William Kuhn on ’Mrs. Queen Takes the Train’
Boston-based author William Kuhn took the lectern in the ground floor level events room at the Boston Athenæum recently to deliver a talk and reading from his first novel, "Mrs. Queen Takes the Train." It was an appropriate venue, and an appreciative audience; the Athenæum is one of the nation’s finest, and oldest, private libraries, located only two blocks from the Massachusetts State House.
Kuhn regaled his audience with the story of how he came to write his debut novel, which follows the publication of several well-regarded non-fiction books. Among Kuhn’s corpus of work: "Henry and Mary Ponsonby," a biographical volume about two courtiers in the court of Queen Victoria, and "The Politics of Pleasure," a biography of Benjamin Disraeli, whom Kuhn has noted was "Britain’s most royalist Prime Minister, and "Democratic Royalism." The Disraeli book charts the transformation of British politics to its modern form.
Kuhn has also written about American royalty in his unusually themed biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; "Reading Jackie" is a look at the former First Lady through the books in her life, both the books she read and collected for her personal library and the books she commissioned and edited for publishing houses Viking and Doubleday.
Kuhn recalled for his audience how the seeds for his first novel were planted even as he was researching the Ponsonbys at the royal archives at Windsor Castle. Gaining access to the archives was not an overnight process; it entailed surmounting what Kuhn called "the stiffest letter I’ve ever received" in response to his request to access the archive’s materials. By stiffest, Kuhn meant both the paper on which the missive was written, and its tone; the letter’s content was arch and, to American ears, more than slightly condescending.
All the same, Kuhn eventually made his way into the archive, where he was pleased to find the staff were warm and personable. At one point, Prince Edward even showed up to do a bit of research relating to a film he was helping produce; the prince "washed his own cup" at teatime, Kuhn recollected.
The young writer soon notice that it wasn’t just the staff of the archives that were ordinary people working in an extraordinary setting. He had the chance, here and again, to observe ladies in waiting and others belonging to the Queen’s household. Rather than riding in limousines, the ladies in waiting "drove dented economy cars," Kuhn recalled. This got him to wondering: Who were these people, many of them from good families with diminished resources, who helped to run the royal family’s daily lives and the residences in which they took place?
"I was, of course, fascinated by the papers they were showing me about Queen Victoria, and the questions I was asking about the 19th century monarchy," Kuhn told me during an interview that took place in one of the Athenaeum’s meeting rooms, a large chamber with an imposing, polished table and comfortable chairs. "But all around me there was an unusual life going on" as contemporary people clocked in each day for work in a place, and a social system, rooted in an earlier time.
Other seeds were planted in the form of the security guard, attired in an archaic red uniform, who initially intimidated the writer but who eventually gained enough of a familiarity with him to ask Kuhn to sponsor him on his "Fun Run" for charity.
"They were human beings just like you’d meet anywhere else, which shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it did," Kuhn recollected. "Here was this human life underneath the surface of all these traditional uniforms, this highly ritualized life, and the Queen sometimes being in residence at Windsor Castle. I was fascinated at modern life going on in the midst of this antique institution."
Never Too Late for Adventure
Years later, the story has crystallized and become Kuhn’s new book, a sprightly tale that finds a somewhat depressed Queen Elizabeth inadvertently taking leave of Buckingham Palace and deciding, off the cuff, to hop a train to Scotland, where her beloved yacht, the Britannia, is moored.
EDGE tells Kuhn that his new novel is reminiscent of "Mrs. ’Arris Goes to Paris," a 1958 Paul Gallico romp in which an elderly char woman leaves her humble home in London and heads off to Paris to buy a Dior gown. In this case, the social status of the main character is quite different, but the idea of venturing outside one’s usual confines and habits is much the same.
"I think the story we can identify with more easily is the humble person being in very grand circumstances, like that episode of "I Love Lucy" where Lucy and Ethel go into this fancy dress shop in Hollywood," Kuhn mulled. "Lucy gets her hand caught inside the sleeve of some expensive dress looking for a price tag that isn’t there.
"I thought it would be find to imagine the reverse: Just like Marie Antoinette used to fantasize about being a shepherd, I wonder if the Queen ever fantasizes about being on a public bus or train. I think we all dream about some life that is very foreign from ours, and being on a public train has got to be foreign for the Queen of England.
"It’s about her being in a foreign setting," Kuhn continued, "but it’s also about the people who work for her, living in modern Britain, which in many ways is as egalitarian as we are, especially in their politics.
"What do contemporary people make of working in that system, which still has vestiges of a mediaeval social order where you bow to the Queen just like you bow to the host inside a church? Who else to do you bow to, except maybe the Pope? And a lot of British people won’t do it any more."