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."
Monarch and Melancholia
If the Queen of Kuhn’s imagination is a little sad, it’s understandable. She’s entered her ninth decade of life, her children’s marriages have collapsed, and her own marriage, while functional and satisfactory, has never been a grand passion. Indeed, her entire life has been scheduled, approved monitored, and orchestrated down to the minute for far too long.
Events of the not-so-distant past also weigh on her. In the 1990s Buckingham Palace burned, and then there was that dreadful business with Diana. The new century brought the death of the Queen Mother, and a sharpening of the general sense that the monarchy has been sliding into irrelevancy... a process that has chipped away at the comforts the Queen has long enjoyed, such as her beloved Britannia.
A little adventure outside the walls of her royal residence might do her good, and if Her Majesty happens to have hit upon an ideal disguise in a borrowed hoodie with a skull emblazoned on the back... well then, so much the better.
"The Queen was born in 1926, and my father was also born in 1926," Kuhn told EDGE. "This story takes place soon after The Queen turns 80, and one of the things I observed about my father after he turned 80 was that, even though he’d had a successful career and he had enough money to retire on and he was living very comfortably and driving around in his own car, he began to experience depression more. I think that was because after 80 your body breaks down more; it’s hard to keep up enthusiastically with politics or things in the media, or deal with things like computers."
Naturally, the first thing the staff at Buckingham Palace wonder is whether Her Majesty might not have gone a bit barmy. But senile dementia is only one possibility, and rather an extreme one at that, Kuhn noted. "Even if you don’t have dementia, you begin to feel out of it. The idea for the Queen turning 80 and being a little saddened by that was something I had seen from somebody who is her exact age.
"On top of that, I would say that most of the people I know of who have met the Queen or had something to do with her talk about her shyness, talk about her inability to connect in a very warm way," added the newly minted novelist.
"I started to think of that as possibly an outcome of some kind of depression. That’s why the book begins with her being kind of discomfited by her computer, her relationship with the Prime Minister, her own sense that she can’t control the history of the Monarchy even though she’s devoted her life to it -- and she’s losing a major perk or two, including one that she was really attached to," namely, the use of Britannia.
"You sort of feel, ’Oh, how can you feel sorry for the Queen because she’s lost her yacht? Here’s a woman of incredible privilege,’ " Kuhn allowed. "But I saw a picture of her at the decommissioning of the royal yacht, and you can see on her face that she’s struggling to control herself. She’s sad about it. I think any time you see another human being trying to control sadness, you have some kind of fellow feeling for them. That was one of the kernels for the story."
Birds of a Feather
One crucial element of the story turns out to be a hunk of cheddar cheese of a sort available (in the novel) only at a (real life) store located nearby. Her Majesty’s impromptu adventure takes her to the shop, where she meets Rajiv, a young man who, coincidentally, is a paparazzo responsible for some of the most unguarded photos of the Queen to hit the tabloids in recent years.
Though he’s lived in England his entire life, as have his parents before him, and he sees himself as English through and through, Rajiv must tolerate racism and epithets on a daily basis. But neither his status as a racial minority nor his background as a freelance photographer matters when Rajiv’s path crosses that of the Queen; Rajiv instantly assigns to himself the role of protector to Her Majesty.
As it happens, Rajiv is passionately in love with Rebecca, one of the stable hands at the royal mews. (It’s the Queen’s favorite horse that loves the special cheddar she’s seeking.) Rebecca regards Rajiv with suspicion -- she’s had bad experience with men before, and generally gets along better with horses than people anyway -- but when she realizes that she’s accidentally played a part in the Queen’s flight from the palace, Rebecca joins forces with Rajiv to look out for the monarch and, if possible, gently guide her home.
Rajiv and Rebecca are not the only pair to be brought together by Queen Elizabeth’s wanderlust. Shirley, the Queen’s Dresser, and Lady Anne, Her Majesty’s Lady in Waiting, have long been at odds (there’s more than a touch of antiquated class consciousness in the palace’s inner workings), but the two women put their differences aside in order to help with the search. In so doing, they discover the many points they have in common.
"Each of those couples are in some awkward way trying to form a relationship with one another," Kuhn explained. "In the case of Rebecca and Rajiv, it’s a conventional romance; they are two young people who you’d expect to be trying to get together. But Lady Anne and Shirley are [a different story]. One is in her 60s, the other is in her 70s, and they are in different social strata; why would these two women want to form a relationship?
My Heart’s Tonight in... Scotland?
"Some of this comes from a friend of mine who retired from the British Foreign office, the equivalent of our State Department," Kuhn revealed.
"He retired onto a corner of the Balmoral Estate, where he owns property. So you can see Prince Charles’ place two miles in the distance, and the Queen sometimes drives by his place. He is, himself, from a working class background, and he knows some of the retired servants who live around there, and he tells me the most amazing stories.
"Most of them are quite guarded about what they’ll talk about," Kuhn said of royal staffers, "but they will talk about mending sheets and having these embroidered emblems on the sheets from the different reigns, and the retired ladies’ great pride in taking care of these things.
"They didn’t think of this as menial labor; they thought of it something to be very proud of, and they invested some bit of themselves in mending those sheets and having them starched and folded in such-and-such a way. Hearing these stories about the ladies who were retired on the Balmoral Estate gave me some of my ideas for Shirley."
There’s one more couple on the Queen’s trail: William, who serves as Her Majesty’s butler, and a new equerry named Luke, freshly returned from service in Iraq where his closest male companion (an American, no less) lost his life.
William is openly gay, though too busy for romance; Luke isn’t as yet willing to label himself as gay, but the loss of Andrew, his American mate, has knocked him off his emotional center. The two men have more differences than commonalities (indeed, William is closer to Shirley than to anybody else in the royal household), but they quickly find that they work well together in a crisis.
"I let a British former boyfriend of mine read this book. He doesn’t really like the monarchy, but he said, ’I’ll read it juts to make sure you got the British stuff right.’ The first thing he did was send me back an email saying, ’You’re in love with Luke, aren’t you?’ " Kuhn related, laughing heartily.
For Queen and Country
Luke, he added, was modeled on the surge of young men who "in the wake of 9/11 wanted to do something patriotic for their country, so they joined up with the Army and quickly found themselves sent to the Middle East in a way that they didn’t anticipate.
"Luke is a career officer in the British Army, so he could have anticipated being sent to Iraq," the writer said. "While he’s out there, he meets somebody who’s very different from him, but they are thrown together and they have to work together. I have never met anybody like Luke, but I have met some of his American equivalents.
"William the butler becomes romantically interested in Luke, but he can’t really allow himself to admit to it," Kuhn continued. "He’s older than Luke, he comes from a different stratum inside the palace. There are pretty clear lines there, and you don’t cross them.
"William, if anything, is somebody who would be more like me in that he sees Luke from a distance and he would be more comfortable having to deal with Luke from a distance rather than having to work together one on one. It’s hard for William when here’s the hunky major, decorated for service abroad, and he has to work with him while being attracted to him at the same time."
Getting A ’Reading’ on His Subjects
The challenges and joys of writing this fictional adventure were only complicated by the fact that the novel, while entirely the product of Kuhn’s imagination, features as its protagonist a real, and world-famous, personality. As it happened, Kuhn told EDGE, the novel grew out of his experience writing the biographical look at Jackie Kennedy Onassis and the books in her life.
"The editor for the Jackie O book was Nan Talese, who is quite a senior, regal figure in the world of New York publishing," Kuhn told EDGE. "Nan was a great editor, and she would occasionally point out places in my Jackie O text where she’d say, ’Look, I think it’s too much of a leap here; you can’t really say that Jackie was thinking this because she edited that book.’
"I felt that I had an intuition about what Jackie was thinking, because I had spent some years reading her books and talking to her authors," Kuhn continued.
"I think Nan was right when she would say, ’You’ve got to take that out,’ but I was also slightly miffed. I thought, ’Hey, if I were writing a novel, the editor couldn’t say you don’t know what the character is thinking, because you do know what she’s thinking -- you’re making it up!’ "
Kuhn was confident from the first that he knew his subject well enough to build a fictional adventure around her. "I had read so much about the current Queen, and so much about the modern monarchy, that it was just kind of in the back of my mind. I assume there is a whole section... not every gay man in America, but there’s a whole section of gay men in America who know the British monarchy like the back of their hand," Kuhn said, "and I’m one of them."
The book is illustrated with a number of photos that are relevant to the story. Kuhn addressed this point, saying, "I feel that we are moving to a much more visual notion of reading that, as more people read on Kindles and other electronic devices, it will be easy to have high quality images on the screen [as part of the text].
"In the past, it’s always been really expensive to have an insert of photographs on high-quality paper in a book, and the publisher doesn’t want to do that. They didn’t want to do that for this book, so the photos are printed right on the ordinary paper," Kuhn added. But so be it: "I like experimenting with the notion of having some pictures in along with the text, because I feel like reading is moving off in a direction where our experience of text will be somewhat different than it has been in the past."
The book nails the British characters not only in their manner of speech and their syntax, but in their world views and attitudes; indeed, EDGE told Kuhn, reading the book felt more than a little like being back in England and listening in on the people there.
Kuhn comes by his familiarity with the British through long association. "I first went to England when I was 11 years old, in 1968," he recalled. "I didn’t live there continuously, but I lived there for that year, and then I went back to do the research for my dissertation, and I have quite a few friends there now so I like to go and visit. I’m there pretty much once or twice a year.
"I think since British people terrified me when I was 11, they occupy a big place in my psychic attic," the writer added. "Listening to their syntax and the strange words they use, listening to things they don’t say... because lots of times an American will say something to elaborate or to fill in a space. British people often leave a silence, but it’s a meaningful silence. I’ve tried to incorporate some of that."
Downward Dog, Your Majesty?
Running throughout the story, there’s also another unexpected element: Kuhn has imagined the Queen as a practitioner of yoga. Sections of the book are even named after yoga poses.
"I went to my primary care doctor complaining about being tense," Kuhn told EDGE. "She suggested that I try yoga. In the year leading up to writing this book, I was trying yoga for the first time; so the Queen’s introduction to yoga is really my introduction to yoga," Kuhn explained chuckling. "I think it’s great. I really enjoy it. I realize that it’s maybe reached the level of a fad now, and a lot of people do it, but I was surprised at how it can calm you down and give you a sense of focus, clear out the clutter in your mind and give you the sense that you’ve done something useful with your body for an hour.
Another attractive thing about yoga: "Though it’s mainly women between the ages of 20 and 40 who come to class, at my yoga classes there were plenty of women who were 60-plus. I felt that this was a democratic form of exercises that people of all ages can do. I thought, ’Maybe the Queen could give it a try!’ "
Gardner, Sargent... Byron?
For his part, now that he’s ventured into fiction, Kuhn is ready to play a bit more in the realm of imagination. EDGE inquired about his ideas for further novels.
"I’ve got a couple of things, one of which you’ve heard a fragment from," Kuhn said.
Full disclosure time: This correspondent and Kuhn belong to the same writers’ group. The fragment in question was something Kuhn had shared with the group on a previous occasion, and it featured two other real-life figures, Isabella Stewart Garner and John Singer Sargent, mysteriously transported to the 21st century and giving their humorous, sometimes jaundiced opinions on the contemporary world.
"She’s the kind of person I’ve been interested in," Kuhn said of Gardner. "A woman in a position of privilege, and what does she do with it? In Isabella Stewart Gardner’s case, she built a museum and assembled an enormous art collection. But she also had a real galaxy of protégés, oftentimes bachelors. John Singer Sargent was the most famous of them, but there were others.
"I’m interested in the way in which neither Sargent nor Gardner had conventional families or children of their own, but who created, in one case, a collection of artworks and, in the other case, a fairly famous body of portraiture as well as wall paintings. They poured some of the energy that they might have put into raising a family [into these works]," Kuhn noted.
"Funnily enough, the thing that I found easiest and most creatively inspiring was to imagine them as living in the modern world -- somehow, as ghosts or otherwise, time traveling to the present day," Kuhn continued. Sargent died 1925, and Gardner in 1924, he added, "but I wondered, ’What would they think if they were alive today?’ That released me from all of the historical details of what actually did happen to them in their real lives, while at the same time still allowing me to look back, and explore each of them also looking back on what they had done during their lives.
"The other one is something I’ve been thinking of for a while, a young adult project for high school kids. The first subject I’ve been thinking of is Lord Byron. Here’s the interesting thing about him: All the important stuff that happened in his life happened before he was 18. He inherited a spooky castle; he became a lord; he took a bear with him to college. He fell in love. He published a first volume of poetry. Wouldn’t it be interesting to try to make Byron’s life accessible to teenagers by showing what he was doing when he was their age?"
EDGE worried that Focus on the Family would be after Kuhn in an instant were he to pen a young adult book about Byron. The prospect did not discomfit the author: "I think a lot of the spirit behind Byron’s poetry, which is a racy lack of fear and talking about love and sexuality as well as making fun of elders, a lot of that is an adolescent spirit, I would say."
"Mrs. Queen Takes the Train" is published by Harper Books. Publication Date: Oct. 16, 2012. Format: Hardcover. Pages: 384. Price: $25.99. ISBN-13: 978-0-062-208-286