Queen of the World
By Robert Hardman
Pegasus Books, 2019
Queen Elizabeth II presents a series of obvious standing problem for biographers. Some of these, maybe the majority of them, ultimately derive from her increasingly baffling chronology: she came to the Throne in 1952, has been reigning longer than any other British monarch, and at 92 seems healthier, sharper, and most of all saner than any of the world’s other heads of state (not always a high bar to clear, admittedly). In recent years she’s delegated some of her enormous schedule of royal events to her children and grandchildren, but given the fact that her mother lived (and remained sharp as a tack) until she was 101, the Queen could easily be on the Throne for another decade.
She has visited more countries than any other head of state in the world or any other British monarch in history. She has met more people, smiled into more eyes, shaken more hands, than any other human being on Earth. She has done all this as the constitutional monarch of a state that would be instantly thrown into a constitutional crisis if she actually exercised any monarchical authority at all. She has more status and less power than any other world leader. She is more immediately recognizable than any other world leader, yet the facts and details of her very existence as one of those leaders have baffled entire generations of presidents, premieres, shahs, and generalissimos. Scarcely anyone she meets can remember a time when she wasn’t exactly what she is now: simply The Queen: a canny, smiling little woman who has gradually become the institutional memory of the Western world.
All of this is a picturesque, even baroque mutation on the baldly cash-and-carry stage of international politics, but it makes for a maddeningly static narrative. The Queen attends a series of public events every year that would thoroughly wear out a much younger person, and she takes her share of vacations largely away from the prying eyes of the world, and she doesn’t grant interviews … and the sum total of that tends to thwart exactly the lines of inquiry usually pursued by modern biography. As William Shawcross demonstrated a decade ago, there are only so many rubber-chicken state dinners a biographer can narrate before his book drifts into doldrums.
In his big new book, Queen of the World, veteran Royals chronicler Robert Hardman makes a very game and largely successful effort to avoid those doldrums. He does so by concentrating on the Queen’s role as head of the Commonwealth of Nations, the benign and senescent inheritor of the mantle of the old British Empire. The Commonwealth consists of 53 member states, and its 144 million people look to Elizabeth II as their sovereign head of state. Hardman takes a wisely warm and sympathetic tone toward the whole ramshackle affair:
The Commonwealth has always been the odd one out among the world’s great geopolitical groupings. This is an organization with an evolving, unwritten constitution, just like Britain’s. The nearest it has to a rulebook is a list of enlightened aspirations embodied in a single charter, which has just one signature: the Queen’s.
And he stresses, with a wistfulness that’s as optimistic as it is unconvincing, that “this has not been the story of a reluctant decline.”
Queen of the World therefore has a vivid international tenor that separates it from the long shelf of previous Elizabeth II biographies. Indeed, the book is closer to a study of working monarchy than anything since Frank Prochaska’s Royal Bounty a quarter-century ago. Also, entertainingly, the Queen in these pages shares the stage with the whole of the working Royal family, all of whom are out working the meet-and-greet on the Commonwealth circuit. Hardman does a great job recounting the Queen’s innumerable meetings with every head of state anywhere in the world in the last seventy years, but he’s also alive to the plot possibilities of the rest of the “Firm,” including the possibilities for droll comedy, as in the case of Prince Charles touring the Commonwealth:
Every day of this tour, and every other tour, will involve this blend of bilateral schmoozing, princely passions, a couple of photo-opportunities (seldom enjoyed) and a small element of sightseeing, plus the occasional grand set-piece event. Whenever possible, lunch will be omitted from the schedule. The Prince takes a dim view of lunch. ‘I’m like a camel,’ he is fond of saying, often to the chagrin of those in the entourage who do not feel very camel-like by the time they get to lunchtime.
The result of this new Commonwealth approach is that rarest of rarities: a Queen Elizabeth II book that’s actually different from all the other Queen Elizabeth II books. In 2019 that’s feat enough; that the book should also be so consistently entertaining is something of a royal bonus.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.