By Alison Fishburn
At the center of the photo book my sister made of our 2014 trip to London is a collage of partial views. One photo features a glimpse of the side of Queen Elizabeth’s face while she rides in the backseat of a car; another, her back.
My sister, mom, and I — classic American tourists that we were — had arrived at the Tower of London first thing in the morning to begin another day of sightseeing. We came to an area of the complex where the tower’s famed Beefeater guards were setting up a series of metal barricades. When asked, they told us a “very special visitor” would be arriving. We interpreted the clue to mean the Queen, so we waited. Over the next hour or so, a crowd, mostly tourists like us, filled in on every side.
And then it happened.
Shouting. Clapping. Frantic waving. A procession of cars driving into the complex. A sea of arms holding cell phones in the air to capture whatever images they could of Queen Elizabeth on her way to attend a service in the Tower’s chapel.
Those few moments became the defining event of our entire trip, of our photobook, of the way we choose to remember.
When a person dies, every memory of them becomes remarkable, every object becomes an artifact. The timeline of their life can be organized into a finite series of photos and stories. But for someone like Queen Elizabeth, birth alone delivers them into the annals of history. Her image and voice have been documented in all available mediums, her likeness replicated in film and television, and her visage still graces the currency of 33 different countries. Her lifetime, her legacy, is like the number of photos captured by pedestrians and professionals: endless. For many years, the Western world did not look much beyond these commemorations, but, over time, questions about the role of the monarchy did begin to emerge.
Gradually, too, media coverage has evolved, from the near-worshipful stance of early profiles to the increasingly incisive commentary that marked her final years. Here, then, is a reading list about the longest-serving British monarch in history: her life and reign as both an individual, and the guardian of an often problematic institutional monarchy.
The Education of a Queen (Wilson Harris, The Atlantic, December 1943)
Written the year before the then-Princess Elizabeth turned 18 (she became queen at 25), and about two years before the end of World War II, this 1943 article reads like the time capsule it is. From Harris’ first sentence, “The people of Britain are beginning to take a growing interest in the personality of their future Queen,” a global expectation comes into focus: The young princess was being groomed to become a symbol of constancy and tradition. While making direct comparisons between Princess Elizabeth and a young Princess Victoria, who became “the greatest Queen Britain has known, and one of its greatest sovereigns,” Harris distinguishes how Princess Elizabeth’s upbringing in London, her curricula of history, French, German, music, and English literature, as well as practical skills learned through the Girl Guides, are preparing her for the day she will occupy the throne.
The Princess may have years of service as heir-presumptive before her. She may at any moment by the caprice of fate be summoned to the most exalted position in the greatest Commonwealth in the world. Enough is known of her upbringing to show how well the preparation for either lot has been achieved by a training that has never threatened to dim the freshness or mar the simplicity of her girlhood.
Queen Elizabeth II and the Shape of 20th Century Power Dressing (Vanessa Friedman, The New York Times, September 2022)
The cover of the April 29,1929 issue of TIME magazine has an illustration of a 3-year-old Princess Elizabeth with the caption, “She has set the babe fashion for yellow.” Citing iconic looks from the queen’s domestic and international engagements, Vanessa Friedman shows how dressing with “diplomatic symbolism” among politicians and figureheads began with Queen Elizabeth. In her true-to-form relatable style of fashion meets history meets intelligent journalism, she lays out how the queen, during her reign as the longest serving British monarch in history, “let her clothes do the talking for her.”
Her strategic wardrobing began in 1953 with her coronation gown, an ivory satin style embroidered with choice flora of the realm — including English roses, Scottish thistles, Welsh leeks, Irish shamrocks, Canadian maple leaves, New Zealand silver ferns, Pakistani wheat, Australian wattles and South African protea — kicking off what would be decades of considered diplomatic symbolism.
Elizabeth II’s Fine-Tuned Feelings (Martin Amis, The New Yorker, May 2002)
Martin Amis makes a case for why the queen’s character, more often associated with aloofness than congeniality, was actually a lifelong calculation based on her responsibility as sovereign. Citing moments in the queen’s history from two biographies, Robert Lacey’s Monarch: The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II, and Deborah Hart Strober and Gerald S. Strober’s The Monarchy: An Oral Biography of Elizabeth II, Amis presents the constancy in Queen Elizabeth’s character against “Dianamania,” and the events that unfolded around the Queen in the immediate aftermath of Princess Diana’s death in 1999. Amis, who has charted the intensity of familial reflection and personal grief in his books Experience and Inside Story: A Novel, writes with a keen sense of familiarity, drawing comparisons between the public and private lives of Queen Elizabeth and Diana, while detailing the pressure on the Queen to break with her adherence to tradition.
Driven out of the Royal Mews in an open carriage for her regular airings, the diapered Elizabeth drew large crowds of cheering, waving admirers; one of her earliest skills was to wave back. She made the cover of Time at the age of three. The first biography, ‘The Story of Princess Elizabeth,’ appeared when she was four. ‘She has an air of authority & reflectiveness astonishing in an infant,’ wrote Winston Churchill…
The Royal Family is just a family, writ inordinately large. They are the glory, not the power; and it would clearly be far more grownup to do without them. But riveted mankind is hopelessly addicted to the irrational, with reliably disastrous results, planetwide. The monarchy allows us to take a holiday from reason; and on that holiday we do no harm.
Meghan and Harry’s Interview: A Royals Expert on What We Did and Didn’t Learn (Patricia Treble, Maclean’s, March 2021)
In this essay, independent royal expert Patricia Treble outlines key moments from Oprah Winfrey’s 2021 interview with Meghan, Duchess of Sussex (formerly Meghan Markle) and Prince Harry. During the two-hour televised event — viewed by 17 million people, according to Nielsen — the royal couple dropped a litany of bombshells, from accusations of racism among the press and royal family to the revelation that Meghan had experienced suicidal ideation while pregnant with her first child.
Treble asserts that the interview “was aimed squarely at the American market, where the couple is focusing their new ventures (including deals with Netflix and Spotify), and where the royal family is seen as entertainment,” and points out missed opportunities in Winfrey’s interviewing style that could have added helpful context and clarification along the way as “Harry and Meghan effectively lobbed grenade after grenade over the gilded fences of Buckingham Palace, Clarence House and Kensington Palace.” Treble’s expertise and perspective on the inner workings of the royal family make this piece a solid rock in the sea of clickbait that followed the interview.
As I watched the Sussexes recount their experiences during the interview, one thought kept cycling through my mind: Why hadn’t Prince Harry clearly explained to Meghan what a life of royal duty involved when he proposed in 2017? Or gotten someone else to explain the strictures of royal life and its grinding protocol and hierarchy? They both seemed woefully unprepared for their new royal roles and the fairytale turned into a nightmare for both of them.
Prince William and Kate’s Tour Was Meant to Secure the Monarchy in the Caribbean. Instead, It’s Raising New Questions About Its Future (Eloise Barry, TIME, March 2022)
A year after Harry and Meghan’s televised interview (and just two months after Buckingham Palace formally stripped Prince Andrew, the queen’s second-born son, of his military titles and usage of “His Royal Highness” in the face of a sexual-abuse lawsuit), Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (formerly Kate Middleton) faced their own public scrutiny. A week-long tour of Belize, Jamaica, and the Bahamas was, according to Eloise Barry, officially “meant to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, celebrating 70 years on the throne,” but was really “to persuade the three countries to keep the Queen as head of state, and not to follow Barbados, which transitioned to a republic last November.” The couple was met with protests and renewed calls for the British government — and the royal family — to apologize and pay reparations for its colonial rule and slavery. Barry clearly walks readers through the controversies of the couple’s tour and contextualizes the queen’s role as head of state for the 14 countries known as Commonwealth Realms.
Calls for republicanism have been growing in Jamaica, which celebrates its 60-year anniversary of independence from Britain this year. According to leader of the Jamaican opposition, Mark Golding, the killing of George Floyd in 2020 and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests reignited conversations around national identity in Jamaica, whose population is over 90% Black.
Mourn the Queen, Not Her Empire (Maya Jasanoff, The New York Times, September 2022)
The British Empire, the vernacular epitome of colonization and colonial rule, became known as the British Commonwealth in 1926. As part of that transition, the countries still ruled by the Crown, including Australia, Canada, India and South Africa, agreed to an allegiance to the British king or queen — without being ruled by the United Kingdom.
In this opinion piece, published on the day of Queen Elizabeth’s death, historian Maya Jasanoff asserts that “The British Empire largely decolonized, but the monarchy did not,” and that “[d]uring the last decades of her reign, the queen watched Britain — and the royal family — struggle to come to terms with its postimperial position.”
In the wake of the queen’s passing, existing calls for the imperial monarchy to end have reverberated across news coverage and the transfer of power to King Charles III. Three days after her death, proclamations of “God save the King!” in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, were met with booing in the crowd. In New Zealand, at a proclamation-of-accession ceremony, it was reported that prime minister Jacinda Ardern expressed support for King Charles III while also reaffirming the country would one day leave the British Commonwealth.
Jasanoff spends this must-read essay citing example after example of how the monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth as its face, has struggled to find a balance between its lasting imperial priorities and mounting pressure to make amends for those same historic priorities. “She has been a fixture of stability, and her death in already turbulent times will send ripples of sadness around the world,” she writes. “But we should not romanticize her era.”
The queen’s very longevity made it easier for outdated fantasies of a second Elizabethan age to persist. She represented a living link to World War II and a patriotic myth that Britain alone saved the world from fascism. She had a personal relationship with Winston Churchill, the first of her 15 prime ministers, whom Mr. Johnson pugnaciously defended against well-founded criticism of his retrograde imperialism. And she was, of course, a white face on all the coins, notes and stamps circulated in a rapidly diversifying nation: From perhaps one person of color in 200 Britons at her accession, the 2011 census counted one in seven.
Those who heralded a second Elizabethan age hoped Elizabeth II would sustain British greatness; instead, it was the era of the empire’s implosion. She will be remembered for her tireless dedication to her job, whose future she attempted to secure by stripping the disgraced Prince Andrew of his roles and resolving the question of Queen Camilla’s title. Yet it was a position so closely linked to the British Empire that even as the world transformed around her, myths of imperial benevolence persisted.
- “Why the Scandal Around Buckingham Palace’s Racist 1960s Hiring Policy Still Resonates“(Erin Vanderhoof, Vanity Fair, June 2021)
- “What Kind of King WIll Charles III Be?” (Robert Booth, The Guardian, November 2014)
Alison Fishburn is an American writer living in Paris, Ontario.