God Save the Queen: Seven Stories about Elizabeth II

Image via NASA (public domain).
Image via NASA (public domain).

A couple of months ago I had a strange epiphany: the only thing currently keeping the world barely intact is a British nonagenarian who likes corgis.

The second half of the 20th century, the era in which we (kind of) still live, is in the process of vanishing, from Fidel Castro and the Voting Rights Act to Carrie Fisher and non-apocalyptic weather. Yet against all odds, the Queen — until not that long ago, the most boring member of a dysfunctional dynasty — has emerged as the embodiment of good sense and decency, an unflappable, gray-haired titan. Her very perseverance (she’s currently the world’s longest-serving head of state) proves: we’re not doomed. Yet.

Monarchies are ridiculous at best, vicious and blood-thirsty at worst. But after a year in which so many unthinkable things had come to pass, I find myself doing something previously unimaginable: rooting for Elizabeth II. She’s a mentsch. She survived 12 US presidents (chances of surviving #13: not amazing, but who knows? Windsors seem to hate dying). She’s found the precise balance between being real and unreal, flesh-and-blood and emblem. Here are a few great reads on the Queen.

1. “The Crown’s Claire Foy on Queen Elizabeth’s Corgis, Season 2, and Princess Margaret’s Affair.” (Julie Miller, Vanity Fair, November 18, 2016)

1992 was the Queen’s annus horribilis; 2016 was ours. But even awful years have bright spots, and Claire Foy’s portrayal of Elizabeth around the time of her accession was remarkable — and won her (and the show) a Golden Globe earlier this week. Her princess-turned-monarch is strategically boring, a woman who can make her own character disappear at will if it makes aesthetic and political sense. (I’m still hoping for the unlikely YouTube video of the Queen and Prince Philip watching The Crown together in Windsor Castle; in the meantime, here’s another interview, this time with Foy and Matt Smith, who plays the Prince Consort in the show.)

2. “Royal Bodies.” (Hilary Mantel, London Review of Books, February 21, 2013)

Nobody writes better than Mantel about British royals past and present (her Wolf Hall inspired a lush TV series of the same name in 2015, also starring Claire Foy — as the decidedly un-boring Anne Boleyn). In this piece she talks about the strange power and shifting meaning of the Queen’s (but also Kate Middleton’s and Princess Diana’s) physical presence. Besides razor-sharp insight, it features prose crisper than a fresh cucumber sandwich: “I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn’t have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at?”

3. “The Education of a Queen.” (Wilson Harris, The Atlantic, December 1943)

Zadie Smith recently pointed out that “time travel is a discretionary art: a pleasure trip for some and a horror story for others.” I’m not sure which of the two this WWII-era relic is, but it’s a fascinating account of the Queen’s upbringing — in no small part because of how dated it feels. You leave it with a stronger sense of the careful grooming of the future Queen’s public persona — and of the effort it took to transform the British royal family into the multibillion-pound industry it’s become in the postwar period.

4. “Has the Queen Become Frightfully Common?” (David Robson, BBC Future, February 3, 2016)

The Queen’s reign has seen the dwindling of the British Empire into a smallish island that recently voted to leave the EU, not to mention the decline of both curry houses and corner pubs (the horror!). But perhaps the most shocking fall from grace is to be found in the Queen’s speech: as Robson demonstrates, her accent has become increasingly middle class with each passing decade. It’s a phenomenon that has affected many others in the British aristocracy who now speak in “a kind of aristo-cockney hybrid.” (Fun fact: it turns out that Kate’s accent is more posh than William’s.)

5. “The Queen’s Heart.” (Martin Amis, The New Yorker, May 20, 2002)

This is nominally a review of two royal biographies; it’s in fact Martin Amis writing a concise Life of Elizabeth II, and who could possibly say no to that?

6. “This Is What Happens When the Queen Dies.” (Rob Price, Business Insider UK, December 27, 2016)

The Queen’s death is at once unthinkable — doesn’t she get to stay on forever, by sheer inertia? — and the most thought-out, carefully planned, incredibly expensive world event of the next few years. Here you’ll find all the nitty gritty details of the future royal funeral, from announcement to burial. (Elizabeth is said to have helped with some of the planning, which I find admirable. Unless she’s actually immortal — a benevolent vampire, perhaps? — in which case it’s unexpectedly solid trolling.)

7. “What Kind of King Will Charles III Be?” (Roberth Booth, The Guardian, November 19, 2014)

If all goes well, I’ll become a citizen of Canada at some point in the next couple of years. The citizenship ceremony consists of swearing allegiance to the sovereign. Like any reasonable person, I’d rather swear allegiance to a woman who already as a baby possessed “an air of authority and reflectiveness” (if you trust Winston Churchill) than to her awkward, hapless son. Actuarially, though, it’s quite possible it’ll be Charles on the throne, so it’s never too early to learn more about him. After all, he’s the man on behalf of whom I’d theoretically have to fight in duels and win regattas (that’s what royal subjects do, right?).