Mother And Queen

DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS, QUEEN Elizabeth finally lost patience with her troublesome heir and his wife. Her unprecedented toughness--a letter urging them to divorce--was triggered by Diana's and Charles's tit-for-tat TV interviews, in which each confessed to adultery. Such public soul-baring is anathema to Elizabeth, brought up in the stiff-upper-lip tradition of her parents. She has not found it easy to sympathize either with Diana's emotional dramas or Charles's self-pitying complaints. Personally reserved, she regards such displays of emotion as "phony." And she has been reluctant to interfere in her children's personal lives--too reluctant, some would say. Her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, whom she much admires, interfered ceaselessly in her children's lives. Victoria particularly concerned herself with their marriages, drawing up a list of prospective brides for one son soon after he was born. "If the queen," one of Elizabeth's old courtiers was heard to remark, "had spent as much time on the marriages of her children as she does on the mating of her horses, things might have turned out better."

Elizabeth spends her evenings examining the bloodlines of stallions and mares, searching for the perfect match. Yet when Charles chose Diana Spencer as a bride and Andrew plumped for Sarah Ferguson, Elizabeth raised no objection despite warning signs in their backgrounds. Both came from broken homes, with mothers who were "bolters"--had run off with other men. Sarah was a clone of her randy father. As a child, Diana had been described as "scheming" and "a liar." Her parents' divorce had a devastating emotional effect on her. Elizabeth preferred not to look beneath the two girls' attractive surface-- and no one warned her. Courtiers are not in the business of telling bad news. Diana's maternal grandmother later confessed her "horror" at the prospect of her granddaughter's marrying Charles. But at the time she said nothing.

Since the failure of three of her children's marriages, Elizabeth's role as a mother has come under the microscope. The phrase "dysfunctional family" is regularly used to describe the Windsors. But how far is she personally to blame for what has happened? It is true that Elizabeth finds it difficult to communicate on a deep personal level. Friends will tell you how the death of a dog will prompt a four-page letter of condolence, while the passing of a close relation or dear friend will be met with silence. Lack of communication has certainly been a factor in her relationships with her children. Although they love each other--inarticulately--the fact that she is The Queen does create a certain distance. Her children do not bring her their problems, and conversation with their mother tends to be on a jokey, superficial basis. Elizabeth feels this--she sometimes complains that her children never tell her anything--but does not seem to realize that perhaps she should initiate such conversations. The children, not surprisingly, are in awe of her.

Problems such as those faced by her children never surfaced during Elizabeth's own childhood. With her father, George VI, her mother, Queen Elizabeth, and her sister, Margaret, the Windsors of that date were an exceptionally happy family. The king and queen adored each other; the king loved his daughters; the queen kept the family bowling along with games of charades and racing demon, and responsible Elizabeth looked after irresponsible Margaret, a role she would play for the rest of their lives.

Then in 1939, when Elizabeth was just 13, she fell in love -- at first sight and forever--with a handsome young naval cadet, Prince Philip of Greece. When World War II ended she was still in love with him and he, despite his success with women on shore leave in Australia, was sufficiently attracted to her to want to marry her. Their wedding in November 1947 was followed a year later by the birth of Prince Charles Philip Arthur George. Following the custom of the British upper classes of the time, Elizabeth left her children in England with their nurses and grandparents, to enjoy the life of a naval wife while her husband served with the fleet. That carefree time was perhaps the happiest period of her life. When Fergie announced that she wanted a separation from Andrew, Elizabeth was uncomprehending. "She didn't even try to be a naval wife," the queen told a friend.

The death of her father on Feb. 6, 1952, ended Elizabeth's "normal" life. At 25, she was Queen of Great Britain and its dominions. Her husband would have to give up his naval career to walk two paces behind his wife for the rest of his life. Elizabeth's dilemma was now very much a 20th-century one. She had become an executive woman, rich, influential, dedicated to her job. Her macho husband was financially dependent and officially subservient to her. Elizabeth compensated by deferring to him in private. When it came to the family, Philip's word was law. But Philip, too, came from a broken home. He had no real experience of family life and only naval toughness to offer his children. It worked well with his daughter, Anne, who was virtually his clone, far less well with Charles, a sensitive, vulnerable child without his parents' inner steel.

When the virginal, well-born Diana Spencer presented herself as a possible bride, the Windsors behaved in character: Charles dithered, his father pressured, his mother didn't get involved. Elizabeth and the rest of the family took Diana's bouts of tears as prewedding nerves; Charles did not confide his doubts to his parents. The stage was set for his traumatic marriage.

As the Waleses' marriage deteriorated before her eyes, Elizabeth did not intervene. She knew of her son's relationship with Camilla, but friends say she never tackled him about it, even when told that Parker Bowles's brother officers were shocked by it. (The prince broke the unspoken rule that an officer does not sleep with a fellow officer's wife.) Courtiers believed she was too indulgent to her daughters-in-law. Queen Victoria would have given Charles a royal talking-to and forced the couple to keep up appearances.

Elizabeth's failure to act illustrates the dichotomy of her role as queen and mother. In the interests of the monarchy, she should have acted earlier. But it's hard to behave like Victoria in the age of Elizabeth. People have called her a cold and remote mother, to blame for her children's failures in relationships. It is true that she is not demonstrative, not a hugger or a cuddler. ("You called me "darling'!" the young Charles once exclaimed in surprise.) In private, though, she can be funny and warm. But there are other factors in the equation. The truth is, being royal is never easy, and the pressure on any relationship in the spotlight of global celebrity is enormous.

Too, there is a generation gap between Elizabeth's view of marriage as a lifelong commitment for which compromise is essential and Diana's de- sire for love and complete possession of her husband. Elizabeth herself, although strictly monogamous like her parents and grandparents, has been prepared to turn a blind eye to Philip's alleged adventures. She expects loyalty, not fidelity; their marriage is rock solid after almost 50 years.

The decision to urge her son and his wife to divorce was a painful one for the queen. She is a devout Christian and believes in marriage. But in the case of the Waleses, Elizabeth had to guard the monarchy from further damage. "What did we do wrong?" she asked friends, watching her children's marriages fall apart. Elizabeth approaches her 70th birthday next month, trying to keep her shortcomings as a mother from making her a failure as queen.