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Good queen, bad subject

2 June 2012

7:00 PM

2 June 2012

7:00 PM

There is a paradox at the heart of all books about the Queen. The very thing which makes her such a successful constitutional monarch is what makes her an impossible subject for biography. We do not know anything about her. The only book which brings her to life as a person is Marion Crawford’s The Little Princesses (reprinted by Orion, £8.99), a vivid picture of nursery life when Lilibet and Margaret Rose were growing up at 145 Piccadilly. Crawfie saw it all — the neatness, the horse-obsession, the deference to the rather awful mother, the selfless sense of duty, and the goodness.

No wonder this truth-teller had to be banished, punished forever. The young Earl of Essex, riding hotfoot from Ireland, covered in mud and sweat, burst in on Queen Elizabeth I at Nonsuch Palace at ten o’clock one  morning. He saw the poor old lady several feet away from her wig-stand, with bedraggled grey hair about her ears and no make-up or jewels. He died a year later on the block. Crawfie survived, and so suffered a less glamorous but no less definite punishment — to live out her sad days in a humble house near Aberdeen, mourning her young princesses.

Kate Williams brings this out vividly in Young Elizabeth: The Making of Our Queen (Weidenfeld, £12.99). It was deft of Williams to concentrate upon little Lilibet as her subject, and this was my favourite of  the many royal books which have been published in the last six months.

After she had grown up, married, and became the Queen, Lilibet’s personality faded from view. Either she had achieved some sort of spiritual act of self-forgetting, or she is simply lucky enough to be an unselfish, unshowy sort of person of whom there is not much to say. It does not mean she is unimpressive; merely that you would not envy the person who tries to write more than one side of A4 about her character.

Yet there has been no shortage of those, from Robert Lacey to Sally Bedell-Smith to  Ben Pimlott, who have attempted to draw the Queen’s likeness. None, to my mind, have been any more successful than Lucian Freud, who spent four years, allegedly, daubing away with his thick grey smudges, to produce a rather cross-looking old lady in a coronet, with none of the insight into royal character which we find in a portrait by Velasquez or Zoffany.

The most magisterial book on the Queen this year was written by that doyenne of royal studies, Sarah Bradford. Sidestepping the Queen’s invisibility as a biographical subject, Bradford, who has written so well on Diana and George VI, gives us Queen Elizabeth: Her Life in Our Times (Penguin, £12.99), setting the story of the monarch within the events and politics of her reign. It is full of insights and historical wisdom. Having read Williams and Bradford, you could very understandably feel that this was enough.

But times are hard, the more so for publishers than for many other businesses. You cannot blame them for commissioning a royal book during the Jubilee year and hoping it will bring in some desperately needed cash. If Lady Colin Campbell can get you to reach for your plastic card, with her racy suggestion that the Queen Mother was really the daughter of a French cook, don’t think too harshly of Dynasty Press for rushing such bilge as The Untold Life of the Queen Mother (£20) into print. Any money made from this self-contradictory title will help some secretary with a mortgage to get through the next 12 months without being a burden to the taxpayer.

If the once-great BBC loses dignity by publishing Elizabeth: Her Life, Our Times (£18.99), the brightly illustrated reflections of Alan Titchmarsh (‘The changes the Queen has seen in her realm during the 60 years of her reign are astonishing!’), remember that we value a public-service broadcasting corporation, and — unlike the monarch’s — its enemies in modern Britain are powerful. Anything which helps keep the BBC afloat is welcome, even if it is Titchmarsh.

Andrew Marr is an intelligent bloke, with better things to do with his time, you might suppose, than write books called The Diamond Queen (Pan, £7.99), but he has children to support, and his breezy survey of the monarch’s reign is a perfectly well-oiled piece of machinery. His account of his personal conversion from republicanism to the belief that we live in ‘a lucky country’ because we have the Queen, and his personal veneration for Her Majesty, will make some cynics watch out for his name in the next Birthday Honours List. But we who are not cynics must assume he is writing from the heart.

No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money: the motive for commissioning the books is clear enough. Will they succeed in their ambition? How many books do you want or need which retell this very familiar story all over again? How many times can you read about the dismissal of Crawfie or the tragic death of Princess Diana in the Parisian underpass? Most of these books look as though they will sit forlornly in one of those shops which are really book cemeteries, with names like Book Warehouse, piled high with glossy volumes once priced at £20 and now yours for £2.99.

If you find yourself yearning for a book subtitled ‘A Funny and Irreverent Look at the British Royal Family Past and Present’, then buy The Book of Royal Useless Information by Noel Botham and Bruce Montague (Metro, £10.99), but it is disappointingly less tasteless and wacky than it sounds, and contains sentences such as this: ‘By tradition the only person allowed to place the State crown on the sovereign’s head is the Archbishop of Canterbury.’ This would have been news to Elizabeth I, who was crowned by the Bishop of Carlisle, and punters hoping for something funny or irreverent might not have thought that this ‘information’ was what they had paid for.

But if royal subject-matter lends itself naturally to drivel, there are a few notable exceptions. Some writers have actually pulled off the trick of writing a book which has something to say, and which is entertainingly presented. Much the best of the ones I read was Peter Conradi’s The Great Survivors: How Monarchy Made it Into the 21st Century (Alma Books, £20). What’s good about it? Four things spring to mind immediately. First, it is not just about British monarchy, so that its observations and anecdotes about Elizabeth II and her family can be seen in the context of other royal stories — Spanish, Dutch and Scandinavian, for example. Secondly, it realises that the reader wants to be entertained, so it is crammed with good anecdotes and scandals — some familiar, some unknown. Thirdly, it is not either perkily ‘irreverent’ nor is it forelock-tugging. It gets the tone just right, recognising the worth of monarchs and monarchy but doing so in a humorous way. Fourthly, it sees what is durable about the monarchical idea. ‘The point is, quite simply, that monarchy — at least in the constitutional form found in Britain and elsewhere in Europe — actually works.’

Two books which focus on the religious angle also deserve mention. Ian Bradley’s God Save the Queen: The Spiritual Heart of Monarchy (Continuum, £12.99) defends not merely the fact that our sovereigns have to be Christian. It also defends the unfashionable idea that we should not repeal the Act of Settlement nor allow our Head of State to be, or to marry, a Roman Catholic. Representing what he calls ‘eirenic, gracious liberal Christianity’ (i.e. Presbyterianism — which is what he professes as a minister of the Church of Scotland), Dr Bradley is against the Pope, and is in doubt about the advisability of retaining the Holy Communion service as part of the next coronation.  

This doubt is not shared by the Dean of Westminster in Queen Elizabeth and Her Chu
rch: Royal Service at Westminster Abbey
(Continuum, £12.99). Central to the monarchical idea, as understood in English history, is, John Hall contends, that the monarch is a ‘servant leader’. He points out (which I had not noticed, but is probably known to most) that the monarch is crowned with back to the people, facing the altar, a potent symbol for the Dean, of the God-focused nature of the monarchical role. If the Dean himself — welcoming the Pope, conducting Commonwealth Day and Maundy Thursday services and royal weddings — figures in these pages more often than Her Majesty herself, we may smile indulgently, but his book is the one that the Queen herself might enjoy the most.

Clearly the Racing Post would like to prove me wrong, and in a lavishly illustrated quarto-sized volume from its publishing division, Her Majesty’s Pleasure: How Horse-racing Enthrals the Queen (£20), Julian Muscat offers a close analysis of the Queen’s racehorses and her relationship to the sport of kings. On the morning of her coronation, one of the ladies-in-waiting asked HM how she felt. She replied, ‘Very well.’ Cecil Boyd-Rochfort had just telephoned to report that Aureole had completed the Derby preparation with a pleasing gallop in Newmarket that morning.

Aureole does indeed look a splendid fellow from the photographs — though he only came second in the race. Since then, the Queen’s luck with her horses has been abysmal. She has owned few winners. Highclere won the Thousand Guineas (by a whisker) in 1974, going on to win the Prix de Diane at Chantilly in the same year. Dunfermline landed the Oaks in the Silver Jubilee year, ridden by Willie Carson. Phantom Gold won the Ribblesdale Stakes at Royal Ascot in 1995, but these were the exceptions. Ian Balding describes the Queen as the unluckiest racehorse owner he has ever encountered.

The fact that she has bad luck with her horses does not diminish the Queen’s enthusiasm, and the stories in Her Majesty’s Pleasure — about her knowledge of horses, about her easy and intimate relations with those who run the stud at Sandringham, about her racing friendships — are of a quite different order from all the other books in this pile except Kate Williams’s. Here we see a recognisable human being, a little girl neatly arranging her toy horses on the landing.

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