Q&A: Tessa Arlen, Author of ‘In Royal Service to the Queen’


In Royal Service to the Queen is the revealing story of Queen Elizabeth II’s beloved governess, Marion Crawford, who spent more than sixteen years of her life in loyal service to the royal family and was later shunned by those she has loved and served.

Tessa Arlen is the author of the Woman of World War II Mysteries and In Royal Service to the Queen. Born in Singapore, the daughter of a British diplomat, she has lived in Egypt, Germany, the Persian Gulf, China, and India. She now lives with her husband in historic Santa Fe, where she gardens in summer and writes in winter.

We chat with author Tessa Arlen about In Royal Service to the Queen, writing, book recommendations, and more.

Hi, Tessa! Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself?

I am from England and came to America in 1983 to work for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 games and stayed on! I married a Californian and we raised our family of three girls in the Pacific Northwest alongside cats, dogs and horses.  Now with a grown family, I spend my summers gardening and my winters writing. I am the author of the Lady Montfort mystery series set in Edwardian England,  and the A Woman of World War II mystery series. In Royal Service to the Queen is my first standalone historical novel.

How is your 2021 going in comparison to that other year?

I am supremely grateful for the writing! It kept me sane through a very desperate and confusing 2020.

2021 started very quietly. We remained cloistered at home until our second vaccines in mid-May. so we ate out in our favorite restaurant for the first time since March 2020 a week ago! We went from seeing no one at all, for over a year, to a week of old friends visiting here in Santa Fe. It was fun and exhausting all at the same time: strange to exercise our social muscles after months of solitude.

Quick lightning round! Tell us the first book you ever remember reading, the one that made you want to become an author, and one that you can’t stop thinking about!

I was and still am a huge C.S. Lewis fan. I read his Narnia series one summer when I was about eleven or twelve. It made those lazy days on a sunny lawn under the shade of a chestnut tree completely magical. I was enthralled by the world Lewis created: his giants, the chivalric code of honor, the Dawn Treader, the fauns, nymphs and dryads, insane magicians, and terrifying  witches. I read all his books  to my girls and still felt the same thrill I had when I was a girl reading them for the first time. My girls would say: “Tell us a story about when you were little,” and there was always a flavor of Narnia to them.

If anyone mentions classic children’s books C.S. Lewis is the first name on my lips.

When did you first discover your love for writing?

I wrote a very odd play for my second grade English class and we actually performed it—I am so grateful that I don’t remember anything about it. My parents sent me off to boarding school when I was ten. Every Sunday we would have to write letters home. There was little ‘news’ to tell them since our lives were very orderly. So, I used to make things up! Some of the stories I told them were hair raising and my father wrote to the head mistress asking her what on earth was going on. Those letters home started again when I first came to America and would write pages to my parents describing my new life.

Your latest novel, In Royal Service to the Queen, is out June 29th 2021! If you could only describe it in five words, what would they be?

 A Crown Princess…her governess… betrayal.

What can readers expect?

IN ROYAL SERVICE TO THE QUEEN is the story of Marion Crawford, governess to the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, set against the backdrop of the House of Windsor from pre-WWII Britain to the post war years. Crawfie was with the Windsors for over sixteen years: part of their family, confided in by the children, loved and trusted.

Crawfie is twenty-two when she becomes governess to the Duke of York’s little girls. A Scots Presbyterian from a humble background she has a ringside seat for the Abdication of Edward VIII when he abandons the crown to marry Wallis Simpson, and the coronation of the princesses’ father the Duke of York, who becomes George VI with his vivacious wife Elizabeth as his queen consort. Crawfie helps to buffer the shock the York family experience as they become the Royal Family and move from their elegant house, Royal Lodge, to the cold formality of Buckingham Palace. When war is declared, in 1939, Crawfie accompanies the children to the safety of Windsor Castle to escape the dangers of the London Blitz.

It is during their growing-up years at Windsor Castle that the princesses bond ever more closely with their governess. Crawfie thinks of Elizabeth and Margaret as her own girls. She is there to protect, nurture and steer them through their adolescence. To distract them from the horrors of war and to encourage them to find joy in the simple things of life.

IN ROYAL SERVICE TO THE QUEEN is also the love story of Elizabeth and Philip; Crawfie’s determination to put her own marriage on hold until Elizabeth wins through to marry a man her mother wholeheartedly disapproves of, and Crawfie’s ultimate betrayal and ostracization by Queen Elizabeth the queen mother, when Crawfie writes her devoted account of The Little Princesses and it becomes an international bestseller.

Can you tell us about any challenges you faced while writing and how you were able to overcome them?

Unlike the Royal House of Windsor who have made news headlines since the abdication, Crawfie is an unknown figure in royal family history. No one had heard of her, until she wrote her book when she retired, and there is very little information about her to this day. Certainly no one in the present queen’s family ever refers to her. And yet she worked for them for a little over sixteen years! With only a handful of old photographs and her book to go on I made Marion Crawford my Crawfie.

Before I wrote the first words of the novel I had to established this young, naïve woman in my mind as a strong character so that she would not be completely sidelined by the colorful members of the royal family—particularly since the story is told from Crawfie’s point of view. Not just how Crawfie looked, talked and acted, but who she was in her private moments, and in her hopes for a future life away from the Windsors, possibly with a family of her own.

I asked myself how Crawfie would have reacted to the fascinating events in Britain’s history that she witnessed. What would she have thought about a king abdicating his responsibility to his people to marry Wallis Simpson?  I felt that she would have immense compassion for the Duke of York when he had no choice but to become king—and no qualms whatsoever that his wife would make an ideal queen consort.

I kept asking questions like these as I read the biographies of the time. How did Crawfie feel at the end of the war in Europe about returning to formal palace life? As the war ends Crawfie is reunited with the man she loves—was she nervous about how the events of George’s war had changed him, or herself, and did she worry that it might be too late for them? How much did she yearn to start a family of her own with George? How would she balance duty to the crown and her personal life as the princesses grew up and no longer needed a governess? She thought of the princesses as her own little girls, so did she have a strong bond with her own mother?

I wanted Crawfie to witness the hardships of the British people during these years: the ordinary people who struggled and went without in harsh times, and their unquestioning belief in the monarchy. She came from very ordinary working people, so how was it for her to work for a rich and influential family during these years? I also wanted to take my reader back in time when duty, service and ‘respecting one’s betters’ was an expected part of daily life—concepts that are decidedly against the grain now.

One of the many questions I asked myself was would Crawfie recognize herself in my book? Had I got the temperature of the times right? At the end of the war the attitude of the British people was decidedly different toward people of position, power and money, than it had been in 1939. Even the beloved royal family were criticized for living in what had quickly become an outmoded Edwardian bubble.

What was the research process like for In Royal Service to the Queen?

It was wonderful! I read at least a dozen royal biographies. I was fascinated by the early life of the reserved to the point of  being diffident duke who stepped up to be King George VI when his brother ran off with Mrs. Simpson. The fluffy and rather frivolous Elizabeth, Lady Bowes-Lyon and her many beaux before she finally accepted Bertie’s third proposal of marriage. And how she effortlessly assumed the role of queen to become what Hitler called ‘the most dangerous woman in Europe’ because of her natural flair for PR and her dedication to British homefront morale.

The notoriously strange love affairs between the the playboy Prince of Wales and a string of married women, culminating with his obsession with Wallis Simpson made compulsive reading—like something out of 1930s Hollywood.

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But most consuming was Prince Philip’s childhood and then his war years in the navy. It was like something out of a 1920s adventure story, with Philip a blend of high seas buccaneer and knight errant. The many varying accounts of the bright, amusing and temperamental Princess Margaret, and of course the dutiful and serious Princess Elizabeth who became Queen of England when she was a young mother of 24 were fascinating.

I read until I thought I understood the complexity of these stronger than life personalities, and then I made them mine. Writing about real life characters in history is a leap of faith. You have to feel convinced by the characters you create.

Were there any favourite moments or characters you really enjoyed writing or exploring?

I loved writing about the growing and barely discernible conflict between Queen Elizabeth and Crawfie when Princess Elizabeth fell like a ton of bricks for Philip. The queen was very much against Philip: his German background was certainly against him, but he was evidently a strong character with very clearly expressed opinions, but this very determined and strong-willed queen wanted someone biddable, moldable and under her sway for her daughter. Crawfie, on the other hand, realized how important it was for the future queen to have someone she truly cared for by her side when she came to the throne. In quietly championing Elizabeth’s quest to marry Philip, Crawfie crossed a line with the queen and things only got worse between them as time went on.

I particularly loved casting Queen’s Elizabeth’s younger brother, David Bowes-Lyon, in the role of co-conspirator and snake in the grass. And how the two of them set about causing concern and doubt about Philip’s character.

What was the road to becoming a published author like for you?

I hate to say it but it was not a struggle. I had no idea what the world of publishing was all about, or even that it was possible to be published. I just wrote a book. Our youngest daughter went off to college and all of a sudden I had all this time on my hands! One rainy day in October in 2011 I didn’t want to look for a job, so I wrote what was to become DEATH OF A DISHONORABLE GENTLEMAN just to see if I could complete a full novel. And it consumed me.

It took me at least another year to be accepted by a literary agent. But I found Kevan Lyon and after she had straightened me up a bit and I had done some serious re-writes she sold the book in five weeks. I was absolutely blown away! I should add that the struggle is all about remaining a published author—it really keeps me on my toes!

What’s the best and the worst writing advice you have received?

The best advice: write the story. Don’t go over it as you write, just keep going. Put down the words on paper all the way to the story’s conclusion. Then you can go back and shape it. The first draft may be a bit of a mess, but the energy is there.

The worst: join a writers’ group. It was one of the most intimidating experiences, far worse than boarding school. I had to quietly creep away, otherwise I honestly don’t think I would have ever completed my first book. There was and is only one way for me to accomplish writing a book, and that is to shut myself away and immerse myself in the world I create.

What’s next for you?

Another standalone historical novel, about the dynamic and superbly talented Lucy Duff Gordon, who started a fashion empire in the late 1890s to keep her and her five year old daughter financially afloat after she was abandoned by her husband.

In a time when women from good families were expected to look beautiful and be content with producing children and running their elegant houses this woman triumphed in the competitive London world of dress making. She became the Queen of Haute Couture working under her “Lucile” and went on to open Lucile fashion houses in New York, Chicago and even Paris. She led the exquisite fashion trends of 1890s through the turn of the century, the first world war and out the other side! I was drawn to her immense courage and her resilience. Lucy is also famous for having survived the sinking of the Titanic! A DRESS OF VIOLET TAFFETA releases in the summer of 2022.

Lastly, do you have any book recommendations for our readers?

I am a huge Donna Leon fan. I love her Brunetti series set in Venice—mainly because she describes food so well and Brunetti is such a wonderfully complex and sympathetic character. Transient Desires is Leon’s 30th book, so if you have never read the Brunetti series you have many to keep you enthralled.

Will you be picking up In Royal Service to the Queen? Tell us in the comments below!


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