My Crawfie: How I Fictionalized a Real-Life Character

Learn from historical fiction author Tessa Arlen how to take a real-life person and fictionalize them for your novel.
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In Royal Service to the Queen is the story of Marion Crawford, or Crawfie as she was known to the Duke of York’s family, when she first went to work for them in 1931 as governess-companion to the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. For the next 16 years, Crawfie was with the York family through the abdication of the playboy King Edward VIII when he abandoned the throne to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson, and the coronation of the duke when he stepped into his brother’s place as King George VI. The new Windsors were determined to do their duty even if it meant that they give up their precious private life to do so and Crawfie was with them throughout these challenging years into WWII and out the other end.

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There are countless biographies about the Windsor family voicing strong opinions on what formed them as monarchs, consorts, and heirs. Their love of field sports, stalking, and shooting. Their passion for horses and dogs. Their lack of intellectuality: show tunes over opera. Their preference for a gin and Dubonnet rather than champagne. Their love of military uniforms; stamp collecting; American divorcees; and other shenanigans. As they progressed from the 20th to the 21st century every tiny detail of their lives has been avidly broadcast from their Philip Treacy hats to a new address in Montecito, California.

There is little to nothing about their young Scots governess—except for her book The Little Princesses, and a few old photographs showing a tall, slender young woman in a much-worn suit—nothing is known. So, I was happy to make the Crawfie of In Royal Service to the Queen entirely mine!

My Crawfie was far from being a safe and predictable anchor in the life of the Windsor daughters. I am sure she was impressionable—naïve—when she first came to work for the Yorks, but I gave her a strong self-identity with the wit and intelligence to fit into the complex life of a family in transition from being merely privileged and rich to majesty.

We are told that Bertie as king might have been unsure of how a constitutional monarchy actually worked, but he was a caring and dedicated father. His unhappy childhood with a spiteful nanny and a series of bullying tutors ensured that his daughters would not be burdened by hours of classroom drudgery and treated harshly if they did not excel. Crawfie’s brief was to keep things light. The girls should be free to be children, to have fun, and live happy lives—however elusive that might prove to be.

In Royal Service to the Queen by Tessa Arlen

In Royal Service to the Queen by Tessa Arlen

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So, I made Crawfie the perfect companion: strong enough to deal with Margaret’s willful nature and playful enough to encourage Elizabeth to be not quite such a good girl. Calm in the face of the king’s gnashes, as his temper was referred to, but unfortunately too in need of approval to withstand the steely nature of Queen Elizabeth. Crawfie dreamed up exciting forays out of the palace with the girls to Woolworth’s for Christmas shopping. Trips on the underground and on double-decker buses to London’s museums and galleries. They put on plays and pantomimes and had camps and cook-outs in the palace grounds.

My Crawfie evolved from a kindly, energetic young girl in her 20s, who considered her new job with the Yorks an adventure, to a woman of resolute purpose, compassion, and perception. She exercised solid judgment in her dealing with the family, accepting their imperfections and observing with wry humor their many traits that being born into wealth, privilege, and royalty created. And she was deeply romantic, dreaming of marriage to the man she loved and passionately looking forward to her time away from duty in Scotland to be with him.

It was during the war that Crawfie came into her own. Her relationship with her widowed mother, who she financially supported, was her model for the love and affection she showed the princesses during the insecurity of the dreary war years at Windsor. She was protector and mother, teacher and friend. The Windsors might be a glittering royal family, adored and worshipped by the British people, but the unknown presence, the strength behind the scenes was a simple woman from a working-class family who put aside her personal life to raise the Windsor daughters, one of whom would become Queen of England.

My Crawfie: How I Fictionalized a Real-Life Character

With the war’s end came more change. Crawfie exhibited self-discipline and resolve when she postponed marrying her fiancé to champion 18-year-old Elizabeth when she wished to marry Philip. The queen disapproved of Philip as a husband for her daughter, her adoring father simply didn’t want her to marry—not for at least another four years!

Walking a thin line between ignoring the queen’s determination that Philip was a for a future queen and encouraging Elizabeth not to give up on him was Crawfie’s first act of real independence as she stepped out of the role of feudal family retainer.

Did the queen resent Crawfie’s silent support for Elizabeth to stick up for herself? Was it this that angered her so much that when Crawfie took yet another disobedient step and published her book about the little girls she loved with so much devotion, after her retirement, the queen banished her from her family?

My Marion Crawford wasn’t disloyal, she was merely acting for herself for the first time in 16 years! In the queen’s view, the governess had simply “gone off her head.” She had outlived her usefulness; it was time for her to go. But Crawfie’s love and loyalty for her girls never left her, and she faithfully believed that she would be forgiven by Elizabeth and Margaret—right up until the end of her life.

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