The Diamond Jubilee Book Reviews 8: The Diamond Queen by Andrew Marr

The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth II and Her People was one of the first books published in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. Andrew Marr, a British journalist and political commentator, wrote it as a companion to a landmark BBC documentary series about the Queen’s life and reign. Marr is also the author of The Making Of Modern Britain and other works about the recent history of the British Isles. The Diamond Queen is therefore steeped in the historical context of both the twentieth century monarchy and broader political and social change in the United Kingdom and the rest of the commonwealth. Marr’s work complements the other Diamond Jubilee books about the Queen, providing a fresh perspective on Elizabeth II’s sixty year reign.

While Robert Hardman focuses on the Queen’s household and duties, Sally Bedell Smith looks at the Queen’s personality, and Ian Bradley analyzes her role within the Church of England, Marr looks at the people and broader historical trends who have shaped Elizabeth II’s approach to her reign. The first hundred pages are the story of her parents, paternal grandparents and other relatives who made their mark on the twentieth century monarchy and the education of the young princess and queen.

Marr’s analysis of Queen Mary’s influence over the first twenty-five years of Elizabeth’s life is particularly fascinating as George V’s consort is often portrayed by her biographers as a pillar of tradition rather than an influence over an evolving twentieth century monarchy. Elizabeth II’s paternal grandmother broadened her education by taking the young princess to museums and art galleries, contributed to the development of the philanthropic monarchy, and, in the last years of her life, influenced the debate concerning Prince Philip’s role within the royal family.

I would have been interested to see Marr extend his discussion of Queen Elizabeth II’s family to include the influence of her Bowes-Lyon relatives. As the correspondence reprinted in William Shawcross’s Queen Elizabeth: The Official Biography Of The Queen Mother demonstrates, the young princess spent time with her mother’s parents while George VI and Queen Elizabeth toured the commonwealth and her Bowes-Lyon cousins remain among her closest friends.

When Elizabeth II ascended to the thrones of Great Britain and fifteen other Commonwealth realms in 1952, her relationships with her Prime Ministers defined the political climate of her reign. In contrast to biographers who often present the Queen’s interest in the commonwealth through the chronology of her royal tours, Marr looks at her interactions with political figures throughout the commonwealth, devoting a chapter to the monarchy’s role in the decolonization of Africa. In her role as Head of Commonwealth, the Queen continues to exert quiet political influence, encouraging dialogue between the world’s English speaking nations. Canadian readers will be particularly interested in Marr’s analysis of the Queen’s rapport with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and her role in the repatriation of the constitution.

One of the fascinating themes of The Diamond Queen is the relationship between the monarchy and the social and cultural changes that have occurred during the six decades of the Queen’s reign. In different decades, various members of the royal family appeared to reflect the ideals of the times from the Queen herself to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in the 21st century. In the 1950s, the Queen and Prince Philip appeared to be the most modern members of the royal family, agreeing to televise the coronation and traveling across the Atlantic by airplane.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Princess Margaret seemed to capture the mood of the times, with her vibrant social life and unconventional marriage to society photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones. Marr presents a sympathetic account of the Princess’s difficulties living in the shadow of her reigning elder sister and is deeply critical of what he describes as the “archaic” Royal Marriages Act, and its role in preventing her from marrying her first love, Group Captain Peter Townsend.

In my review of Penny Junor’s recent biography of Prince William, I observed that any biography of a living person is necessarily a work in progress. This conclusion applies as much to the Queen at 86 as it does to Prince William at 30. Since The Diamond Queenwas published in 2011 and Marr concludes his narrative with the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, he predicts a bleak future for the monarchy in Canada. If an updated version of the book were published today, Marr’s ideas on this subject might be different as the Diamond Jubilee and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s successful  tour have contributed to a revival of interest in the Canadian crown.

Andrew Marr’s The Diamond Queen was the original account of Elizabeth II’s six decade reign and remains a vital component of any Diamond Jubilee library. Marr places the Queen within the political and social context of her times, analyzing the people and events that shaped her character and reign.

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