MRS. QUEEN TAKES THE TRAIN
By William Kuhn
Harper, $25.99, 384 pages
She is the monarch of virtually all she surveys, from jewels and property to palaces, but she has never taken a train other than the royal one and she is a little depressed about it.
Climbing by herself onto an ordinary passenger train in London, wearing a borrowed "hoodie" that partially covers her face and, of course, carrying her handbag over her arm is how, in this imagined tale, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II takes a step into the world of most people. William Kuhn, a biographer and historian, has written a book that applies insight, wit and originality to the remarkably restricted universe of the queen of England. He is shrewd enough not to claim too much knowledge of her life and indulges in fascinating speculation on how the queen feels about ordinary things, such as her problems using a computer.
She has learned enough to sign on to Twitter under the name "Little Bit," which might have been what she called herself as a baby instead of the generally accepted "Lilibet." But she isn't comfortable with her computer skills and while the queen is used to giving commands, it is not easy for her to ask for help that she feels she shouldn't need. It's not as easy being queen as you might think, according to Mr. Kuhn's theory. For example, contrary to what most of her subjects thought, she did worry about the depression of the late Princess Diana, perhaps because she realized her daughter-in-law was troubled. Diana simply could not accept the terms of marriage the way previous royal brides had, especially when they closed their eyes to matrimonial behavior that would be insulting by modern standards.
The queen knows how that is, but she is a woman who grew up in a vastly different and much more socially disciplined era, and whatever problems she dealt with remained private. Yet, she has her off days, and one of them is when her Scottish prime minister tells her sternly that the royal train is too expensive and will have to be decommissioned.
This angers her, and she thinks nostalgically of the royal yacht Britannia, now in dock in Scotland and used as a tourist attraction.
The queen reflects on how much she would like to see the yacht again, and it occurs to her that she could get there by train from King's Cross, station in London. She has never taken a commoner's train before, and certainly not alone. She consoles herself with a visit to the palace stables and her favorite horse, Elizabeth, who is being fed her favorite cheese by Rebecca, a very pretty stable worker who is less uneasy about the queen than some other servants because she is used to her.
And when she notices the queen is shivering, she doesn't think twice about lending Her Majesty her own navy blue hoodie with a skull emblazoned on its back. That is what the queen is wearing when she wanders out of the palace and suddenly remembers that the cheese the horse likes so much came from a very exclusive shop in Jermyn Street that isn't very far from the palace. So she walks over there, and nobody pays any attention to the tiny woman with silver hair, her face partly covered by the kind of garment worn by teenagers.
Mr. Kuhn deals skillfully with the complex web of relationships between the queen and her staff, illuminating the British class system that still exists. He delves gently into the personalities of Lady Anne Bevan, a lady-in-waiting; seamstress Shirley MacDonald; military equerry Luke Thomason; and Rajiv, the British-born and Eton-educated son of wealthy Indians who knows he is still considered a foreigner. This is the odd little group that discovers the queen has taken off on her own and who gather together to make sure she is protected.
It is a tribute to the author's sensitivity that he demonstrates how the queen herself never changes her behavior, even when she is sitting on a train with a blind couple and a seeing-eye dog called Hohenzollern. When it is mealtime, the queen briskly orders a special dish for the dog that she gets up and tells the galley cook how to prepare: "Minced beef. Browned quickly, add to it some plain white rice and a little bouillon." There is no question about Her Majesty's affection for the dog and probably no doubt that she prefers animals to people, possibly with reason.
What gives the book much of its charm is that nobody recognizes the queen, although a few find her voice oddly familiar. She rather enjoys being told she resembles the queen and remarks as she pats her tummy that Helen Mirren, who played her in a movie, is "more svelte."
Her loyal staff members keep an eye on her from a distance because they realize she is enjoying herself. And they all wind up at the Old Vic to watch a performance of "Henry V." The queen is less than enthusiastic until Rajiv infects her with his enthusiasm for the famous Shakespearean language. The show comes to an abrupt end when the police arrive to announce a terrorist attack nearby. Except the queen is not about to be terrorized. She grew up in World War II and lived through the London blitz. By her royal command, the show goes on, despite the protests of the police who want to evacuate the theater.
She is not leaving, the queen announces, oddly echoing the words of her mother, who declared during the war that the royal family would stay and suffer with the Londoners. When Buckingham Palace was damaged by bombs, they didn't move out.
There are fascinating glimpses of the queen's personality that suggest Mr. Kuhn has studied his subject enough to hazard a very shrewd assessment of what lies beneath the often impassive royal face. He also has written a most delightful book that would make a marvelous Christmas present, even if the recipient were not British.
• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.