A few months ago a writer in The Economist remarked that for most of her subjects the Queen is as mysterious a being as a unicorn. That is true in that, largely by her own intent, little has been revealed to the public of her true personality, although court insiders assure enquirers that she’s both kind and, in private, often very funny. Occasionally stories do emerge giving some clue to her character going beyond what little can be deduced from her many ritual appearances as a hieratic presence without much evident humanity. I recall a few years ago being told of a visit to the West Country where she attended a reception given by the Bishop of Truro. She quickly noticed a rather forlorn figure standing apart from the mingling guests. This was Truro’s brother (by blood, not simply by consecration), the former Bishop of Gloucester (and, incidentally, founder of an Anglican convent in the Var). He had been forced to resign after being cautioned by the police for inappropriate behaviour with “an apprentice monk” (as the Sun put it). In some quarters he had been treated with something less than Christian compassion. The Queen walked up to him, shook his hand, asked him how he was and spent some time chatting with him. This showed a woman of graciousness and decency, rarely on view as she carries out her often stupefying programme of official engagements.
Ups and Downs
This year, of course, we are being treated to a flood of books, articles and broadcasts as Elizabeth II moves through the sixtieth year of her reign. Some approaches will be obsequious, others snide (isn’t Kitty Kelley’s take on the way?). Andrew Marr, best known for his Sunday morning current affairs show on BBC Television, has offered something genuinely useful. In his The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth II and Her People (UK: Macmillan), he begins by setting the monarchy in its recent historical context. George V – often remembered as a bullying parent (The King’s Speech) or simply as a dim bore preoccupied with stamp hinges and the niceties of military dress, made a huge contribution to the preservation of the British monarchy from the fate that befell others (think Austro-Hungary, Russia and Germany). A much more direct influence over Elizabeth was exercised by her father George VI who combined that public dutifulness and private decency that, whatever some other royals may have got up to, has enabled the Windsors to survive the twentieth century.
Anyone who has followed the Queen’s career through serious media will find little to surprise here, but Marr retells the story with admirable lucidity and, it seems, fairness. He follows Elizabeth’s life from her early years of minimal formal education (no disadvantage, it appears) and on to marriage, succession and the recurrent ups and downs of the following decades with controversies over money, republicanism, the Commonwealth, and the antics of her sons. For most of this time, come what may, she’s been well served by her unyielding public discretion (with the notable exception of her muted response to Diana’s death).
She’s had some troublesome moments over recent times but has reached her Diamond Jubilee while enjoying great public respect. As Marr concedes, it appears unlikely that Prince Charles, such a motormouth and with so little useful to say, has learned from his mother’s protective public silence. The book ends on a note of doubt concerning the survival of the monarchy after Elizabeth.
Those dogs aren’t all corgis
As well as providing an excellent overview of the reign, Marr does drop in some tit-bits of information which may be new to many readers. Those seven dogs that gambol around the Queen’s feet aren’t all corgis: three are “dorgis” – that is corgi-dachshund crosses; at Christmas the Windsor pooches get personalised gift packs which HM puts together herself. When she married in 1947 four of her in-laws – Philip’s sisters – were the wives or widows of Nazi officers; her favourite Prime Minister so far has been Harold Wilson (quite right, too Ma’am; he had the right attitude to dogs). We learn little of royal antipathies except that she can’t bear “slow eaters”. Marr offers reasoned criticism of the Windsors but veers into near-hagiography when he tells us that for rumours of a younger Philip’s sexual adventures “there isn’t a shred of hard evidence”. Serious journalists I’ve met have had a different view. Finally, the book is a pleasure to read and has been well edited. One howler got through, though: the Duke (and our own Michael Healy) will surely groan when they find the Royal Naval College relocated to Dartford. Oddly, too, Marr chooses to correct George VI’s well known (if ungrammatical) description of his immediate family as “us four” to “we four”. Anyway, if you want to read up on the Queen you likely couldn’t do better than Marr.