Elizabeth II Gets Big Wet Kiss in Breathless Bio: Book Review

The cover jacket of "Elizabeth The Queen: The life of a Modern Monarch" by Sally Bedell Smith. Source: Random House via Bloomberg

Among the many improprieties Sally Bedell Smith cites in her biography “Elizabeth the Queen” is the time Jimmy Carter planted a kiss on the Queen Mother. She later said she hadn’t been kissed that way since the death of King George VI.

She can’t have been more shocked than the author, who never tires of sniffing at the ways commoners have improperly pressed, addressed or otherwise violated the sanctity of Queen Elizabeth II and her family.

Yet Smith’s own prose comes at you like a spray of saliva, its reverence bordering on rapture:

“Her role as the head of armed forces is one of her most sacrosanct duties. With her hierarchies, rituals, traditions and clothing created with a military-style sense of occasion, she is a soldier at heart.”

Elizabeth II ... or Joan of Arc? Compare a passage on the same topic from “The Real Elizabeth,” by the British journalist Andrew Marr:

“The Queen is Head of the Armed Forces. It is to the queen that new soldiers, airmen and sailors pledge allegiance, and in whose name they fight and die. She has a special relationship with some regiments ... and a general one with all.”

After 600-plus pages of Smith, it’s a relief to read a writer who doesn’t give you the impression that if his subject appeared at his door he would lose control of his bladder. Marr is less chronological and more thoughtful (not to mention wittier) than Smith, and he gets the job done in a little more than half the page count.

No Bad Language

He, too, is impressed with the queen. Who isn’t? “She has uttered not a single shocking phrase in public,” he marvels. “There are no reliable recorded incidents of the Queen losing her temper, using bad language or refusing to carry out a duty expected of her.”

Her 12 prime ministers have treasured their weekly audience with her, during which she questions them intently and, apparently, gives nothing away. Harold Wilson probably spoke for them all when he described these visits as “the only times when he could have a serious conversation, which would not leak, with somebody who wasn’t after his job.”

Prince Philip

The queen is by all accounts a good judge of character, and she was shrewdest -- unlike her children -- when it counted the most. Philip Eade’s low-key, intelligent biography “Prince Philip” deals with Philip’s life only up to the coronation, but that’s enough to make it clear (though it’s hardly news) that the driven, hyper-virile prince consort was not a man born to play second fiddle -- which, oddly, may be why he’s been so good at it.

Elizabeth never had eyes for anybody else. But though his bloodlines were impeccable (they are both great-great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria), his funds were scarce, and a few courtiers thought he was “no gentleman” because he hadn’t been to Eton. According to Marr, their marriage marks the sole instance of Elizabeth’s acting “against the grain of what was expected.”

Both Marr and Smith are hostile to Princess Diana; both cite her comment to Tony Blair (Marr calls it “icy calculation”) that she had “gone for the caring angle.” Marr calls her “isolated, lonely and dangerous.”

They both re-create the touching moment -- familiar from the 2006 movie “The Queen” -- when Elizabeth returned to London after Diana’s death and faced what seemed to be a hostile crowd. In Marr’s version, a girl came forward with flowers and the Queen asked, “Are these for Diana?”

“No, Ma’am, for you.”

Marr gently lampoons such marmoreal figures as Winston Churchill and Dickie Mountbatten, but he can’t brush aside his awe of the queen.

Ruler as Servant

Then again, neither can she. As Marr writes, “The Coronation was intended to awe and even to intimidate -- and not only those watching, but also its subject.” Only in a certain sense does she stand at the peak of the social pyramid: The modern monarchy is built on the paradox of “the ruler who is servant to her subjects.”

She has an amazing capacity to seem interested. I was once at a reception in Oxford she was attending, and I somehow managed to jockey myself into her path, allowing me to bore dinner parties with the story for years to come. During the five minutes or less that we exchanged banalities, although I was distracted by the diamonds in her hair, I was convinced, in spite of myself, that she was fascinated.

I learned more in those five minutes about political skill and the graceful execution of duty than any book could teach me.

“Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch” is published by Random House (663 pages, $30). To buy this book in North America, click here. “The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II” (349 pages, $32) and “Prince Philip: The Turbulent Early Life of the Man Who Married Queen Elizabeth II” (347 pages; $28) are both from Henry Holt; to buy them, click here and here.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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