- - Monday, January 30, 2012


By Sally Bedell Smith
Random House, $30, 688 pages

The story of the woman known to billions as Queen Elizabeth II remains a remarkable one. After the sudden passing of her father, King George VI, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor assumed the throne at the age of 26. It was the 1950s, an era when few women held positions of power and Great Britain was still recovering from the ravages of World War II.

Sally Bedell Smith’s “Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch” examines the monarch’s career - the 60th anniversary of the coronation will be marked in June - in prose that shines as brightly as a new proof sovereign coin, revealing one of the most impressive people of our age.

Elizabeth was not born to be a monarch. Had circumstance not intervened, the plan was for her uncle David (who reigned 10 months and 21 days as King Edward VIII before his abdication to marry twice-divorced Baltimorean Wallis Simpson) to become king. But scandal-stained Mrs. Simpson as a royal consort was unacceptable in the Britain of 1936. Edward VIII gave up his crown in order to marry “the woman I love.”

It then fell to the younger brother, Albert, a naval officer with a stuttering problem, to ascend to the throne, taking the name George VI. On hearing the news of their father’s accession, Princess Margaret asked her older sibling, “Does that mean that you will have to be the next Queen?”

“Yes, someday,” Elizabeth answered. “Poor you,” replied Margaret.

With steely determination, Elizabeth set her mind to preparing for the duties her role entailed, all the while maintaining as much connection with her future subjects as possible. But in many ways, it was the role for which she was destined. As a Girl Guide, she was called “Lilibet,” the family’s pet name for her, and she took up her duties without expecting deference. During World War II, young Elizabeth trained as a mechanic with the military’s Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). She was no stranger to hard work, and could mix easily with people at all levels.

Her 1947 marriage to Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark - distantly related to the young princess - began a partnership that is now in its 65th year. Philip, a man still known for his unfiltered comments, bristled early on, “I am the only man in this country who cannot give his name to his children.” It was his hope that Mountbatten, his surname, might have replaced Windsor as the family surname. Nevertheless, the prince consort is, perhaps, the queen’s most trusted adviser.

It is in her travels that Queen Elizabeth has most often come closest to people. Her extensive journeys in Britain, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have given the queen more knowledge of the nation than almost any of the 12 prime ministers who have served during her reign. In an early visit to the United States in 1957, the queen and Prince Philip stunned shoppers at a Giant supermarket in West Hyattsville, Md., by dropping in for a visit, likely never imagining the escapades of their children (and children’s spouses) would someday become standard fare for the magazines shown in the checkout line.

Her interactions with American presidents have been impressive, and generally warm, though the feckless Jimmy Carter earned no applause for accosting the Queen Mother, the current monarch’s parent, with an enthusiastic buss on the lips: “I took a sharp step backwards,” the Queen Mum said of encountering the 39th president’s protocol-breaking approach, “not far enough.”

Though there were many times the Queen Mum’s eldest daughter might have wished to step back from a prying and obstreperous media, Elizabeth II has made her peace with the press, even bypassing it via the use of Facebook and YouTube. The crisis following the 1997 death of ex-daughter-in-law Diana, Princess of Wales, moved the monarchy closer to its subjects, without totally shredding the mystery that surrounds it.

All this, and a great deal more, is detailed with graceful precision by Mrs. Smith, a best-selling biographer who previously detailed Princess Diana’s tumultuous life. This book brings a reader closer to the queen than one expects and offers a very human - and very humane - portrait.

A word must be said about the way in which Mrs. Smith tells her story: It is filled with insightful anecdotes and asides, framed in language that is delightful as it is instructive. And so I imagine even the most small “r” republican will say after encountering Sally Bedell Smith’s portrait of this remarkable person: “God Save the Queen!”

Mark A. Kellner writes the On Computers column for The Washington Times.

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