took them out of the palace and showed them how ordinary folk lived. She encouraged their humour, their creativity and their sense of adventure, all of which were being utterly suppressed when she arrived.”
Thanks in no small part to Crawfie, a woman whose name Holden says is still synonymous with betrayal in royal circles, that worried, vulnerable child was able to weather some of the most seismic years in her nation’s history. “Crawfie steered them through the abdication, the unexpected coronation of their parents, and the whole of World War Two. While this was all very dramatic and brilliant to fictionalise, it must have been very frightening and confusing at the time.”
Holden’s novels have sold more than three million copies globally but The Governess is her first foray into historical fiction. Though she immersed herself in the period, raiding her nearest second-hand bookseller for out-of-print books collected by local monarchists, her own imagination, she says, was her most important source of all. Allowing herself the freedom to invent was what McHugh, who has behind her a 30-year career in journalism, found hardest. Her novel, A Most English Princess, dramatises the life and turbulent times of Queen Victoria’s eldest child, the Princess Royal known as Vicky, a pawn in international politics who was married off to a German prince and gave birth to the future Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who in turn plunged his nation into World War One.
Leap of empathy
“I fretted over authenticity,” says McHugh, who lives in Connecticut but was born in London, and whose British great-grandfather once drove Vicky’s son and brother, King Edward VII, on part of their journey to Osborne House, the Royals’ Isle of Wight residence. “How could I ever imagine, accurately, what it was like to be a princess, and then a German Empress, and then a bereft widow, living in a huge castle, despised by one’s son?”