A Royal Riddle: New Books on What Makes Queen Elizabeth II Tick

Lightness of Being
Courtesy of Chris Levine / Danziger Gallery

For six decades, Elizabeth II has reigned as queen of the United Kingdom, enjoying a level of popularity that would make any politician envious. Yet despite her iconic status, she remains largely enigmatic when compared with her fellow royals.

It is perhaps for that reason that two books published to coincide with the diamond-jubilee year of her reign set out to uncover what makes the queen tick. Neither Andrew Marr in The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II nor Sally Bedell Smith in Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch succeeds in getting the queen’s notoriously tight-lipped inner circle to talk freely. But what emerges are two fascinating histories of Elizabeth II that show how her popularity is intrinsically linked to the mystique she has so carefully constructed.

Many of the same anecdotes appear in both books, as the authors describe the queen’s privileged and idyllic childhood, her marriage to Prince Philip, her relationships with a succession of older, wily prime ministers, and the time she has spent on board the royal yacht Britannia (the only place she really relaxed).

Marr, a British journalist with the BBC, relies on interviews with palace officials for his account, and includes workmanlike chapters on “What the Queen Does” alongside a bevy of constitutional details that sometimes read like a textbook. Smith, on the other hand, is an American biographer who informs the reader that she has met the queen twice, seeks out a wider range of sources, and provides a lighter, more gossipy tale of palace life. “Elizabeth II,” she writes, “has chosen to grow old gracefully without the enhancement of cosmetic surgery.”

The problem with both is access. Or rather, lack thereof. When the royals have allowed it, stagecraft has been the norm. In 1969, for instance, a BBC film crew followed the royals for nearly three months to make a documentary. The film showed the queen relaxing in tweedy Balmoral, barbecuing outdoors, and playing with her dogs. She was presented as a warm and animated leader of a happy family—a powerful image that endured for decades, and made the later princely breakups and infidelities so much more damaging.

Yet years later, as the British tabloids dissected the royals’ every move and profited from their indiscretions, the queen remained relatively unscathed. Perhaps the worst that can be said of her is that she picks up the Racing Post at breakfast before the more serious newspapers. Or that when she looks particularly stern, she is sometimes just trying to stop herself from laughing.

Queen Elizabeth books The Real Elizabeth by Andrew Marr, and Elizabeth The Queen by Sally Bedell Smith

Thus when the queen passes, and there indeed is a “gaping Queen sized hole in the middle of British life,” as Marr writes, it will be because she’s remarkably refashioned the monarchy in her own image, and probably ensured its survival for generations to come.