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One of my favourite authors has written Before the Crown, the wartime love story between a very young Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, RN.
I asked Flora Harding to tell me about it.
Sophie I say a very young Princess Elizabeth. But actually she and Prince Philip must have known each other all their lives. Weren’t they related?
FLORA Yes, they’re both directly descended from Queen Victoria and part of an extended network of royal relatives. They would have come across each other at odd family occasions like weddings or George VI’s Coronation.
But there was a five-year age gap. They don’t seem to have had much to do with each other until the famous encounter in 1939.
Philip, then a naval cadet, entertained the two young princesses while their parents were at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.
Philip, on the other hand, was 18, very good-looking and a bit of a show off, by all accounts.
It’s not hard to imagine a young girl being dazzled by his confidence and glamour.
They met again two years later and started to write to each other. But it wasn’t until Elizabeth was 17 that the relationship seems to have deepened.
Where to Start
Sophie How did you decide where to start your story?
FLORA Before the Crown is the story of their romance and, as with any story, I wanted to start at the point where things changed. This seems to have been Christmas 1943, when Philip was invited to spend Christmas at Windsor Castle.
Elizabeth, now 17, was playing Aladdin in the Christmas pantomime and dressed in a revealing costume that showed off her legs.
Philip, on shore leave, was, I think, under some pressure from his uncle. Dickie Mountbatten wanted him to build on the rather bland correspondence and fix his interest with the Princess. Since she had now, it seemed, grown up …
Princess in a Cocoon
Sophie Wow, that’s a cracking start to a story. And every little girl dreams of being a princess. How difficult was it to get under your heroine’s skin?
FLORA For someone who was to become one of the wealthiest and most famous women in the world, Elizabeth’s options were desperately limited by tradition and protocol.
So getting under Elizabeth’s skin meant putting the princess aside.
Instead, I had to think as I would about any character: what is it that makes them the way they are and act the way they do? Like most people, Elizabeth is shaped by her childhood experiences and background.
Although she is part of a close and happy family, she has a very isolated upbringing with her sister.
This was particularly true during the war, when the two of them are cocooned – literally in a tower – at Windsor Castle. She is shy and learns an early lesson in duty when her parents ostracise her favourite uncle David (Edward VIII) after his abdication: not doing your duty means your family close ranks against you.
A Handsome Prince but…
Sophie From my family’s wartime stories, I have the impression that male superiority was pretty much a given in most households at the time. How did that affect your hero? And heroine?
FLORA There’s no doubt that Philip was a product of his age. He’s an alpha male, the adored last-born and only son after four girls. He reminds me of my own father, part of that brave generation that fought in the war who believed absolutely in the principles of honour and integrity
His background makes him extraordinarily self-reliant and he thrives on challenge.
The war offers him a chance to belong and when it is over, he is left searching for an outlet for his restless energy.
Surrounded as she is by deferential courtiers, Philip’s impatience with protocol is very appealing to Elizabeth. He’s different from anyone else she has ever met and he brings with him a world of experiences that she has never had. She leaves the country for the first time at 20, on a royal visit to South Africa, while Philip has spent his childhood criss-crossing the Continent and, during the war, visits Ceylon, Australia, South Africa and the US.
Not One of Us Before the Crown
It’s easy to see why he appeals to Elizabeth but the royal household is less impressed.
Philip might be a prince, but he’s a foreigner, and his family are closely associated with Germany – all four of his sisters married German princes who became SS officers. His left-leaning Mountbatten uncles with their sexually adventurous wives are viewed with almost as much suspicion.
When Philip was nine, his mother was placed in a sanatorium against her will. For the next five years he had no contact with her at all. His sisters married, his father went to live in the South of France and Philip became effectively homeless.
Worse, Philip is sent to Gordonstoun rather than Eton. He’s not ‘one of us’. He turns up at Balmoral without pyjamas or proper shooting gear.
And he wears an ill-fitting dinner jacket borrowed from his Uncle Dickie. That goes down extremely badly with the King.
Fact, Fiction and Plot in Before the Crown
Sophie In Lucilla Andrews’ wartime love story Frontline 1940, the hero and heroine are apart much of the book because of their wartime responsibilities. Did you find that a problem when plotting your story?
Then I alternated scenes with their different points of view.
I did wonder before I started how much I would need to make up for the story to work, but there is so much material that in the event, I only invented two scenes for the purposes of the plot, one at the beginning of the book and one towards the end.
I’ve woven as much detail about the world they inhabit into the story to allow readers a sense of peeking behind the scenes. Fortunately, there’s a lot of material about what Windsor Castle was like during the war, about Buckingham Palace. Balmoral, too with its excess of tartan and delicious high teas. Even about the decoration of the cabins on HMS Vanguard which took the royal family to South Africa in 1947!
We even know from diaries or letters exactly what was said or worn on some occasions. While I’ve done my best not to overload the story with research (always a temptation for historical fiction writers!) I enjoyed the challenge of interweaving fact and fiction so that readers won’t – I hope – be able to tell the difference.
And then there’s The Crown
Sophie Of, course, the Netflix series The Crown has been hugely successful and will have fuelled interest in your heroine. Did you find the series constrained your story?
In practical terms, the series opens on the day before Elizabeth and Philip’s wedding in November 1947 and focuses on the events that made Elizabeth Queen. Whereas Before the Crown looks at how their relationship developed and it ends at the wedding.
I thought Clare Foy and Matt Smith were brilliant. While I was writing, I often imagined a scene with the two of them, most particularly the distinctive way Clare Foy said ‘Philip’! I owe a lot to her portrayal of Elizabeth, with that reticence, that ‘held in’ quality, but also the warmth and humanity behind the famous façade.
I’ve tried to show Elizabeth and Philip as individuals. While notions like ‘duty’ may be unfashionable today, their motivations are, I think, very human ones. Like everyone else, they are shaped by their experiences of childhood and family. Feelings of frustration and uncertainty, of being torn between what you should do and what you want to do, of loving but not being sure that you are loved back … I think most of us can relate to that!
FLORA After a haphazard early career spent working and travelling around the world, I first started writing to fund a part-time PhD on the streets of Elizabethan York, research which left me with an enduring fascination with the connections between the past and the present.
I still live in York, where I now juggle five separate writing identities and indulge my always itchy feet and my yearning for open horizons by escaping whenever I can to walk on the North York Moors.
Find me on Twitter @AuthorFlora.