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.by