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.