Our book today is Sarah Bradford’s 1996 biography Elizabeth: A Biography of Her Majesty the Queen, and seeing it on my shelves always reminds me of a frequent quip by an old friend of mine, a Boston trial lawyer with (as Agatha Christie might put it) a brain like a bacon-slicer: when you want something done right, give it to a repeat offender.
His language may have been woefully imprinted by the sordid precincts of the criminal courts, but his sentiment is of course correct: biography is a genre just like any other, and in all genres the professionals are the most reliable. All well and good for somebody to study Enrico Caruso (or, in an infamous example from the last generation, Pitt the Younger) for forty years, but knowing every last little meal and pawn shop ticket of your subject is only one part of writing a first-rate biography – the most important part, but in exactly the same way the beating heart is the most important part of the human body: it’s indispensable, but you wouldn’t want to listen to it all day long.
The subject is on my mind because I recently realized how often I’ve been asked ‘what’s the best book on’ – X, whichever of my dozen or so hobbyhorses the person happens to be asking about. And when subject X is a person, I find I almost invariably answer with the work not of a specialist but of a professional biographer. Just the other day, for example, I was asked ‘What’s the best biography of Queen Elizabeth II?’
Lord knows, there are plenty of contenders. But the Queen is so curiously remote from inquiry – she’s fiercely guarded by her employees (and the ones who break ranks are ruthlessly exiled from grace), jealously covered by her courtiers and ministers, and famously, she herself doesn’t grant interviews. This presents definite challenges to the would-be biographer; some get around this wall by racy commentary and outlandish speculation (see Robert Lacey’s Majesty), others get around it with lots of very clever theorizing (Ben Pimlott’s The Queen) – and while such books can be interesting (the latter much more than the former), the very nature of their authors’ personal imprint upon them makes them a bit unsatisfying as straightforward biography (likewise work on any monarch; Giles St. Aubyn’s biography of Queen Victoria is far and away the most entertaining book ever written about her, but half the best stuff in it is uncredited and so, one sometimes suspects, could be a product of the author’s superb imagination).
For straightforward biography, you want a workhorse. And that means you want a professional biographer. That’s why Bradford’s book is my current favorite: she came to the task as a veteran biographer, having written books about Cesare Borgia, Princess Grace of Monaco, King George VI and Disraeli. She doesn’t fawn, but she doesn’t just blandly accept negative verdicts either, as she shows in this wonderful and quite correct aside about formidable Queen Mary:
The children were in awe of their grandmother, finding her strict and intimidating. They were unable to penetrate, as perhaps only Prince George and her close friends like Lady Airlie could, the Queen’s formidable shyness and reserve to discover the kind, gentle, even lighthearted personality within.
She uses a good solid prose style and walks the reader through the development of the Queen in her job, grounding almost everything on conscientious research:
[Prime Minister Harold] Macmillan approached Elizabeth in much the same spirit of formal gallantry which Disraeli had used towards Queen Victoria, with a touch of Disraelian flourish and occasional floridity in his style. He was genuinely impressed by the depth of her knowledge, the assiduity with which she absorbed the vast mass of documentation sent to her and, even after relatively few years on the throne, her remarkable accumulation of political experience. Apart from the weekly audience they carried on a frequent correspondence. Macmillan wrote long reports giving her inside knowledge of events as they happened, particularly when he was abroad at meetings and conferences. Elizabeth responded in what Macmillan described as ‘a very informed and informal style’, writing in her own hand and addressing the envelopes herself even though she had plenty of people to do it for her.
“She is thirsty for information; she likes to know,” Bradford tells us about the Queen, but she’s every bit as frank when detailing what the Queen isn’t particularly hungry to know, as in her famous assessment of Elizabeth’s cultural cache:
In artistic and intellectual circles, Elizabeth is generally regarded as a philistine. She practically never reads a book unless it is horse-related. She does not enjoy the opera, theatre, or concerts – not even ballet for which her mother and sister are enthusiasts. Science and technology bore her; Philip is credited with having told someone who suggested the Queen might like to visit some high-tech plant, ‘Unless it eats grass and farts, she isn’t interested.’
Of course no biography of Queen Elizabeth II can be definitive as long as she’s still alive, and she probably has two decades of life left in her – and decades longer until all her most relevant papers and documents are available to scholars (her much-reported diary, for instance, which will have to be run past a battery of lawyers). But in the meantime – in the long, long meantime – Sarah Bradford’s book tops the list for me.