The mystique of the British monarchy is seductive, particularly to Americans, and I am not ashamed to admit I indulged in a bit of “royal watching.” Though my favorite monarchs (or at least the happenings during their reigns) are Edward VII, Henry II, Edward IV, and Charles II, the unique challenges faced by Elizabeth II over the course of her sixty year reign are just as interesting. In The Real Elizabeth, Andrew Marr doesn’t try to tear the veil from the monarchy, nor does he use this book to rehash the same old same old (namely, the marriage and divorce of Charles and Diana). Instead, he gives us a sort of guided tour through the day-to-day duties and responsibilities of the Queen through, perhaps, the eyes of a trusted, yet not entirely uncritical, courtier, and places her life in context of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The book does mine familiar territory as it dashes through the creation of the House of Windsor (est 1917 when George V rids the family of any Germanic heritage) and how Elizabeth became second-in-line to the throne. Since this book aims to show the circumstances that shaped and molded Elizabeth’s character on the throne, Marr does give a superficial sketch of Edward VIII and the Abdication Crisis, and can paint things very black and white. However, once the story returns to her upbringing and her relationship with her parents, things move speedily along. Another highlight is the story of Prince Phillip and Princess Elizabeth’s first meeting, which is amusing and charming, and actually made me realize just how long both have lived!
The section that should have been most interesting–the Queen and her Prime Ministers–was actually the most disappointing, and section after section of new PMs began to drag on the pacing, particularly since Marr had a tendency to frame these encounters in Queen Elizabeth’s favor. They also were placed in the least amount of context, which was surprisingly, since the early decades of her reign saw the dismantling of the British Empire and the slowly rising growth of colonial immigration to the isles. The book does swing up again when the focus returns to the Queen and her family, and I was surprised to learn about Prince Phillip’s role in shaping the present-day perception of the royal family.
Of course there is a section focusing on Charles and Diana, and also the divorces of her other children, as well as her annus horriblis (1992), and here is where Marr can’t seem to maintain his distance–so Diana lovers, watch out! *g*. However, the book does end on a high note, bringing the narrative back to its primary agenda: proving the Queen’s continued relevance over the years, and showing how the monarchy has adapted itself to the myriad of societal and political changes over the last six decades. The Real Elizabeth is a fitting tribute, perhaps not to the lady personally, but to the institution and symbol she represents, and is a satisfying part of this year’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the Summer Olympics.
FTC Disclosure: This book was thoughtfully provided by the publisher