A sprightly 85 and still clutching her signature handbag, Queen Elizabeth II is more popular than ever. Deservedly so: She emerges from the pages of Sally Bedell Smith’s well-written new biography as phenomenally capable, bravely standing up for what she believes in, offering rock-solid leadership throughout her epic reign of 60 years.
Shaped in the crucible of World War II, when her parents, the king and queen, were nearly killed by Luftwaffe bombs, Elizabeth exhibits the virtues of a now-fading generation: devotion to God, duty, and work; telling the hard truth; no vacillation, equivocation, or self-absorption.
Smith’s book is not an official biography - none will be commissioned until Her Majesty has died - but it resembles one in its deferential, admiring tone. Readers who approve of monarchy will give heartfelt thanks that an accident of history - her uncle Edward VIII’s abdication of the throne - placed so fine a person in line of succession.
Although Smith is an American, she was given considerable help by palace sources and friends of the queen. Her book is enlivened with countless anecdotes that show Elizabeth’s human side, and, at the same time, how fond most everyone is of her - a little intimidated, yes, but genuinely fond.
She has, to an astonishing degree, kept her humility amid the panoply of being queen. She has never seemed besotted by the sheer power of her permanent, unelected status as head of state of the United Kingdom and 15 Commonwealth realms. Now a silver-haired great-grandmother, at heart she is still the fresh-faced girl who gave an earnest broadcast on her 21st birthday promising “that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service.’’
It has been a long life - longer than Queen Victoria’s - and the biographer is faced with an embarrassment of riches: Elizabeth’s every move has been reported since birth. At 2 years old, “Lilibet’’ first met Winston Churchill, who said he detected “an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant.’’ Later he became the first of 13 prime ministers to be wowed by her sagacity and expertise.
The queen’s greatest crisis, Smith suggests, has not been war or international tumult, but a slender young beauty named Diana. Here the biography really gets going, as we see Elizabeth more vividly in light of her alter ego.
Whereas the queen embraces service for its own sake, Diana was self-serving; Tony Blair said she spoke to him in “fairly calculating terms of how she had ‘gone for the caring angle.’ ’’ Whereas the queen studiously ignores the camera, Diana flirted with it. Whereas the queen is comfortable in her own muddy Wellington boots, Diana was consumed with neurosis concerning her image - and perhaps, Smith says, even suffering from borderline personality disorder.
Obsessed with her husband Prince Charles’s supposed infidelity with Camilla Parker Bowles (which Smith calls mere fantasy, at least for the first five years of their marriage), Diana vowed revenge. Using her immense media appeal as a weapon, she fed gossip about the royals to tabloid reporters, then shamelessly lied when the queen confronted her - the sympathetic queen who had long encouraged Diana to call her “Mama.’’
The People’s Princess proved adept at poisoning public opinion. Smith shows how Diana created, after her divorce, a nuisance “parallel court’’ to the queen’s, using political and media allies to promote herself as a rival royal who acted, in Diana’s Me Generation words, “from the heart not the head.’’
Diana is gone now, but the monarchy surely remains imperiled, thanks to the modern habit of questioning everything and undercutting tradition - an arid reality Smith downplays. In lauding Elizabeth, she gives little space to rabid republicans who want to eliminate the crown forever. But they occupy prominent positions in British government and journalism and are tirelessly vocal. Already the monarchy has been stripped of much mystery (the palace is on Twitter), and reflexive deference to authority seems increasingly passé.
Smith doesn’t mention it either, but in the space of two generations Britain has witnessed the crippling demise of the Anglican Church, a key institution undergirding the crown (Elizabeth is officially Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England). If a nation that has been officially Christian for 1,400 years can so quickly lose interest in God, why not King?
Elizabeth has done such an outstanding job, the republicans know that their day won’t come until after her funeral. Already they sharpen their knives for the hour when King Charles takes her place, a person less popular than his mother and supposedly more heavy-handed. On him they pin their hopes of a Britain without a Queen Elizabeth III - when palaces are echoing museums, crowns can only be seen in glass cases, and the royal biographers are all put out of business.W. Barksdale Maynard has taught at Princeton and Johns Hopkins universities and is the author of four books, “Architecture in the United States, 1800-1850,’’ “Walden Pond: A History,’’ “Buildings of Delaware,’’ and “Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency.’’ His fifth, “Princeton: America’s Campus,’’ is due out in May. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.