Photos: Gold Coach, Canadian Press; Coronation Procession, Charisma Panchapakesan
A London Hotel’s Fortune Rests on Queen Elizabeth II’s Crown in ‘Coronation Year’
Fans of 'The Gown' will love Jennifer Robson’s new novel, which takes readers into the jubilation that gripped post-war England in 1953 / BY Kim Honey / April 3rd, 2023
It’s no accident that Jennifer Robson will publish her next royal-themed novel, Coronation Year, in a real coronation year. But, when the idea came to the bestselling Canadian author all she had was the title and the premise: What would it have been like to stand in the crowds lining London’s streets and watch the Queen go by in her gold carriage on the way to be crowned at Westminster Abbey?
“What it represented in 1953 was in some ways unique, because it was a way for the people in Britain to assure themselves that not only had they survived the war, but they’d also survived that long, morose, grey miserable period after the war,” Robson says in phone interview from her home in Toronto. “They had endured, and this was the symbol to them.”
Coronation Year is a story about a fictional hotel called the Blue Lion, a small inn a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square, where the cash-strapped proprietor is expecting a reversal of fortune after the palace announces Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation procession will pass by its doorstep in June. It takes place over six months, beginning on Jan. 1, 1953, when the reader meets the three narrators: the proprietor, Edie Howard, the sole surviving member of the family who founded the Blue Lion in 1560; a young Jewish photographer, Stella Donati, who arrives from Rome after surviving the Birkenau concentration camp; and Jamie Geddes, a war veteran from Edinburgh who quit law school to pursue his dream of being an artist.
Robson jokes that it should have been called Coronation Six Months, but notes that, with the epilogue, it runs into November, “so I figure I’ve stretched it enough that the title makes sense.”
There is a large cast of supporting characters, including the Blue Lion’s staff and its eccentric long-term lodgers, who pay a pittance for rooms overlooking the street that are suddenly worth their weight in pounds. There’s also a developer who wines and dines Edie, trying to pressure her into selling, and a Scotland Yard detective who comes in handy later on, when someone tries to thwart her plan to fill the hotel’s coffers and keep the Blue Lion afloat. When I ask Robson if I’ve missed anybody, she says, “the Queen,” and then, “the hotel.”
The Blue Lion “was a chance for me to indulge in having an additional character, and to have the quirkiness of it be a fairly a strong element in the book,” she says. “The Blue Lion’s a pretty humble place, and a nice grounding element in comparison to the glamour and magnificence of the coronation and the gold coach going by.”
Robson wants to be absolutely clear the hotel is fictional, although if you go to Northumberland Avenue where the Blue Lion is supposed to stand (there is an illustrated map of the coronation route in the book that pinpoints its location, as well as a sketch of its exterior), you will find the famed Sherlock Holmes pub. It has a similar appearance, although Robson notes her hotel has a Victorian facade. She fully expects readers will still ask if it’s real, much as they urge her, five years after she published The Gown, her novel about Queen Elizabeth’s wedding, to tell them where they can see Miriam’s textile art in London.
And yes, the Miriam in Coronation Year is the same Miriam who embroidered the Queen’s wedding dress in The Gown. Now, she is married and has two children with Walter, the editor at Picture Weekly, the newsmagazine where Stella lands a job. Stella is a minor character in Robson’s 2021 novel, Our Darkest Night, and Picture Weekly appears in all three novels, as well as 2017’s Goodnight from London.
Although the books are linked, Robson ensures they are stand-alone novels so readers don’t feel compelled to buy the previous books before they pick up the newest one. As for the recurring characters, she includes them because she’s not done with their stories yet, and she is curious about war trauma.
“I have this consuming interest about what happens to people after the war, not just a year later, but five years, 10 years, 20 years down the road. What is the effect of living through a conflict like that, and how does it change you? What are the invisible marks that it leaves on human beings? And Stella, I knew she had an artist inside her even in the few pages that she appears in Our Darkest Night, and I just wanted to see where it could take her.”
The novel is, like all Robson’s books, historical fiction, but it is also a mystery, and there is a romance central to the plot. When asked if she will ever leave the war trenches, she concedes she will never write contemporary fiction, because “history is my jam.” Robson is a former Commonwealth Scholar who got her doctorate in British economic and social history at the University of Oxford, and the daughter of Stuart Robson, who was a history professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., and the author of several books about the First World War. “My father always maintained the reason you take history is because it’s everything. Everything that’s of interest has a past, and in learning about the past, it’s the most wide-ranging education that you could hope to find,” she says. “I love the idea that everything can fall under the umbrella of historical fiction. Everything belongs.”
The Anglophile is intimately acquainted with London, where she lived for “a couple of stretches of time” and visited two or three days a week to do research when she was at Oxford. After all that time in the city, to her disappointment, Robson never met or even got a glimpse of the Queen, even though she believes, as a Commonwealth Scholar, she could have attended one of the garden parties at Buckingham Palace.
“The only member of the Royal Family I’ve met is Princess Anne’s husband. He has some connections to my Oxford college,” she says. The closest she got to a senior royal was in 2018, when she was in Kensington and Prince Harry drove past. “Or rather someone drove past me. He was in the passenger seat, but the hair was absolutely unmistakable. And then they turned into the private drive at Kensington Palace.”
This summer, Robson gets to revisit all the pomp and circumstance of the Queen’s coronation when her 73-year-old son, King Charles III, steps into the gold coach on May 6 to go to Westminster Abbey, and takes the same oath and wears the same regalia as his mother did.
“Obviously, I’ll be watching,” she says. “I’ll be glued to the TV and trying to make sense of it all, in terms of how is it similar to 1953? How does it differ? I’ll probably have to sit there with my laptop taking note, to be honest, just so I can remember everything.”
The biggest difference is the mood of the nation. Coronation Year captures the elation of a country that felt it was on an upswing, and the crowning of the Queen was symbolic of a new dawn. Now, Britain, like most of the post-pandemic world, is facing a cost-of-living crisis, and the new King has made it clear he will be economizing with a stripped-down ceremony.
“That being said, even a stripped-back royal occasion is still one of the most magnificent things anyone could hope to witness,” says Robson. “You can do absolutely nothing to Westminster Abbey and it still looks incredible. Just the fact that they have several billion dollars’ worth of jewels in the form of the regalia alone.”
She applauds the coronation planners, who are pitching it as a shared celebratory occasion where neighbours are encouraged to meet and mingle at community events, but she just doesn’t know how it will resonate.
“I’m taken aback a little by how people are still so angry with the King. For my part, I would like to give the man a chance. I think he’s doing his best in what is, in many ways, an intolerable position to be in. But, there’s this simmering level of anger, which doesn’t seem to have abated.”
She’ll have to wedge the coronation into her writing schedule, as Robson is already at work on her ninth novel. She’s keeping the details under wraps, but says it has a much more sweeping timeline than Coronation Year, and “takes in almost the entirety of the 20th century from the point of view of two women.”
That means it covers both world wars, so strap on your pith helmets and get ready for more love, anguish, mystery and history.