Queen Elizabeth, who will be 80 on April 21, has led a life that embodies the values of her great-grandmother Victoria’s day: duty, duty, duty. It is a life that by the lights of the “liberated woman” would be considered intolerable.
The queen has been bound by tradition and a monarchy that many believe to be obsolete-and yet, says Brit author Sarah Bradford, who has a biography of the queen’s wayward daughter-in-law, the late Princess Diana, coming out in the fall, she has succeeded by “being herself.”
She was not, as Bradford recalls, born to be queen:
“Aged nine, Princess Elizabeth experienced the popularity of the British monarchy at his Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1935. She was ten in 1936 when the scandal of her Uncle David’s abdication to marry Wallis Simpson put her father on the throne as George VI and herself – to her horror – in line to accede to the throne. She was, therefore, not born to reign but in character eminently suited to do so.
“As we learn from the notorious and much-maligned Crawfie’s account of Princess Elizabeth’s early years, she was a conscientious, tidy, responsible little girl with a love of horses and dogs – her ambition was to marry a farmer and live in the country. She had a sharp temper which sometimes broke out in fights with her younger sister Margaret, amid snapping of bonnet strings and cries of ‘You beast!’ But generally she was reserved, self-controlled and rarely seen to cry.-She was shy and emotionally inhibited, characteristics inherited from her grandmother, Queen Mary,-yet with a sense of humour, a biting, sometimes sarcastic wit and a gift for mimicry inherited from her mother. Her entourage on her Commonwealth tour in 1953 was surprised to see her, in full evening dress and jewels, imitating the Maori haka with the requisite stamps and grunts. And on occasion, among friends, she will laugh until the tears come.
“Her role models have been her father and her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria; indeed her father liked to compare her dignity and grace of carriage with that of the Queen-Empress, telling his guests that ‘he often wondered if history might not repeat itself’. The King trained her for her future position. ‘Long before most people do,’ Crawfie recorded, ‘Lilibet took an interest in politics, and knew quite a bit about what was going on in the world outside …The King would also talk to his elder daughter more seriously than most fathers do to so young a child …It was as if he spoke to an equal.’ When her father died, the new Queen accepted her destiny with equanimity. Martin Charteris, then her private secretary,-resorting to the equine similes popular in court circles, described her as ‘taking the reins with a firm grip’.”
The queen, it seems to me, despite all the sublimation required to do her job, has led a life that means something. She has led an honorable life, dedicated to her country, a job all the more valiant because some think it is ridiculous. The same, alas, cannot be said for her heir apparent.
The caddish Prince Charles has done what his Uncle David wanted to do-marry a woman who, in the eyes of the church English monarchs are sworn to defend, was not quite available-and yet managed to retain his place in the order of succession. Indeed, we may yet see Mrs. Parker-Bowles as Queen of England.
What’s the difference? Of course, it could be that Prince Philip was a bullying father or the queen a negligent mother. But there is also this: Elizabeth came of age in a day that put a premium on done one’s duty, while Charles was born in a time that prized doing what one wanted to do. Is there any doubt which is happier–or has the fuller self?