Sunday, January 15, 2012
Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith
Sally Bedell Smith's Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch comes just as Elizabeth II celebrates her 60th year on the throne. Some reviewers have described the book as an authorized unauthorized biography, likely because Bedell Smith writes with sympathy and admiration for the Queen's dedication and the sacrifices that the Queen has made and makes on a daily basis.
I hadn't read any of biographies of the royal family and have had a mild fascination with Princess Diana (like most of the world). I'd enjoyed the movie The Queen with Helen Mirren. I'd requested Elizabeth the Queen through the Amazon Vine program with a general curiosity of the second longest reigning monarch and was delightfully surprised to learn the details of her life as queen. The book begins with ten-year old Elizabeth and her sister discuss the abdication by King Edward VIII and their father's ascension to the throne. Elizabeth suddenly becomes next in line to the throne and she is prepared accordingly. Drastic changes are made to her education, training, and treatment - she, her family, and those around her take care to prepare her for her role. In contrast, her father Prince Albert ("Bertie") had not been raised as the heir and his sudden ascension when King Edward VIII abdicated to be with Wallace Simpson had not only created a constitutional crisis but had imposed an incredible burden for which he -- at least from Hollywood's depictions (The King's Speech)-- had not felt well prepared. But as Prince Albert took on the role of George VI, history (and again, the movies) reveal that he met unexpected and unparalleled challenges with great grace, dedication and success -- he steered England through World War II and the challenges afterward. The royal family made sure that Elizabeth was prepared, insofar as one can be, for her future role as monarch. "I have a feeling that in the end probably that training is the answer to a great many things. You can do a lot if you are properly trained, and I hope I have been." said the Queen on the eve of her 40th year. But as the book reveals, preparation is not so much intellectual education but also a deeper devotion to, understanding of, and commitment to the responsibilities, obligations, and limitations of her position as queen. Her role as constitutional monarch - and the restrictions that are imposed on her - and her larger role as diplomat, role model, and queen that brings together the Commonwealth nations and her subjects the world over.
I was fascinated by the conversations, anecdotes, and details that Sally Bedell Smith revealed. Having only known Queen Elizabeth as the older monarch, mother of the rather old Prince Charles and presumably an unsympathetic mother-in-law to the lively Princess Diana, it was lovely to read about her early years, of her own youth, glowing beauty, the personal and diplomatic triumphs of the young queen. Sally Bedell Smith gives us a fuller story of Queen Elizabeth II with careful research and meticulous details. We learn of her love affair and marriage to Prince Philip as well as the ways in which she has sought to give him greater importance. The relationship between Elizabeth II and Prince Philip is similar in some ways to that of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Prince Consort - except that Prince Albert was given a greater role in governmental affairs. However, Bedell Smith recounts the romance in much the same way: the fabulously wealthy heir presumptive is attracted to a handsome, well educated, young man of similarly royal birth. Prince Philip is a descendant of Queen Victoria and a third cousin of Queen Elizabeth which Prince Albert was first cousin to Queen Victoria. Both queens sought to give their husbands primacy in their family life and to give them a larger role and importance in public life. Sally Bedell Smith devotes considerable time on Prince Philip, his background, his interests, his adjustment to his role as Prince, his treatment of their children, his wisecracking ways that are supposedly done to provide comic relief and ease tension. Bedell Smith makes Prince Philip out to be a sympathetic character. I'll admit though that while she makes him a more sympathetic character, there are things that stick out in her description of Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth that make one curious as to what other people would say about incidents and these royal personages. For instance, Bedell Smith writes "Always vigilant about his own weight, he helped his wife return to trim form by encouraging her to give up potatoes, wine and sweets."
Most of the anecdotes are enlightening and I came away with great respect and affection for Queen Elizabeth II. Her dedication to her work -- she dedicates hours each day to official correspondence and briefings, taking time out only on Easter and Christmas, her strict adherence to her role under the constitution, and the physical demands of her position are all revelations and evoke my greatest admiration. I very much enjoyed reading Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch and highly recommend it for those with an interest in modern history. Queen Elizabeth II is much more than a royal figure, she is one of the most important leaders of the last century.
ISBN-13: 978-1400067893 - Hardcover $30
Publisher: Random House (January 10, 2012), 688 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine Program and the publisher.
About the Author:
Sally Bedell Smith is the author of bestselling biographies of William S. Paley; Pamela Harriman; Diana, Princess of Wales; John and Jacqueline Kennedy; and Bill and Hillary Clinton. A contributing editor at Vanity Fair since 1996, she previously worked at Time and The New York Times, where she was a cultural news reporter. She is the mother of three children and lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Stephen G. Smith.