In October 1966, Georgette Heyer was in the middle of packing up her apartment in Albany, when the telephone rang. Extracting herself from the piles of books, reams of wrapping paper and the kind of chaos inevitable when moving house, she picked up the receiver. A man’s voice asked if she would speak to Sir Mark Milbank. Georgette was instantly on her guard, for her latest novel, Black Sheep, had just been published and she had been besieged by reporters calling her asking for an interview. In icy tones she said crisply, “Who is Sir Mark?” Undeterred by the frosty reception, her caller said in starchy tones: “I am speaking from Buckingham Palace”.
Rocked off her balance
Rocked off her balance, Georgette said weakly that she would, of course, speak to Sir Mark. He came on the line, explained that he was the Master of the Household at Buckingham Palace, and had rung to ask Miss Heyer if she would like to lunch with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on Thursday November 3rd. She warmed to Sir Mark from the outset for he told her that he knew she loathed any sort of publicity and assured her that the occasion would be quite informal with “Corgis jumping all over the place”. The remark was guaranteed to amuse her and being familiar with dogs and their antics, Georgette decided that there was no need for her to rush off and “buy, in a hurry, a snazzy new outfit”!. Sir Mark also passed on the gratifying information that, “We are all madly keen on your books here”. Georgette, fa little overwhelmed by the discovery that Queen Elizabeth ranked among her readers, replied meekly that she “would be honoured” to lunch with Her Majesty. She did feel honoured and she later described Sir Mark as “a poppet”.
Through the Palace gates
Two weeks later, beautifully dressed, her hair elegantly coiffed, wearing gloves and with her handbag on her arm, Georgette Heyer walked down the front steps of Albany to where Ronald’s Rolls-Royce stood in the cobbled courtyard. The chauffeur, hired from Harrods, opened the door and ushered Miss Heyer into the rear passenger seat. It was not a long drive from Piccadilly to Buckingham Palace but Georgette was actually a little nervous as the car approached the Palace gates. The chauffeur, however, knew no such agitation and, revelling in the moment, greeted the policeman on duty in lofty tones. “Miss Georgette Heyer to lunch with her Majesty!” he announced. The officer bowed and stepped back, the chauffeur, visibly at bursting point, inclined his head graciously and the Rolls swept on through the Palace gates, across the courtyard to the door where a footman waited to see Miss Heyer from the car.
“A merry twinkle”
A footman in scarlet livery led Georgette to an elegantly-appointed room where she found eleven other guests. To her great surprise, they were all men and she the only female! She was offered a sherry or a cocktail and when all were assembled, Sir Mark introduced everyone and showed them where they would each sit at table. After some desultory conversation among the guests, a courtier came in and whispered to Sir Mark that Her Majesty was on her way. He instantly marshalled the assembled company into “a serried rank” near the main doors, the footmen threw open the doors and Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phiip entered. They shook hands with everyone, Georgette accomplished a brief curtsey, and the Royal couple joined in the drinking party. Sir Mark, eager to make Georgette feel welcome, thrust her into the group around the Queen. Having been warned by her friend Carola Oman that “Royals are frightened of Inkies”, Georgette discerned a certain wariness in Her Majesty’s eye and “realized that she was scared stiff” of her literary guest: “She kept on stealing sidelong looks at me, & blushing pink whenever I happened to catch her eye”. It did not take long, however, for Miss Heyer to also discover that her Sovereign had “a merry twinkle and quite a lively sense of the ridiculous” and that her natural speaking voice was charming and not nearly so stiff and formal as the one heard on the radio.
After about ten minutes of conversation, the scarlet-liveried footmen once again flung open the double doors and three Corgis rushed into the room. They hurled themselves upon the Queen, before romping about the room playing catch-as-catch-can among the guests. Her Majesty apologised for their energetic behaviour, but as a dog-lover herself, Georgette was amused to see such antics. She was even more amused to learn that the Corgis had been out that morning with the Queen’s youngest, Prince Edward, and had naturally gone into the lake which Her Majesty explained was “Filthy Muddy!” They had been bathed, of course, but Georgette thought the episode “added a cosy touch!”
The Queen was a gracious host and Georgette discerned a “merry twinkle”.
Photo by Oliver Atkins
But Georgette was a little taken aback by A “very conversible” Prince
With drinks over, their guests followed the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to the table where Georgette was seated at the Duke’s right hand. She was not inclined to like him, but felt compelled to admit that he was “very conversible” and charming. They talked of things they enjoyed in common such as the Western Highlands, Public Schools and in particular his alma mater, Gordonstoun, as well as athleticism and what Georgette described as “the Deadliness of Race Meetings”. He was an attentive host, turning his back on his left hand guest and speaking only to Georgette for the first two courses. These consisted of fillets of sole in a rich sauce, followed by Supreme de Volailles (also with a rich sauce) served with celery au gratin, courgettes, new potatoes and, to Georgette’s disgust, sprouts! At the end of these two courses, Prince Philip, apparently feeling that he had done his duty by Georgette, turned his back on her and for the remainder of the lunch devoted himself entirely to his left-hand guest. Having been brought up “NEVER to slew around in my chair at a dinner-party” Georgette was rather taken aback by what she deemed a lapse of manners and was pleased to see that the Queen had also been brought up in a similar fashion to her guest’s. For the remainder of the meal (sponge-pudding with cream, cheese, white grapes and fruit) she enjoyed conversing with her other neighbour, the Headmaster of Malvern College.
Georgette looking elegant in the sort of outfit she might have worn to lunch with the Queen.
“A certain air of unreality”
After lunch was over, the entire party returned to the reception room for coffee and liqueurs – though no one touched the latter. A little after half-past two, the Queen and Prince Philip bade farewell to their guests. The Queen shook hands with Georgette and said with a slight stammer, “So p–pleased! M–meeting you f–face to f–face! Goodbye!” Neither she nor Prince Philip had mentioned Georgette’s books, an omission for which she was thankful, though also a little odd, until Ronald pointed out that they had probably been advised that Miss Heyer hated taling about her novels. She had looked forward to lunch with the Queen with decidedly mixed feelings telling friends that “I’ve been to a couple of Garden Parties, but they are Different!” In the end she found it all very easy and also very funny.
There was a certain air of unreality about it, which came over me when I sat down at table. Well, I ask you, Enid! It is one thing to do a bob at a Garden Party, & quite another to find yourself chatting to Prince P., sitting almost opposite the Queen, & eating off glass plates which have the Royal Arms, in pale gold, all over their centres! I could only feel like the old woman in the nursery rhyme, “Lawks-a-mussy on me, this is none of I!” Ronald, of course, is in a state of euphoria about the whole thing, but I think it would have been more to the point if he had been invited! He does far more for the Queen than I shall ever do, & is much worthier of the honour.Georgette Heyer to Enid Chasemore, letter, 6 November 1966
A day or two after this memorable lunch the Queen visited Harrods’s book department and bought twelve copies of Georgette’s novel, Frederica. She told the manager, Miss Lindsay, that she had entertained Miss Heyer to lunch and that “She’s a formidable woman”. Hugely entertained by Miss Lindsay’s account when a few days later she also visited Harrods, Georgette regaled her publisher, Max Reinhardt, with the story and concluded by demanding “I’m not formidable! Am I formidable, Max?” She was formidable, but so was the Queen and perceptive too.
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