Tuesday 16 January 2018

Review: Elizabeth The Queen: The Woman Behind The Throne by Sally Bedell Smith


HAPPY REIGN: Queen Elizabeth, on one of her many official engagements
HAPPY REIGN: Queen Elizabeth, on one of her many official engagements

In London, plans are afloat for next weekend's Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant. Led by the new £1m royal barge Gloriana, a pageant of more than 1,000 boats will sail down the river next Sunday to mark HM Queen Elizabeth's 60 years on the throne.

Also launched to mark the jubilee year is Sally Bedell Smith's new biography about a monarch who, aged just 21 in April 1947, publicly pledged her life to the service of the Commonwealth.

Sixty five years on, Queen Elizabeth still honours that pledge with punishing work schedules and an almost obsessive devotion to duty. Which is all very worthy, if perhaps a little dull; for what can one say about someone who never puts a foot wrong?

Over 663 densely packed pages, biographer Sally Bedell Smith shows just how much there is to report on the virtually blameless life of a monarch who has spent six decades on the throne and, barring "Alzheimer's ... or a stroke" has no intention of vacating it any time soon.

With acknowledgements, source notes and a bibliography running to almost a hundred pages of fine print, there's no doubting Smith's commitment to her task; yet there are, nonetheless, many little known gems spangling the text, at least some of which, one suspects, come courtesy of the 40 guarded souls interviewed by Smith during the course of her research, who chose to remain anonymous.

Not that they dished much in the way of dirt -- but what royal watcher worthy of the name could fail to be curious about the contents of the royal handbag? Even if they amount to no more than you'd expect to find in any little old lady's bag: lipstick, a pen, Kleenex, reading glasses, etc (although rarely cash, we're told, "except for a precisely folded £5 or £10 note on Sundays for the church collection plate").

It is exactly this sort of trivia that most engages; tales that tell of the private person behind the public facade.

And Smith can tell them.

For example, she brings us behind the scenes of a Royal party held in Claridges on the evening of Charles and Diana's wedding on 29 July 1981. The newlyweds had just left for their honeymoon and spirits were high. Prince Philip, resplendent in a beanie hat, was presiding over the buffet while Princess Margaret sat on the floor tucking into scrambled eggs. Meanwhile, the Queen was perched on an ottoman, martini in hand, watching re-runs of the wedding on the surrounding television screens. "Oh Philip, do look!" she'd exclaim. "I've got my Miss Piggy face on!"

But such moments of public frivolity are few and far between. Tutored in the minutiae of royal protocol by her formidable grandmother Queen Mary -- who considered it inappropriate for a monarch to smile in public, and always wore a tiara to dinner even when she and her husband were dining alone -- the young Princess Elizabeth absorbed even difficult lessons readily, not least because she and her grandmother were similarly self-contained, focused, and industrious. As she matured, it became obvious that Elizabeth had inherited her grandmother's abhorrence of public displays of affection. Although there's no doubting her devotion to her husband of almost 65 years, he still walks three steps behind her as per royal protocol; and in all their time together they've only once been seen kissing in public when Philip pecked the Royal cheek during the Millennium celebrations.

Even in private, the Queen keeps her emotions in check. When, in 1977, her private secretary and valued confidante Martin Charteris -- "my Martin," as she called him -- retired after 27 years of devoted service, the Queen brought Princess Anne along when she was bidding him farewell: she knew her flinty daughter wouldn't tolerate tears from her mother.

In our emotionally expressive times, the Queen's permanently stiff upper lip seems increasingly anachronistic but Smith obviously admires her subject matter's restraint, quoting British politician Richard Crossman, who says: "When she is deeply moved, and tries to control it, she looks like an angry thundercloud."

But there is little evidence of storm clouds in the book's glossy images. Interspersed with formal shots of key events such as weddings and funerals, you'll find snaps of Elizabeth on her knees changing the tyre of a military vehicle during her time in the Auxiliary Territorial Service in 1945; being bear-hugged by an African-American woman, one Alice Frazier, whom she encountered on a trip to Washington in 1991; and being winked at by President George W Bush during a welcoming ceremony on the White House Lawn in May 2007, after he mistakenly recalled her visit to the United States in 1776 rather than 1976. ("She gave me a look only a mother could give a child," he later quipped.)

As tightly packed as Her Majesty's work diary, with its informational gems, meticulous attention to detail and engaging prose style, Elizabeth The Queen would be a worthy addition to the shelves of royal watchers everywhere.

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