‘Of making many books there is no end’, particularly when the subject is Queen Elizabeth II. It is less than ten years since Ben Pimlott and Sarah Bradford independently produced authoritative and excellent biography-centred books on the Queen. Since then a fair number of minor studies have appeared. Can enough have happened in the meantime, can enough new information have been revealed, to justify two new books?
The answer, rather surprisingly, is a cautious ‘yes’. Both Andrew Marr and Robert Hardman are serious students of their subject. Both write well and thoughtfully. Neither offers sensational revelations — just as well, since it seems unlikely that there is anything sensational to reveal — but both books contain a lot of information which will be new to any but the most dedicated student of the monarchy. Though Marr admits to having once been a republican, both authors are now patently supportive of the monarchy, and strong, if not wholly uncritical, admirers of the Queen.
Marr’s book is a biography. ‘This is not a particularly gossipy life story,’ he claims. Childhood, marriage, all the well known features of her private/public life, feature prominently, but
I am more interested in trying to explain what monarchy now means; why the Windsor dynasty behaves as it does; and what having a Queen for all these years, rather than a succession of presidents, might mean.
He writes as a political journalist and broadcaster, in whose career the Royal Family has played a significant but only peripheral role.
Hardman is a professional royalty- watcher. His aim is more to explain the machinery of monarchy than to describe the monarch herself: his book is a series of essays — ‘Her Politicians’, ‘Her and Us’, her travels — which together provide a picture of what the Royal Family, the Queen in particular, actually does.
Inevitably there is much common ground, and their judgments are usually the same. Both, for instance, justifiably criticise the Queen’s first Press Secretary, Commander Colville — ‘The abominable no-man’, as he was known in Fleet Street. ‘In Colville’s eyes,’ writes Hardman, ‘all publicity was bad publicity’; he contrived ‘to irritate the most supportive commentators’. Both, still more justifiably, praise the Queen’s Private Secretary, Martin Charteris: ‘One of the wittiest and shrewdest advisers she ever had,’ writes Marr; ‘a brilliant, innovative and impish figure,’ judges Hardman, quoting another Press Secretary, Ron Allison, as calling him ‘the wisest man I ever met’.
Marr is particularly interesting on the relationship between the Queen and the BBC. In the early 1950s, ‘thanks in part to Reith, a passionate monarchist, the BBC was solidly part of the establishment — powerful, authoritative, clean-shaven and suavely self-certain’. But in 1995, without warning the Palace, or even its own Chairman, it aired Princess Diana’s vengeful interview with Martin Bashir, an episode which the BBC’s then Director-General, John Birt, said ‘marked the end of the BBC’s institutional reverence, though not its respect, for the monarchy’.
Hardman’s book, on the other hand, abounds in picturesque detail about what goes on behind the scenes in the royal establishments. The fact that more than half the recipients of invitations to garden parties today reply not in the formal third person but by letters beginning ‘Dear Lord Chamberlain’ or ‘Dear Master of the Household’ cannot be described as overwhelmingly important, but is curiously fascinating to anyone interested in the Royal Family and its relationship to society. So is the fact that the Buckingham Palace garages house two Bentleys and three Rolls-Royces — the oldest, a Phantom IV. dating from 1949 and known as ‘the Old Beast’. Or that the intervention of the Palace was necessary to ensure that Lord Denning was not debarred from becoming a Deputy Lieutenant of Hampshire on the grounds that his military service had been spent in the ranks.
Where both authors concur most strongly is that the concept of duty underlies everything the Queen does. The grinding daily routine to which she submits herself, the flood of paper which she deems it necessary to read, all follow from that moment in South Africa in 1947 when she dedicated herself to a lifetime of service to her people. ‘It might be a document of stultifying inanity or head-throbbing complexity,’ writes Hardman, ‘but if it passed through the political system without passing beneath the gaze of the Monarch, then she would quite simply feel that she had failed in her duty.’
So which to read? If you want what is primarily a biography, go for Marr. If it is the institution that interests you, go for Hardman. If you are an enthusiastic monarchy-watcher, read both. If it ranks low in your scale of importance, then you will lose little by reading neither.