Keeping Up With the Windsors – The Invisible Woman
by Sally Bedell Smith
Random House, 2012
Henry Holt, 2012
Pegasus Books, 2012
2012 marks the Diamond Jubilee of England’s Queen Elizabeth II: sixty years on the throne. It’s a landmark very few of her predecessors have reached, monarchy not being the most stable of occupations, and the celebrations are ongoing. The Queen was a young wife on safari in Kenya when her father King George VI breathed his last; she is now nearly 90 and seems untiring. As a life-long passionate horsewoman and dog breeder, she would no doubt appreciate the benefits of good stock, and she comes from some very long-lived blood: her mother, the much-beloved Queen Mother, famously lived to the age of 101. Given her constitution and her top-drawer medical help, Queen Elizabeth II could easily see another decade on the throne, which would put her well beyond the record of her most famous contender, Queen Victoria herself (63 years).
It has become a commonplace to say the long reign of Queen Elizabeth II has seen the monarchy change drastically. The Queen’s father had been emperor of India and ruler of a kingdom stretching across more territory than any seen by the Mongols, or the Romans, or the Chinese. The Queen herself has seen virtually all such superlatives stripped away: the crown of India, the breadth of empire (replaced with a far more egalitarian Commonwealth), the almost unrivaled rank among nations, and a good deal of the unarticulated magic Walter Bagehot so famously associated with the Crown. Even the royal yacht Britannia is gone, and there has been talk throughout Elizabeth II’s reign of an end to the monarchy itself – unthinkable to end it while she’s on the throne, even her detractors say, but increasingly unthinkable to continue it once she’s gone.
The Diamond Jubilee festivities are designed to paper over these cracks, and the Palace knows what it’s doing (this is, after all, an institutional memory unlike anything else in the world, with the exception of the Vatican): the events (parades, aerial fly-bys, concerts, gala dinners) are kept coming in a steady stream, and the Royals are heavily scheduled – none more so than the Queen herself, a dowdy little senior citizen calmly centering this whole elaborate superstructure of deference and protocol. Her courtiers and press handlers, her friends and family, all adhere to the strict-seeming reserve and privacy the Queen has held her entire life; her public persona as sovereign is composed of unassuming hard work and polite smiles, and her private persona is very much off-limits to all but close friends and family. Over the years, the few members of these inner circles – butlers, maids, chauffeurs, Princess Diana – who’ve chosen to trade on that privacy (usually for a book deal) have found themselves coldly cut off from the royal intimacy they once knew. This, plus the fact that the Queen does not grant interviews, has made her a very tricky focus for the horde of biographers she’s naturally attracted in her long life. The people in the best position to write authoritatively about her – her intimates – risk emotional exile if they so much as hint at doing so, and the rest – interested outsiders with publisher-contracts hanging over their heads – can natter on all they like, but they’re permanently on the outside of some very heavy, very ornate gates.
This situation is especially troubling for would-be biographers in the summer of 2012, because suddenly, and more emphatically than usual, the Queen is news – only an infinitesimally small fraction of all the English people who’ve ever lived have seen the Diamond Jubilee year of their sovereign. So there will be commemorations, and fly-overs by WWII-vintage planes, and parades … and there will be books. A raft of new biographies has appeared in time for the celebratory year, and every one of those would-be biographers has faced that same old problem: real access requires discretion, and indiscretion bars real access.
Faced with such an impasse, all the various journalists, freelancers, and hacks clutching at publisher contracts do the only thing they decently can under the circumstances: they lay down a groundwork of well-known encyclopedia-entry facts and then – like earth-pawing thoroughbreds eager for the starting pistol – they make stuff up. Lots of stuff. Reams of stuff. In fact, whole books of stuff.
Leading the field are new works by three career journalists: Her Majesty by Daily Mail columnist Robert Hardman, Elizabeth the Queen by star-biographer and Vanity Fair-contributor Sally Bedell Smith, and The Real Elizabeth by television personality Andrew Marr. These three books illustrate with doubtless unintended clarity the three routes open to writing biographies of this particular royal for those publisher checks; you can be breezy and informative, you can be abstract and sonorous, or you can be gossipy and confiding.
Marr takes the first route. He’s a prizewinning freelancer who clearly wrote a book on the Queen because 2012 is the year to do that if you’re going to do it at all. His book The Real Elizabeth is the companion to a recent three-part BBC television special about the Queen, and as you might guess from such a genesis, it has hardly an original bone in its body. Instead, it’s full of cliches and confections that are no less banal for being extremely adroitly put:
She is a small woman with a globally familiar face, a hundred-carat smile – when she choose to turn it on – and a thousand years of history at her back. She reigns in a world which has mostly left monarchy behind, the result of her reign is that two-thirds of British people assume their monarchy will still be here in a century’s time. She is wry and knowing, but she feels a calling. She can brim with dry observations but she seems empty of cynicism.
Hardman takes the second route, trying to strike a more historically-informed note, trying to grasp at broader themes:
With the exception of Edward VIII, modern British monarchs have been careful to respect the great royal paradox, namely that we want our monarchs to be just like ‘us’ but also completely different from ‘us.’ What they must never do – and it is a lesson which so many defunct European royal houses failed to learn – is appear superior to ‘us.’
(Although he’s also prone to adroitly-put banalities, as when he refers to the Queen as “the living incarnation of a set of values and a period of history. In Britain, she is Tower Bridge and a red double-decker bus on two legs, not to mention Big Ben, afternoon tea, village fetes and sheep-flecked hills in the pouring rain.”)
At greater length than the other two, Smith takes the third route, assuming the brisk, knowing air of a long-time friend of the family:
Of all the Queen’s children, Anne was the most secure and self-sufficient. The mother-daughter relationship ran smoothly, largely because they shared such a strong bond through horses. And since Anne was cut from Prince Philip’s cloth – feisty, confident, and straightforward, she could deal with his tough love.
Charles, however, struggled with his father’s demands and expectations …
All three dutifully present the familiar landmarks of the Queen’s life and reign – the perky girlish optimism during the dark days of World War II, the marriage to handsome Prince Philip of Greece, the birth of her children, the youthful accession, her difficult presiding over the dismantling of her empire and the formalization of its shadowy successor, the Commonwealth, her long procession of prime ministers and parliaments, the endless round of ship launches and hospital dedications, the troubled love lives of her sister Margaret and all the children (most notoriously the marriage, whining, divorce, whining, death, and apotheosis of Diana Spencer, that fawn-eyed Gucci-clad candle in the wind), the arrival of grandchildren and the mellowing into old age, the corgis, the hats, the horses. All three interview anybody who’ll sit with them – former servants, fellow Palace-watchers, courtiers speaking on condition of anonymity, etc. And ultimately, all three must somehow grapple with the fact that their main subject not only won’t talk to them directly but has spent her entire life trying to pretend journalists don’t exist.
The flat wall of that fact deflects exposition into supposition. Every author who’s ever written about the Queen (including Ben Pimlott, whose 1992 book The Queen, re-issued in 2002 in time for the Golden Jubilee – and a new publisher’s contract – remains the best work of the ‘abstract and sonorous’ school) has bounced off that wall, and all are forced to dress up speculation as fact. Hardman writes, “It is hardly surprising that the Queen feels entirely at home inside the world headquarters of the Commonwealth [Marlborough House] …,” but what he means is that it must be hardly surprising, mustn’t it? He says “The Queen is very open about the existence of her faith but, like most people, very private about its nature,” but what he means is that the Queen has talked openly about her faith in public addresses – which are carefully choreographed, staged, and written by other people; he’s telling us she’s very private about the nature of her faith not because he knows she is but because she’s never said a private word on the topic – or any other topic – to him or any other journalist. He tells us, “The Queen will probably not even acknowledge the moment [when her reign exceeds Queen Victoria's in length] (she does not believe in being competitive with the ancestors),” but he has no bloody idea what she does or doesn’t believe about ‘competing with the ancestors.’
Smith writes about the late Patrick Plunket, the 7th Baron Plunket, who’s three years older than the Queen and a long-time equerry, “It was often said he was the brother she never had. He was certainly a trusted confidant. The Queen knew she could talk to him, even about personal matters, and depend on his total discretion,” but Smith has no idea what the Queen thought of Plunket or anybody else. “Elizabeth II is not the sort to brood about mortality,” she confidently asserts, when for all she or any outsider knows, the Queen spends all night every night brooding about nothing but. When writing about the game-hunting on the royal estates, Smith tells us, “Such carnage is second nature to the Queen, who is equally matter-of-fact about her other favorite country pursuit, picking up fallen grouse during shooting parties on the moors above the castle – a practice she was forced to stop at age eighty-five due to persistent pain in one of her knees.” But this nonsense (whose ‘favorite country pursuit’ is picking up bleeding birds?) doesn’t derive from insider familiarity, as it’s pitched to imply – it derives from a grainy photo that surfaced to much scandal in 2000, a photo of the Queen on a shoot at Balmoral nonchalantly wringing the neck of a wounded pheasant. The silly extrapolation from that one photo to a favorite country pursuit is as fawning as the subsequent explanation – that she only stopped the practice because of knee-pain, when in fact she stopped it because of the photo and the scandal – is deceitful. It’s a courtier offering a smoothed, polished ‘save’ for a perceived royal gaffe; it’s the danger inherent in writing about any living monarch: the temptation to toady.
(It extends to dead monarchs as well, as when Smith writes about the Queen Mother, “She had one serious health scare, a diagnosis of colon cancer in December 1966 that the family kept secret,” when in fact the old queen routinely suffered more broken bones in any given year than an entire team of rugby players – almost as though something mysteriously but regularly interfered with her sense of balance)
Smith can also be the funniest of these three authors, although never intentionally. She’s at such pains always to exonerate the Queen of any possible slight from any possible corner that she often seems unaware of the biting ironies in the material she’s conveying:
Superficially, the Queen’s circle might easily be dismissed as tweedy toffs, but in fact the men are capable and accomplished, the women bright and lively, all made of strong stuff and utterly reliable. “One of her greatest strengths is she is not associated with the old landed peerage,” said Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, the 7th Marquess of Salisbury …
Marr is as guilty as the other two of making guesses and calling them facts, although his guesses are usually so anodyne that Elizabeth II would need to be quite bizarrely obtuse not to fulfill some of them. We’re told she’s “well aware” of how special her position is, for instance, although as usual Marr follows his commonplaces with snappily-written (though equally obvious) context: “Had ancient battles gone the other way, or now-forgotten people changed their faith, or had different marriages occurred, other people entirely would have been the Queen and the Duke” (although he follows this bit with a very odd observation: “When was the last time in European history that someone became monarch purely by virtue of his personal qualities? Napoleon, perhaps – and look how long his dynasty lasted” – perhaps after the Jubilee, somebody should go over a few historical nuances with Marr).
He’s good with pithy phrasings along the journalism line, remarking that “The Queen had few illusions about her son; on this subject she has often been, if not salty, then at least peppery.” And he has a refreshingly Fleet Street instinct for the jugular, especially where latter-day saints are involved:
Diana made it clear that she intended to be a rival, unofficial “royal,” and she still had plenty of media and public support behind her. She would now be able to marry whomever she chose, and that person would have a family link to the future King. Her first lover after the divorce was an eminent Pakistani heart surgeon, Hasnat Khan, who ended the relationship after a few months. The second was Dodi al-Fayed, son of the maverick, foulmouthed Egyptian owner of Harrods. Meanwhile, Diana continued to glow as a global star wherever she appeared. She returned quickly to her high-profile charity work with AIDS and leprosy victims, and to her campaign against land mines in Africa. (She told [Prime Minister Tony] Blair, with icy calculation, that she had “gone for the caring angle.”)
But there’s only so much even a clever hack can do, and Marr is forced back and back to speculation and second-hand gossip.
All three are very readable when writing up the known public events of Elizabeth II’s reign, and all three rise to the occasion when good stories present themselves, as when a madman fired blanks at the royal procession during the 1981 Trooping of the Color. The Queen’s horse was startled and might have bolted had it not been for her literal calm under fire, taking strong control of the animal and proceeding immediately to calming it down (there’s a fantastic photo taken at the moment, one of the only times anybody ever caught the Queen looking both thoroughly wrathful and thoroughly regal). Likewise her touching stoicism as she arrived in the afternoon to watch large portions of Windsor Castle on fire in November of 1992 (it was also in 1992 that she met an obscure Texas businessman named George W. Bush and asked him “Are you the black sheep of the family?” To which he responded, “I guess so”). No nonfiction storyteller would pass up such material, and if these three books purported to be nothing more than anecdotal folklore – or records of purely public events – they’d get into far less trouble. But instead, they promise things, the one thing (the US version of Marr’s book even puts the promise in the title – The Real Elizabeth), that they can’t deliver.
There are human glimpses here and there, of course. Smith quotes a note sent to the Queen by her acerbic sister Princess Margaret in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death: “how you kindly arranged everybody’s lives after the accident and made life tolerable for the two poor boys … there, always in command, was you, listening to everyone and deciding on all the issues … I just felt you were wonderful.” Even readers who know nothing at all about Princess Margaret will sense the stunning tribute in those words – and intuit, perhaps correctly, something of the person who must have inspired it. A kind of composite picture begins to emerge, one that would hardly be surprising: a sensible, personable woman whose pleasures are simple (Smith’s book might as well have been sub-titled “Horses, horses, and more horses”) and whose dedication to her duty is absolute. But it’s a flickering picture, never quite resolving into a person – and our three journalists don’t help matters any with their constant overreaching.
The deadliest moment for such overreaching must always be the triple cross-fire, and anybody foolish enough to read all three of these books (much less all three in – no pun intended – rapid succession) will encounter many such moments. “I must be seen to be believed,” Elizabeth II once commented, and a certain willing suspension of disbelief is necessary to read any royal biography – but when three “respected royal-watchers” can’t stop contradicting each other, suspension of disbelief gets wadded up and shot out of a cannon.
Take as one example the tumultuous greeting the new Queen and Prince Philip received when they returned home to London aboard the Britannia after an extended tour of the Commonwealth. Hardman first offers the usual ‘it must be so, mustn’t it?” speculation about what Elizabeth thinks of her various prime ministers – “Clearly, the Queen will always have a special regard for Sir Winston Churchill … How could she not?” Then he tells the prize story:
Churchill himself elected to join Britannia off the Isle of Wight on the eve of a triumphal journey up the Thames … A day later, he was standing at the Queen’s side as the Royal Yacht sailed beneath Tower Bridge, to the cheers of a city en fete. To this day, she likes to recall his running commentary on the approach as he proclaimed the Thames not as ‘a muddy old river’ but as ‘the silver thread that runs through British history.’
Churchill joins the Britannia at the Isle of Wight in Smith’s book too, but things go a bit differently:
The Queen and her family arrived at the Isle of Wight, where Churchill joined them on board Britannia for a sail into London up the Thames. “One saw this dirty commercial river as one came up,” the Queen recalled. Yet Churchill “was describing it as the silver thread which runs through the history of Britain.”
And then there’s Marr:
The Queen puts him in a different category from any of his successors and recently recalled being gently rebuked by him. When she and Prince Philip returned from their grueling post-Coronation tour of the Commonwealth in May 1954, Sir Winston was invited to join them for the last part of the voyage on the new Royal Yacht Britannia from Yarmouth up the Thames. They were greeted by cheering crowds and a forty-one-gun salute from the Tower of London, but the Queen remembers the grim weather and saying to Churchill as they went up the Pool of London, “Look at this awful dirty river.” Churchill turned on her with a growl: “This is the silver thread that goes through British history – never forget it.”
You can tell there’s a kernel of truth to the quote – that “silver thread” business is not only verbatim in all three versions but is also tell-tale Churchill blather – and in fact it comes from a 1986 documentary called Queen and Commonwealth (although Marr’s curt citation is ‘private conversation’ – with whom, one wonders, both the Queen and Churchill being unlikely candidates?), but that doesn’t matter: hardly anybody reading these books is going to remember that documentary – they’re going to get the anecdote straight from these authors. But which anecdote? In the Hardman version, Churchill supplies the ‘muddy old river’ part and doesn’t let the Queen get a word in edgewise; in the Smith version, Churchill not only doesn’t let Elizabeth speak but seems not to know she’s even present; in the Marr version – the most dramatic, naturally – Churchill rounds on his new sovereign and commits an act of lese-majeste that, for all his bulldog tenacity, he would have found unthinkable. Note the common denominator? Churchill, Churchill, Churchill – no matter which version of the story you pick, the Queen virtually disappears from view.
Since the story – in whatever form – originated with her, this is perhaps the point, although none of her biographers sees it (or else they all do but like their publisher contracts so). Marr comes the closest when he remarks that even in our image-conscious age, the Queen has no image – but it goes deeper than that. Elizabeth II’s memory stretches back over most of the lifespan of the House of Windsor. She saw how much respect was balanced precariously on the personal dignity of her grandmother Queen Mary; she saw how close the personal weakness of her uncle King Edward VIII brought the entire monarchy to ruin; she saw the cost the crown exacted from her stammering, weak-willed father George VI. At some point very early on, the human descendant of these monarchs, the carefree Elizabeth Windsor who could laugh at hoe-downs or make funny faces at children, simply vanished from all levels of public view. All that was left was the monarchy itself, working emphatically without a person at its center (small wonder that the one time the public cried out to see a person – immediately after Princess Diana’s death – became the gravest crisis of Elizabeth II’s reign). No interviews, no public gaffes, no controversial opinions – no fallible, contradictory human getting in the way of the greatest monarchy the world has ever seen.
At one point Smith remarks, “The fact that all these anecdotes are somewhere between thirty-five and sixty years old speaks for itself.” Indeed it does: only such laughably faint traces mark the presence of the Invisible Woman.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.