“Elizabeth II fulfilled her duty with steadfast determination and clarity of purpose, exerting influence without grasping for power, retaining her personal humility despite her public celebrity”
My book review this week is of Sally Bedell Smith’s new book Elizabeth the Queen, The Life of a Modern Monarch. There has been much anticipation in literary circles about this book, the first personal, rather than political, biography of the Queen since 2002.
I mentioned this book in passing in my review of Robert Hardman’s work Our Queen the other week. Whereas Robert Hardman’s book was about what made Elizabeth II the hardworking monarch that she is, in both her duties and her outlook, Smith’s book looks at the personal experiences of the Queen.
Where as Hardman’s study of the Queen looked at various events and influences in the Queens life, Smith’s book is a chronological biography of the Queen and her experiences.
It would seem that there were many doors open to Sally Bedell Smith as the list of those she spoke to on the record is long and distinguished to say the least and includes statesman, commentators, celebrities, and socialites from all over the world, but most tellingly they include close family and confidants of the Queen such as Lady Patricia Brabourne (daughter of the late Lord Mountbatten), Lord Carey(former Archbishop of Canterbury), Lady Elizabeth Anson(cousin to the Queen) and former members of her Household.
Although many will not have heard of her name before, Smith is a respected American Journalist who’s previous works have been on such historical and celebrity figures such as Diana, Princess of Wales, John and Jacqueline Kennedy and more recently the Clintons. She has also been a contributing editor to Vanity Fair since 1996 and has spent part of her journalistic career working at Time Magazine and the New York Times.
Smith’s prose is respectful but not gushing. The writer clearly admires her subject and perhaps that is what gives her work all the more credibility. Smith is not a subject and as such has no reason to form anything but her own opinion of Elizabeth II, independent of cultural and national mores of Britain and the Commonwealth.
The book doesn’t shy away from highlighting the periods when the Crown and the Royal Family have suffered dips in their popularity, or when the Queens sense of judgement – as perceived by the public – has failed her. This would not be the quality biography that it is if it did not cover such periods.
However in both good times and bad Sally Bedell Smith accurately portrays the Queens stoicism, sense of duty and hard work.
One of the charming things about this book is that it recounts amusing stories that very much show Her Majesty’s sense of humour, which is very much an ingredient and constant of the Queen’s character. Some of them I was surprised made it to paper.
When about to be examined by a new male physician many years ago the Queen, dressed only in a nightgown, said to the understandably concerned man: “don’t worry, I’m as nervous as you are.”
Or the time at Balmoral when a Minister of the Scottish Church, who was saying grace at the royal dinner table, used a rather old fashioned term for conversation and gave the blessing: “For what we are about to receive and the wonderful intercourse afterwards, may we be truly grateful.” Amen indeed! The Queen’s well known ability to mimic accents allowed this to be a story she could recount many a time to her friends and guests.
Another wonderful story comes when the Queen was talking to her thoroughbred trainer Ian Balding after the 1979 UK election she asked him” What do you think about Margaret Thatcher getting in?” To which he replied “Ma’am I not sure I can get my head around a woman running the country.” Silence greeted him down the phone. “You know what I mean?” he hastily, and probably nervously, added. The monarch had the grace to laugh at his choice of wording.
The very human side of Elizabeth II was shown many years later, once again relating to Margaret Thatcher. Indeed it also disproves the myth of Elizabeth II and Thatcher not getting along.
The Queen’s humanity was revealed at an 80th birthday in 2005 for Baroness Thatcher, who was weakened following several strokes. The Prime Minister was ‘visibly excited’ that the Queen was coming to the event at a London hotel.
“Baroness Thatcher asked, ‘Is it all right if I touch her?’ as the Queen approached. Baroness Thatcher then extended her hand, which the Queen held steady as her former Prime Minister curtseyed, although not as low as before. The Queen then tenderly guided Thatcher through the crowd of 650 guests.”
Charles Powell – now Lord Powell – a senior adviser to Mrs Thatcher during her No 10 days, tells the author: “That was unusual for the British, who know you are not supposed to touch the Queen. But they were hand-in-hand, and the Queen led her around the room.”
The Queens relationship with her Australian Prime Ministers, as well as other Commonwealth leaders such as Nelson Mandela is explored as well. When the Queen came to the throne the Statesman of the Commonwealth included the likes of Winston Churchill and Pandit Nehru. More recently names like Nelson Mandela have added their own contributions to the organisation and become confidants and friends of the Queen.
I was fascinated to read Smith’s analysis of what made Gough Whitlam a fan of the Queen at their first meeting. To quote Smith the Queen “wrapped Whitlam round her little finger”.
Importantly Smith makes mention of the failed republican bid in the late 90’s and the Monarch and her families view that the issue was one purely for the Australian People. Another example of her practical but proper sense of being a Monarch.
The Queens love for Australia, and that of her direct heirs Princes Charles and William, is accurately portrayed as well.
The Queen’s commitment to, and regard for, the Commonwealth is naturally an ongoing theme in this book. The special place the Queen holds in her heart for the Commonwealth and her sense of duty towards is vividly expressed by Smiths study of the Queen’s life and reign.
Conversely the book makes clear that the strength of having the Queen as head of the Commonwealth – and her heirs and successors – is the fact the Monarch is a symbolic and non-political head of the Commonwealth, albeit one with convening power and the gravitas to stop political and national egos from preventing progress and the work of the Commonwealth.
This book is for the reader who wants to know more about the experiences of the Queen as a person. Who she has met, who her friends and confidants are, and the effect that she has had on people and vice versa. But it is from such works as these that we can see what makes the fibre of our Queen and what allows her to carry on her duties so flawlessly.
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