ELIZABETH THE QUEEN: The Life of a Modern Monarch, by Sally Bedell Smith. Random House, 663 pp., $30.

 

In her Diamond Jubilee year on England's throne, Queen Elizabeth II remains something of a cipher. The world has watched her transform from the hesitant young wife and mother of two, who ascended the throne 60 years ago, to a stalwart octogenarian beaming at her grandson William's wedding last year. In between, there's been plenty of drama, gossip and tumult surrounding her family, yet Elizabeth herself seemed apart from it all, ever the embodiment of her native land's wartime exhortation to its citizens to Keep Calm and Carry On.

What, then, does it mean to be queen of a country that one does not govern? To be thrust into centuries-old rituals when those rituals carry little meaning in a speedily changing culture? And how can one operate as a mere human being, with faults and petty grievances and unbridled enthusiasms, when one must be queen 24/7?

"Elizabeth the Queen," a new biography by Sally Bedell Smith with more than 500 pages of text and another hundred-plus pages of back-matter, comes as close to answering these questions as anyone can without hearing directly from Elizabeth. (As Smith, who previously chronicled the lives of Princess Diana, Pamela Harriman and various Kennedys in book form, points out in an afterword, the royal family won't choose an official biographer until after Elizabeth's death.)

Smith instead paints a detailed portrait of the monarch from extensive interviews with Buckingham Palace staffers, friends and acquaintances of the royals, and a great many media accounts of Elizabeth's public exploits starting in 1936, when the 10-year-old princess learned that her father, the eventual George V, would be king instead of his abdicating older brother, Edward VIII.

"Does that mean you will have to be the next queen?" asked Elizabeth's younger sister, Margaret. "Yes, someday," Elizabeth replied. "Poor you," Margaret said. Any chance of a life outside the spotlight's glare was dashed, and Elizabeth understood from the first what it was to put duty above all.

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What follows is a meticulously researched volume that makes up for the lack of family access with choice details gleaned from countless interviews of those close to Queen Elizabeth.

While Elizabeth "keeps her views of literature well guarded" (as opposed to Alan Bennett's delightful fictionalized version in "An Uncommon Reader"), she does read and enjoy the Commonwealth Writers' Prize winners, especially historical fiction by Kate Grenville, Lloyd Jones and Lawrence Hill. In private, she laughs readily and dotes on her grandchildren, but the daily sight of the "red boxes" containing sensitive information about England's domestic and foreign policies meant she was always working, even as a young mother.

The book is strongest when depicting Elizabeth's early years as queen, from her closeness to Winston Churchill to advising later prime ministers Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home and the struggle she felt in keeping up her extraordinary schedule.

Sometimes she faltered: Her conduct after the death of Princess Diana (presented here as a manipulative schemer eager to please, whom the queen tried her best to love, signing letters to the princess as "Mama") is well chronicled, but less known was Elizabeth's handling of a 1966 mudslide that killed more than 116 children and 28 adults in Wales. Her advisers wanted her to visit the scene, but she resisted: "People will be looking after me. Perhaps they'll miss some poor child that might have been found under the wreckage."

Though Elizabeth relented eventually, the "tardy reaction" (in Smith's words) was a harbinger of delayed reactions -- and public criticism -- to come.

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Smith depicts Queen Elizabeth as a woman whom all of her constituents must identify with, no matter what. It's enormous responsibility that comes at great cost (and also explains her husband, Prince Philip's, penchant for off-the-cuff remarks that get him into trouble every now and then), and Elizabeth pulls this delicate balance off again and again.

No matter what one's opinion of the monarchy, Elizabeth's ceremonial reign has been an admirable mix of dignity and empathy.

 

EXCERPT: 'Elizabeth the Queen'

 

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BY SALLY BLEDEL SMITH

 

ONE

A ROYAL EDUCATION

It was a footman who brought the news to ten-year-old Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor on December 10, 1936. Her father had become an accidental king just four days before his forty-first birthday when his older brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated to marry Wallis Warfield Simpson, a twice-divorced American. Edward VIII had been sovereign only nine months after taking the throne following the death of his father, King George V, making him, according to one mordant joke, "the only monarch in history to abandon the ship of state to sign on as third mate on a Baltimore tramp."

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"Does that mean that you will have to be the next queen?" asked Elizabeth's younger sister, Margaret Rose (as she was called in her childhood). "Yes, someday," Elizabeth replied. "Poor you," said Margaret Rose.

Although the two princesses had been the focus of fascination by the press and the public, they had led a carefree and insulated life surrounded by governesses, nannies, maids, dogs and ponies. They spent idyllic months in the English and Scottish countryside playing games like "catching the days" -- running around plucking autumn leaves from the air as they were falling. Their spirited Scottish nanny, Marion "Crawfie" Crawford, had managed to give them a taste of ordinary life by occasionally taking them around London by tube and bus, but mostly they remained inside the royal bubble.

Before the arrival of Margaret, Elizabeth spent four years as an only -- and somewhat precocious -- child, born on the rainy night of April 21, 1926. Winston Churchill, on first meeting the two-year-old princess, extravagantly detected "an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant." Crawfie noted that she was "neat and methodical . . . like her father," obliging, eager to do her best, and happiest when she was busy. She also showed an early ability to compartmentalize -- a trait that would later help her cope with the demands of her position. Recalled Lady Mary Clayton, a cousin eight years her senior: "She liked to imagine herself as a pony or a horse. When she was doing that and someone called her and she didn't answer right away, she would then say, 'I couldn't answer you as a pony.' "

The abdication crisis threw the family into turmoil, not only because it was a scandal but because it was antithetical to all the rules of succession. While Elizabeth's father had been known as "Bertie" (for Albert), he chose to be called George VI to send a message of stability and continuity with his father. (His wife, who was crowned by his side, would be known as Queen Elizabeth.) But Bertie had not been groomed for the role. He was in tears when he talked to his mother about his new responsibilities. "I never wanted this to happen," he told his cousin Lord Louis "Dickie" Mountbatten. "I've never even seen a State Paper. I'm only a Naval Officer, it's the only thing I know about." The new King was reserved by nature, somewhat frail physically, and plagued by anxiety. He suffered from a severe stammer that led to frequent frustration, culminating in explosions of temper known as "gnashes."

Yet he was profoundly dutiful, and he doggedly set about his kingly tasks while ensuring that his little Lilibet -- her name within the family -- would be ready to succeed him in ways he had not been. On his accession she became "heiress presumptive," rather than "heiress apparent," on the off chance that her parents could produce a son. But Elizabeth and Margaret Rose had been born by cesarean section, and in those days a third operation would have been considered too risky for their mother. According to custom, Lilibet would publicly refer to her mother and father as "the King and Queen," but privately they were still Mummy and Papa.

When Helen Mirren was studying for her role in 2006's "The Queen," she watched a twenty-second piece of film repeatedly because she found it so revealing. "It was when the Queen was eleven or twelve," Mirren recalled, "and she got out of one of those huge black cars. There were big men waiting for her, and she extended her hand with a look of gravity and duty. She was doing what she thought she had to do, and she was doing it beautifully."

"I have a feeling that in the end probably that training is the answer to a great many things," the Queen said on the eve of her fortieth year as monarch. "You can do a lot if you are properly trained, and I hope I have been." Her formal education was spotty by today's standards. Women of her class and generation were typically schooled at home, with greater emphasis on the practical than the academic. "It was unheard of for girls to go to university unless they were very intellectual," said Lilibet's cousin Patricia Mountbatten. While Crawfie capably taught history, geography, grammar, literature, poetry, and composition, she was "hopeless at math," said Mary Clayton, who had also been taught by Crawfie. Additional governesses were brought in for instruction in music, dancing, and French.

Elizabeth was not expected to excel, much less to be intellectual. She had no classmates against whom to measure her progress, nor batteries of challenging examinations. Her father's only injunction to Crawfie when she joined the household in 1932 had been to teach his daughters, then six and two, "to write a decent hand." Elizabeth developed flowing and clear handwriting similar to that of her mother and sister, although with a bolder flourish. But Crawfie felt a larger need to fill her charge with knowledge "as fast as I can pour it in."

She introduced Lilibet to the Children's Newspaper, a current events chronicle that laid the groundwork for following political news in The Times and on BBC radio, prompting one Palace adviser to observe that at seventeen the princess had "a first-rate knowledge of state and current affairs."

Throughout her girlhood, Elizabeth had time blocked out each day for "silent reading" of books by Stevenson, Austen, Kipling, the Brontës, Tennyson, Scott, Dickens, Trollope, and others in the standard canon. Her preference, then and as an adult, was for historical fiction, particularly about "the corners of the Commonwealth and the people who live there," said Mark Collins, director of the Commonwealth Foundation. Decades later, when she conferred an honor on J.K. Rowling for her Harry Potter series, the Queen told the author that her extensive reading in childhood "stood me in good stead because I read quite quickly now. I have to read a lot."

Excerpted from "Elizabeth The Queen" by Sally Bedell Smith. Copyright © 2012 by Sally Bedell Smith. Excerpted by permission of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.