The Diamond Jubilee Book Reviews 2: Sally Bedell Smith, Elizabeth The Queen

Sally Bedell Smith’s biography of Elizabeth II, Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch, is one of the most recognizable books in North America published in honour of the Diamond Jubilee. The gorgeous cover photo of the young Elizabeth wearing the “Girls of Great Britain and Ireland” tiara that she received as a wedding present from her grandmother, Queen Mary, decorates numerous book shop windows. If a small store or library contains only one of the recently published biographies of the Queen, it is this one. It is the ideal introduction to Elizabeth II for those picking up their first royal biography and contains new insights regarding the Queen’s travels, interests and social circle for readers familiar with previous books about the monarchy.

In contrast to Robert Hardman’s Our Queen, which I reviewed a couple weeks ago, Bedell Smith is less interested in the monarchy as a political institution than Elizabeth II’s character. While Queen Victoria, made her political views clear in her own lifetime, committing them to paper in her extensive correspondence, the current Queen upholds the impartiality of the constitutional monarchy, rarely expressing a personal opinion on current events.

Elizabeth II’s political impartiality complicates the role of a royal biographer, resulting in many studies of the Queen that reduce her life outside the public eye to a brief mention of her interest in corgis, horse racing and spending time with her grandchildren. Bedell Smith, who has also published a biography of Diana, Princess of Wales, Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess , discusses aspects of Elizabeth II’s life that have received little previous attention including her social circle and her private travels.

Readers who enjoyed William Shawcross’s Queen Elizabeth: The Queen Mother: The Official Biographywill enjoy the numerous interviews with the Queen’s Bowes-Lyon cousins, who form a significant part of her social circle. The Queen’s private travels, which often reflect her interests in horse breeding and racing are covered in detail by Bedell Smith. These visits allow the Queen brief periods of incognito, contrasting with her well publicized state visits.

Since the author is American, another interesting aspect of Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch is the relationship between the British monarchy and successive American presidents. Bedell Smith covers Dwight Eisenhower’s visit to Balmoral, the significance of Elizabeth II’s 1961 visit to Ghana to Anglo-American Cold War politics and Prince Charles’s discomfort with Richard Nixon’s attempts to arrange a match with his daughter Tricia. Since Elizabeth II’s visits to the United States often followed tours of Canada, there is also plenty of material about her Canadian travels as well including the author’s interview with former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

My only criticism of Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch is that she provides few new insights about the Queen’s relationship with her husband, children and grandchildren. The seminal work about the marriage between the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh remains Philip And Elizabethby Gyles Brandreth. Bedell Smith agrees with his conclusions and adds little to them. The scandals concerning the Queen’s children in the 1990s have been discussed extensively in such popular works as Tina Brown’s The Diana Chroniclesand there is little need to spend an entire chapter summarizing these books when they remain widely available.

Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch is an engaging, readable biography of Elizabeth II that provides new insights about the Queen’s travels, interests and friends for longtime royal history enthusiasts and is an excellent introduction to the monarchy for readers picking up their first royal biography.

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Royals of the Caribbean: The 2012 Diamond Jubilee Commonwealth Tours Begin

Red Bay Dock, Grand Cayman

I leave for the Cayman Islands this Friday and will be there on holiday for Reading Week. That means there will be no further posts on this website until the end of February. It turns out I am not the only one leaving for the Caribbean later this month. The Buckingham Palace Press Office announced yesterday that the Earl and Countess of Wessex will be undertaking the first of the 2012 Diamond Jubilee Tours from February 21 to March 7, visiting numerous commonwealth nations and British overseas territories in the Caribbean.

The Earl and Countess of Wessex with the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester in the 2009 Trooping of the Colour Parade

The itinerary consists of St Lucia; Barbados; St Vincent and the Grenadines; Grenada; Trinidad and Tobago; Montserrat; St Kitts and Nevis; Anguilla; Antigua and Barbuda. Highlights include the 50th Anniversary Independence Day celebrations in St. Lucia, a joint address from both houses of the Barbados parliament and a visit to sites affected by the recent volcanic eruptions in Montserrat.

The Cayman Islands are not part of the Earl and Countess of Wessex’s 2012 itinerary but they have received numerous royal visits in the past. The Earl of Wessex has visited on four separate occasions, participating in the Cayman Quincentennial celebrations in 2003, inspecting the damage caused by Hurricaine Ivan in 2004, touring the Islands in 2007 and meeting with residents of Cayman Brac displaced by Hurricaine Paloma in 2009.

Of course, the most famous royal visit to the Cayman Islands was that of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1994 for the 200th anniversary of the Wreck of the Ten Sail. During the tour, the Duke asked a Caymanian, “Aren’t most of you descended from pirates?” The Islanders could have asked the royal visitors the same question as there were a few princely privateers active during the Golden Age of Piracy.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine

During the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, King Charles I’s nephews Prince Rupert and Prince Maurice of the Rhine served as commanders in the royalist army. In 1648, Rupert became commander of the royalist fleet and traveled with Maurice down the coast of Africa and across the Atlantic to St. Lucia, the Antilles and the British Virgin Islands, capturing Spanish galleons containing gold and silver and disrupting Oliver Cromwell’s ability to conduct overseas trade.

Maurice was lost at sea during a 1652 hurricane and Rupert returned to the exiled royalist court in France the following year. Although his exploits as a privateer had not been as profitable as the royalists expected, he split the treasure with his cousin, the future Charles II. Part of Rupert’s share of the profits contributed to the living expenses of his sister, Sophia, who ultimately became the mother of King George I and ancestor of everyone currently in the British line of succession.

Map of Prince Rupert's travels as Commander of the Royalist Fleet

There will be more royal tours of the Caribbean in 2012 as Prince Harry visits Jamaica and the Bahamas and the Duke of Gloucester visits the British Virgin Islands to celebrate Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee.


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The Valentine’s Day Book Review: Virginia Rounding, Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina

Since 1967, the lives of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna, the last Emperor and Empress of Russia, have been synonymous with Robert K. Massie’s sweeping narrative, Nicholas and Alexandra. Like Massie’s other epic works of Russian History, Peter the Great: His Life and World and Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Nicholas and Alexandra  is a page turner, combining the research of previous scholars of Russian history and court memoir literature into a work that read like a novel. Like Nicholas II, Massie is the father of a hemophiliac son, and he approaches the struggles faced by the last Emperor and Empress with great sympathy. Massie’s work was adapted as the Oscar nominated film Nicholas & Alexandra in 1971.

Despite the availability of new sources following the opening of the Russian archives to scholars in the 1990s, subsequent authors seeking to present a new perspective on Nicholas’s and Alexandra’s marriage did not attempt emulate Massie but instead provided commentary on edited volumes of Imperial letters, diaries and state papers. These fascinating collections of Romanov papers, A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra Their Own Story, The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra: April 1914-March 1917and The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of Revolutionare significant sources for Virginia Rounding’s 2011 dual biography of Nicholas and Alexandra.

As the first author to write a full length narrative history about the marriage of Nicholas and Alexandra since Robert Massie, Rounding focuses on the issues that received less attention in the 1967 book. While Massie was primarily interested in the effect of the heir to the throne’s hemophilia on the Imperial marriage and the broader course of Russian history, Rounding devotes an entire chapter to Alexandra’s health. She notes that the Empress suffered from various mysterious ailments prior to her son’s birth and weighs the various theories concerning the the Empress’s physical and psychological health.

Rounding is also interested in Queen Victoria’s influence over her granddaughter, Alexandra. Other authors who have addressed this subject, such as Julia Gelardi in Born to Rule: Five Reigning Consorts, Granddaughters of Queen Victoria, have argued that the Queen exerted a positive influence over the young Empress. In contrast, Rounding argues that the example of Victoria’s comparative seclusion from her subjects and belief in bed rest as the cure to every health problem actually hindered Alexandra’s integration into the Russian court. Queen Victoria’s well known distrust of the Russian aristocracy and Nicholas II’s relatives may have also influenced Alexandra’s decision to raise her family at a comparative distance from the court in St. Petersburg.

One of the great strengths of Rounding’s work is her analysis of Nicholas’s and Alexandra’s diaries and letters for evidence of their cultural tastes. Their favourite novels are discussed in detail, the contrast between their enjoyment of mainstream Tchaikovsky ballets and the avant garde tastes of the broader Russian court receives sustained attention. Rounding’s use of memoir literature and newspaper articles of the period illuminates the reasons why their living spaces were considered “bourgeois” to aristocratic observers and appeared to emphasize the Imperial couple’s separation from the larger court.

My only criticism concerns the structure and footnotes of the book. The first half of the book is structured thematically with chapters devoted to Alexandra’s health, the Imperial couple’s religious mysticism and the significance of their friend Anna Vyrubova to their marriage. The second half of the book is structured chronologically with chapter 5 titled “Beginnings.” This arrangement of chapters has the potential to be confusing for readers who have not read Nicholas and Alexandra. Also, as a graduate student in history, I’m always interested in having a look at an author’s footnotes. Rounding’s citations are rudimentary and do not always provide the full source material for the interesting information that she presents in Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina.

Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarinais a fascinating addition to any royal enthusiast’s library. Rounding’s new perspective on the marriage of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna compliments Massie’s work, examining previously neglected aspects of the Imperial marriage. For readers, unfamiliar with the story of Russia’s last Emperor and Empress, I recommend reading both Nicholas and Alexandra and Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarinafor two fascinating perspectives on one of the most significant marriages in twentieth century history.


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Diamond Jubilee Book Reviews 1: Robert Hardman, Our Queen

2011 and 2012 saw the publication of numerous books about Queen Elizabeth II’s life and work in honour of the Diamond Jubilee. None of these works are official biographies. After the Queen’s death, her diaries will be released to a selected official biographer, who will write the definitive work. Nevertheless, the Jubilee themed books are interesting to read and contain valuable insights about Elizabeth II’s long life of service to the United Kingdom and Commonwealth. During the next few months, I will post reviews of my favourite Diamond Jubilee books of 2012.

Robert Hardman’s 2011 work Our Queenis not a biography of Elizabeth II that begins with her birth and ends with the Diamond Jubilee. Instead, Hardman explores the Queen’s life thematically, examining such topics as her image, her relationship with her Prime Ministers, her diplomatic role and her household. The book contains a number of interesting interviews with those closest to the Queen, including a discussion with Prince William about his grandmother’s achievements.

A longtime royal correspondent and writer of numerous documentaries about the monarchy, Hardman provides plenty of interesting historical context for the modernizing of the monarchy by Elizabeth II. For example, when the Queen faced popular demands to pay income tax in the 1990s, this request was not a challenge to a centuries old royal prerogative but a situation that had only existed since 1936 when George VI required additional funds for the Duke of Windsor’s income in exile.

One of the most interesting chapters of the book concerns Elizabeth II’s important diplomatic role presiding over state visits by foreign leaders. The Queen entertains any world leader invited by the British government but there are hints in Our Queen that Buckingham Palace has hosted some difficult house guests. Hardman describes the 1973 state visit of President Mobutu of Zaire and his wife Marie-Antoinette as the most challenging for the royal household because the first lady smuggled her dog through customs and insisted on ordering it steak from the palace kitchens. The Deputy Master of the Household was assigned the delicate task of persuading the presidential couple to  relocate their dog to the Heathrow kennels.

In recent years, Elizabeth II has expanded the traditional state dinner into a series of functions honouring Britain’s relationship with the visiting leader’s nation, and providing opportunities for larger numbers of people to be entertained at Buckingham Palace. For example, the 2010 state dinner in honour of South African Jacob Zuma, was preceded by a party attended by members of the London branch of the African National Congress, the first African astronaut, Mark Shuttleworth, and South African international soccer player Quinton Fortune.

Hardman’s fascinating discussion of these state occasions also provides the answer to the often asked question of what happens to gifts received by members of the royal family during their travels abroad. For the events in honour of Zuma’s visit, the curators of the Royal Collection created an exhibition of Anglo-South African memorabilia including the silk scarf Elizabeth II received from Nelson Mandela at the time of his inauguration and a chess set with pieces carved to resemble Zulu and Xhosa warriors received by Prince Philip in 1996.

In his description of this exhibition, Hardman provides an example of the Queen’s diplomatic abilities. When Zuma expressed dismay that his gift on that occasion of his state visit was also a chess set, Elizabeth II made clear that the set in the exhibition belonged to Prince Philip and that she was delighted to have one of her own. The state dinner was a success affirming the friendly relationship between the United Kingdom and South Africa.

I recommend Our Queen to anyone interested in the Queen herself, the workings of the royal household, and the role of the monarchy in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth today. Hardman’s work is beautifully written, and filled with interesting material about Elizabeth II and the transformation of the monarchy during her reign.

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Royals on the Road: Monarchy and the Automobile

The future Edward VIII in the back of a Pierce-Arrow open automobile, wearing a checked cap, during a 1913 visit to Germany

I completed my driving school course today at Young Drivers of Canada (which thankfully also accepts slightly older drivers). All the hours spent driving around in circles, searching for cars to practice parallel parking behind, inspired me to look at the long and interesting relationship between the history of the car and the history of European monarchy.

When automobiles became available to European elites in the first decades of the twentieth century, the monarchs of the period made their use – or rejection – of this new technology part of their public images. Although he succeeded to the throne at the age of 60, in 1901, Edward VII became the first British monarch to ride in an automobile, demonstrating his determination to be a more modern monarch than his late mother, Queen Victoria.

In contrast, his nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany showed his devotion to the traditions of Prussian militarism by declaring, “I do believe in the horse, the automobile is nothing more than a transitory phenomenon.” The presence of the Kaiser’s roadster in the Stuttgart Mercedes-Benz museum, which I visited in 2009, demonstrates that he eventually changed his mind!

A 1936 Mercedes-Benz Spezial-Roadster, on display at the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart, Germany. The Duke of Windsor, formerly Edward VIII, broke the tradition that dictated members of the British royal family should only drive British made automobiles by buying one of these cars.

Immediately prior to the First and Second World Wars, the British monarch’s choice of automobile became a live political issue. Although continental European monarchs such as Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Emperor Nicholas II of Russia drove Mercedes-Benzes, George V made a point of only driving British made automobiles, emphasizing his British identity in the face of criticism of the royal family’s German ancestors during the First World War.

His son Edward VIII, who I discussed in an April, 2011 interview with the Kingston Whig-Standard, did not display the same political acumen. Immediately following his abdication in 1936, the newly created Duke of Windsor broke with tradition and bought a Mercedea-Benz Spezial-Roadster, contributing to suspicions concerning his patriotism prior to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Princess Elizabeth Serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service during the Second World War.

In England, Edward’s niece, the future Elizabeth II served the United Kingdom during the Second World War though service in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, as an honorary Second Subaltern with the service number of 230873, serving as a driver and mechanic. Her familiarity with automobile mechanics is famously dramatized in the 2006 Helen Mirren film, The Queen

Today, Elizabeth II has use of the state fleet of British made Bentleys and Rolls-Royces . The integration of the car into all aspects of royal pageantry was completed by Kate Middleton’s arrival at Westminster Abbey in a limousine on her wedding day instead of the traditional carriage. Both cars and carriages are now integral aspects of British royal ceremonial occasions.

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George VI and Elizabeth II

During my interviews this past week with the Kingston Whig Standard, CBC news, the Globe and Mail, Sun News Network and the CTV news channel, I emphasized Elizabeth II’s personal influence over the British monarchy through her commitment to her role as Head of the Commonwealth, her strict observance of political impartiality, and her decision to make the Royal Collection of art accessible to a wide public audience. Sixty years after the death of George VI, the influence of Elizabeth II’s father over her approach to her position should also be remembered.

The close relationship between George VI and Elizabeth II was unprecedented in the history of reigning Queens of England. Queen Victoria’s father Edward, Duke of Kent (who lent his name to Prince Edward Island, Canada) died in 1820 when she was nine months old. Victoria idealized the father she had never known, describing herself as a “soldier’s daughter.” Queen Mary II and Queen Anne, who were devout Protestants experienced religious differences with their Roman Catholic father James II, and supported his overthrow in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Mary I and Elizabeth I were both declared illegitimate by their father Henry VIII, who was determined to be succeeded by a male heir.

In contrast to her predecessors, the future Elizabeth II spent a great deal of time with her father, sharing his sense of duty toward his royal office and commitment to a life of public service. In his last years, George VI had expanded his schedule of world travel to reflect his new role as Head of the Commonwealth, visiting South Africa with his wife and daughters in 1947. When ill health prevented George VI from embarking on subsequent travels, Princess Elizabeth represented him on a 1951 Canadian tour. Her planned tour of Australia and New Zealand via Kenya in 1952, representing George VI, was cut short by news of his death. The new Queen Elizabeth II returned to England sixty years ago, beginning a reign that would combine her father’s example of duty and public service with her own innovative approach to the practice of constitutional monarchy.

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Welcome to Carolyn Harris: Royal Historian, the place for historical commentary on today’s royal news. This site’s pages also contain links to the print, radio, and television interviews I have done in the past year concerning Prince William’s and Kate Middleton\s wedding, the recent changes to the royal succession, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s 2011 visit to Canada and the role of the monarchy in Canadian political life. The 2011 royal weddings and tours combined innovative new approaches with the centuries of traditions surrounding a “royal progress” or the marriage of a member of the royal family. 2012 will be another exciting year in the history of monarchy as Elizabeth II celebrates her Diamond Jubilee, only the second in British history. The Queen has presided over an unprecedented period of modernizationand revitalization of the institution of constitutional monarchy and shows every sign of continuing to balance reform with tradition in the seventh decade of her reign. I will provide weekly commentary here about royal history as the jubilee celebrations unfold and also provide reviews of some of the numerous books being published this year about royalty.

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