The idea of a strong woman, one who can hold her own in the world, has been idealized ever since Cleopatra. The role of the monarch, whether beneficent or despotic, has hardly had to evolve; to be as one wishes seemed to be one of the many perks of majeste. It is wonderfully surprising to discover that Elizabeth, Queen of England, who is about to celebrate her 60th Anniversary on the throne, is perhaps the very model of a 21st century sovereign.
Sally Bedell Smith's compelling new biography Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch (Random House) offers us a brilliant look at the evolution of Elizabeth's public and private persona.
Elizabeth Windsor was a bright and capable young woman whose interests were wide ranging and whose sense of humor was apparently enchanting; in a different place in time she would have used her ability and connections to achieve any number of gainful positions. Instead, upon the death of her father, George VI, far from any sort of royal indulgences, she inherited 'the firm' and her life was handed over in its entirety to the service of her people.
Bedell Smith, whose earlier works include For Love of Politics, a sharp look at the Clintons, has the forthright and informed voice of an experienced journalist. Here she takes up an extraordinary challenge: to push aside any preconceived notions that we might have (and frankly who among us does not have an idea of what it takes to be Queen.) Perhaps because her hometown is Washington DC, and Bedell Smith is familiar with the floor plans of political power, she brings us into the landscape of a country whose history has rested on the graces of one individual.
Elizabeth The Queen, we are told, now resides in the 21st Century, and the picture has changed: monarchy is an anachronism and yet, here she is celebrating her 60th year, and more beloved than ever.
Elizabeth was born to and lives in service to the crown; while her laugh we are told is very much her own, her voice must be understood, at all times, to be the voice of her country. True, the perks are substantial, but in this well-crafted and rich biography, we come to understand that royal life is a Hobson's choice, really no choice at all.
While HRH Elizabeth has had a life full of opened doors and entrances, all lead back to the same Court. Far beyond the usual cultural-biography, Bedell Smith has written a very original work that churns with an undercurrent of existential questions. Here is a woman whose very person demands attention, and whose every action is noted world-wide, and yet her personal voice must be unheard when as she speaks for all her subjects.
Sally Bedell Smith will be speaking about Elizabeth the Queen on Saturday March 24th at 4pm at BookHampton. Please join us!
— Charline Spektor