Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Andrew Marr (2012)

I don't ever pretend to have an English accent, unless I am alone, reading something aloud to myself for fun.  Something like an Agatha Christie book.  Or Oliver Twist, or Narnia.

I'm not that kind of person.

But I suppose, reading-wise at least, you could call me an Anglophile.

I love Mary Poppins and Dodie Smith's Dalmatians.  I have always had the biggest crush on Edmund Pevensie (Don't.  I already know).  Even evil Edmund (perhaps, especially evil Edmund).  I love Miss Jane Marple and Philippa Gregory's Tudor potboilers.  Nell Gwynne and The Sword in the Stone.  Alice in Wonderland and Alice Liddell.  Interestly, I've never seen nor read Peter Pan.  The Wind in the Willows is a favorite.  Connie Willis's time travel novels are all set in England, and I adore them.  Pride and Prejudice.  A Christmas Carol.  The Dark is Rising. Diana Wynne Jones.  Harry Potter.

I particularly love reading about the Royal Family.  I'm a nut for it.  It's my not so secret passion; I don't trumpet it about, but I'm sure my friends know this.  Or suspect.  I know my husband knows; a running joke in our house is that I will wake him up in the middle of the night to discuss at length the color of Queen Victoria's underwear.  I'm doubly offended - I've never actually done this, and I would probably call them knickers.

Victoria and her brood are my favorite, and I would hazard a guess that I've read almost everything worth reading about her, Prince Albert, Edward and Alexandra, the many other royal children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren,  the whispering Waleses, Marie of Roumania, Queen Mary and King George, the Kings speech (I actually have not read this, but saw the movie),  the Battenbergs and Coburgs and the Tecks.  

I like the Tudors too.  I enjoy the Wars of the Roses nearly as much.  Pre-Lancaster verses York I'm not so crazy about; the Hanoverians aren't my favorite either.  The Stuarts can be fun though, particularly Charles II.  

Which brings me to The Real Elizabeth, Andrew Marr's 2012 portrait of the current queen.  She made history last week, passing the record set by Queen Victoria, so this was a good time to read about QE2.  Marr's book isn't a standard biography though, it's truly a portrait, a look at the queen and the state of the monarchy today.  Although this wasn't a snapshot either; there is some depth here, well-written and interesting.  There is a smattering of gossipy-ness, but just a tiny bit.

After so much royal reading, I thought I knew everything too.  But the mark of a good book for me is learning at least one new thing.  Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was called "Buffy" by her family.  Did not know that!

Marr made a truly thought-provoking (if your thoughts are provoked by such things; mine are) about the Queen and the 1960s.  The Queen superimposed against the 60s - the youth oriented culture of  Swinging London, the Stones and the Beatles and Mary Quant, miniskirts and "make love not war" - is a picture of an obtuse and hidebound conservative, out of touch.  But, as Marr points out, "the world of the 1960s, remembered now as the decade of social revolt, looser morals, and 'liberation,' was for those those at the top of power structure a deadly serious and frightening place."  Nuclear annihilation was figuratively and almost literally just around the corner for Great Britain, with the bullyish USSR just  just about 1,500 miles away.  Marr again and again places the Queen at the pivot of power in the United Kingdom, as head of state, but also as active listener, sometimes prodder, pusher, suggester.  The Government may still be in charge, but the Queen, the monarchy still matters, and certainly did in the 1960s.  That's Marr's argument anyway, but that maybe it paid to be conservative in a time when at any moment, missiles could make the kingdom your reigned over a wasteland.  Tread carefully.

"It has been a good life," Marr writes toward the end.  "The Queen has moved among beautiful places and interesting people, and she has always known that she was here for a purpose...  It is a public life of great predictability and minimal spontaneity. At the same time, it has been a private life with a lot of fun and warmth as well as the odd disaster.  She has been an outdoor woman who has bred racehorses, gossiped with close friends, walked, shot and ridden, and been amused, as well as alarmed, by her family."

A good life indeed.

The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth IIThe Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Andrew Marr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"It has been a good life," Andrew Marr writes at the end of this thought-provoking, true portrait (rather than snapshot or standard biography) of Queen Elizabeth II.  "The Queen has moved among beautiful places and interesting people, and she has always known that she was here for a purpose...  It is a public life of great predictability and minimal spontaneity. At the same time, it has been a private life with a lot of fun and warmth as well as the odd disaster.  She has been an outdoor woman who has bred racehorses, gossiped with close friends, walked, shot and ridden, and been amused, as well as alarmed, by her family."   This portrait isn't a Lucien Freud, all discomfort and warts, but rather a more nuanced look at the life of the current queen and the changing face of the monarchy over her now record reign.  Nothing written about the queen can't be completely devoid of gossip (Margaret, Diana, Camilla, etc.), but Marr isn't Kitty Kelley.  There is thoughtful well written depth about the rise and fall of power as centered on a small, graceful, discrete, intelligent, subtle woman.   Marr again and again places the Queen at the pivot of power in the United Kingdom, as head of state, but also as active listener, sometimes prodder, pusher, suggester.  The Government may be in charge, but Marr reasonably writes that the Queen and the monarchy more than still count for something.  A good life, and a good book.


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