The King’s Speech and The Revenge of Metaphor

There was a remarkable showing of blue in the theatre this week when I saw The King’s Speech, which is why I begin with remarking it. It indicates that most of this audience would have been alive in 1936, when Albert Frederick Arthur George Windsor assumed the throne of the United Kingdom, just abdicated by his brother, thereby becoming King George VI.

Among the details of lesser interest in this man’s life, for me, is the speech impediment. More compelling are the facts that the reign of George VI coincided with the ascendance of national-socialism and the dissolution of the Empire, his rule over India and Ireland ending in 1948 and 1949, respectively. The age of George VI accomplished a geopolitical passage from Dominion into Commonwealth, repelling along the way the core Fascist proposition, that the most fitting condition for the world’s peoples (those allowed to survive) is enslavement to the Master Race. Since at least the days of George V and Prime Minister Asquith, who is great-grandfather of the semi blue-blooded Helena Bonham Carter, the will and sentiments of The People had become matters of growing and irreversible political force. Roger Fulford describes the change as follows, in his book Hanover to Windsor:

The old conception of royalty as a closed corporation — that circle in which the King’s father [Edward VII] had moved so easily and resplendently — was shattered. As a result of a very silly outcry — largely engineered from Fleet Street — the King abandoned his German titles and name [Wettin] in 1917. The House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha became Windsor. A Bavarian nobleman of the old regime has observed wittily enough: “The true royal tradition died on that day in 1917 when, for a mere war, King George V changed his name.”

The “mere war” bit is an irony to you and me, comrade, but not to the upper crust of the old regime: and that is the whole point. Fulford notes, on the question of “whether the ancient British throne was in keeping with the spirits of the times” that “The King and his immediate advisers seem to have decided that to meet the challenge of the new world the King and the Royal Family must increasingly display themselves throughout the country and the Empire.” One cannot overstate the importance of these matters, the defeat of German fascism and the rise of anti-colonialism and populism and so forth, against which the overcoming of a stutter does seem rather a small, parochial concern.

The success of The King’s Speech requires, however, that this concern does matter. We are to understand that the speech impediment is a metaphor, representing all insecurities and the necessity of overcoming them to achieve personal and collective greatness. (In Britain this would perhaps be overstating the point, since one’s speech, and in particular one’s accent, is all-important and therefore broadly indicative of one’s prospects.) The chief accomplishment of Colin Firth’s performance as the King seems to me to be a “humanizing” not only of George VI but of the class of persons denoted Royalty. Among those who have seen the movie, you may discover a consensus that this humanizing is a good thing, whatever that means. However, and keeping with the theme of insecurity, this sort of treatment only exacerbates the principal modern threat to the Monarchy: the advancement of just-folks democratic solidarity. The security of the British institutions of hereditary succession and privilege has required the cultivation of a lie, that They are not like Us. They are human, to be sure, but nonetheless a species apart. As the character of George V states in one scene, the development of radio has reduced the Monarch to a mere actor, that is, someone who must ingratiate himself with an audience. To do so, and one must do so, is to undermine the required apart-ness. Among the ways this apartness has been maintained is an interdiction against representing the private lives of the Royals in the public domain. The point is emphatically not to humanize oneself.

Here arrives the revenge of metaphor. This movie’s theme of “finding one’s voice” may be, and often is, applied to the signature twentieth century struggle of colonized peoples against Empire, which is also necessarily a struggle against the very idea of Kings and Aristocracy and the divisions of persons into privilege-based classes. The 1915 suicide of Haitian poet, Edmond Laforest — who bound to himself the Larousse French dictionary and then jumped from a bridge — underscores both the literal and metaphorical crimes of appropriating or silencing the voice of another. A movie which lays bare, and which glosses by quasi-Freudian means, the all-too-human abuses inflicted upon consanguinity, has certain in-built politics. The Duke of York for example is less of a special case if it happens that he was forced to use his right hand instead of his left, and was psychologically damaged as a consequence. I am left-handed myself, so this example has a particular force, but you may well choose another. My point is that it is difficult to go on believing in the essentially conservative idea of nobility when you have regarded the dripping underpants of the Prince, much like your own, hanging upon the line.

It may be that just this sort of sympathetic treatment will finish the Monarchy. In any case, it does have a mild subversive effect. Taking myself as an example, I regard Kings and Queens and the Peerage in general as so much wicked nonsense. There is no place for any of this balderdash in the contemporary world or in the future, in my judgement. Yet I can see that many people want the British Monarchy to continue, and far from being an argument against it, the anachronism of the whole enterprise is on the contrary one of the points — perhaps the chief point — marshalled in its defense. This is what I have in mind when I speak of the essentially conservative idea of nobility. One who argues on behalf of the institution of the Queen, etc. is attempting to conserve things which would not survive under ordinary economic, social, and political pressures, but which are sustained mostly I suspect through deference to sentiment and aesthetic interests. Not all defenders of the aristocracy have blue hair, but many of them do. Their attachment to George VI, which is also an attachment to their youth and to a time of extraordinary importance, is understandable — even if I am quite unable to share it.

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