by Robert Lacey
With a newly arrived Royal Baby (capitalization probably required), it seems appropriate to read about the child's great-grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II. What got me picking up this indeed brief book, however, was The King's Speech. I'd finished watching it on Netflix and remembered seeing screenwriter David Seidler on Charlie Rose when the film was first released. He said that he'd wanted to explore the story of King George VI's stutter and relationship to his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, but that the Queen mother asked him to wait until she died. Then, of course, she went on to live a total 102 years. Nine years later, The King's Speech won 4 Oscars, 7 BAFTAs, 1 Golden Globe, and 2 SAG awards. It is an outstanding film, and I wanted some additional information about the family.
I've never really been a royalist, but my interest stems from how odd their insular experience must be. In The King's Speech, the Queen Mother, then the Duchess of York (played by Helena Bonham Carter), makes a joke that being royalty is like “indentured servitude,” which isn't too far off — though it's still a very pampered, privileged life, despite its obligations. The Queen: A Life in Brief condenses much of the information found in Robert Lacey's other book, Monarch (also known as Royal, in the Great Britain edition), which was the basis for the Helen Mirren film, The Queen. When a family is so private, the sources all seem to feed into one another.
Despite being a slim book with thick pages and fair amount of photos, Lacey still provides plenty of information about Elizabeth Windsor, from her birth on April 26, 1926, to her irregular ascension to the crown in 1953, then on to all the Diana-Charles-Camilla chaos, and her current existence up until last year's Diamond Jubilee. The impetus for publishing this biography was probably because of that anniversary and the subsequent renewed interest in royalty — a move I can't begrudge, given my timing for publishing this review.
There's a little bit of background information on Queen Elizabeth's father, Prince Albert, who would eventually become King George VI, when his brother David (Edward VIII) abdicated the throne. I found myself wanting more than what was mentioned, but I suspect I will have to choose another book listed in Lacey's bibliography for any more information. Other family members get more time — not so much Elizabeth's sister, Margaret (who died in 2002), but certainly her children and her husband, Prince Phillip. Lacey recounts her courtship with Prince Phillip as a long and drawn out affair, punctuated by interference from family in the name of “duty.” He also talks about the strained relationship she's had with her children, Charles and Andrew, and the grandmotherly way in which she renewed public support after Princess Diana died.
Lacey writes in a simple way that's not overly fawning. He points out the difficulties and criticisms the Queen has faced over her reign, but he does not become gossipy or overly malicious. He's a very good biographer in that there is not much conjecture. The facts are presented, he cites his reference material, and he makes it all interesting.
Only six months older than the Queen, Margaret Thatcher was Elizabeth's first Prime Minister of her own generation, and would turn out to be her longest-serving premier ever. For the entire decade of the 1980s, male chauvinist Britain was unique in the world in having a female head of state alongside a female head of government. But they were women of very different styles. A prime minister who loved a row was teamed with a monarch who would do anything she could to avoid one.
What's also refreshing is that Lacey talks about the recession and awful practices Thatcher employed, but he doesn't do it in a way that criticizes Thatcher because she's a woman. Blessedly little page space is given to things like clothing and style matters — though with Princess Diana, some of that is unavoidable. Everyone is talked about in regards to their actions, not their gender.
I finished the book in about two nights, and it nicely sated my curiosity about the Queen. I don't know that I'm so enamored with British royalty that I'll pick up Lacey's other books, but I would definitely recommend The Queen: A Life in Brief to anyone looking for a basic rundown of recent history. This book accomplishes exactly what it set out to do, and for that, it is worth mentioning.
Full Disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.
This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.
This review now also appears on Pajiba.