Tuesday, March 27, 2012


FTC: I received a free paperback version of this book from Random House for a Goodreads History Book Club discussion.

Prior to reading this, I didn't have a lot of interest in the English royal family. I grew up during their most tumultuous years, when it seemed every week brought fresh "revelations" about the exploits of Princess Diana or Prince Charles. I never thought about it growing up, but all those tabloid covers left me with a distinct negative impression of Queen Elizabeth, and of the royal family as a whole.

This book changes all of that. Bedell Smith is an obvious admirer of the Queen, so this biography is hardly objective. But objectivity is not really the job of the biographer—accuracy is. Given the copious source notes and extensive bibliography, I think Bedell Smith achieved this. It's clear she really did her homework. I don't think she would have been able to create such an engaging, illuminating biography of Elizabeth II if there weren't plenty of evidence to support her view.

What is Bedell Smith's view? It's certainly at odds with the press, which has presented Elizabeth II as cold, stolid, and out of touch—a prism that couldn't be further from the truth. Turns out the Queen is an excellent diplomat who has skillfully kept the monarchy relevant while maintaining its timeless mystique—and this in a time when the monarchy is no longer wholly constitutionally relevant in England. Her qualities, so derided in the tabloids, are actually worth admiring. We're so used to seeing celebrities and the like emotionally slobber all over everything in their path, the Queen's self discipline, grace under pressure, and emotional control in the public arena actually come off as qualities to which we can all aspire. In private, she is warm and accepting, using the same diplomatic skills to manage the difficult personalities in her private life as in the public sphere.

One of the most surprising revelations was that Princess Diana's emotional problems had an enormous effect on her marriage. Princess Diana was hugely popular with the press and in their eyes could pretty much do no wrong, but in private she was very troubled. The constant press attention contributed to her problems significantly, but that didn't stop her from feeding tidbits of information (and misinformation) to reporters. I was shocked to read that she participated in an "unauthorized" biography that was scathingly critical of the royal family and then lied directly to the Queen about it. In spite of this, Princess Diana and the Queen were closer than the press ever let on, and there is evidence the royal family tried to get Diana help for her personal issues, such as her bulimia. The criticism Elizabeth II received after Princess Diana's death was a little heartbreaking to read, given that she spent a lot of time in private consoling her grandsons.

There were many comments among the History Book Club members regarding the Queen and Prince Philip's lack of skills as parents—which readers picked up on early in the book. Their situation could hardly compare to that of normal parents. Queen Elizabeth really does feel she belongs to the Commonwealth and she put duty above family as her children were growing up, which turned out to be tragic, given some of their exploits. The same traits that have made her such an effective diplomat worked against her somewhat in a family setting. Yet, the book does such an effective job of showing the Queen and her family as real people, it's hard for me to judge.

Overall, I walked away with a much more favorable view of the royal family than I had before reading the book. I'm not sure I believe monarchies are relevant in our world today, but then, I'm an American. Yet the book is fascinating and illuminates not only the Queen, but a good deal about her job, how England works, and how the monarchy can be an effective diplomacy tool. Totally worth the time and effort, especially if you have any interest in England and/or the Commonwealth at all. Five stars.