Hard-work­ing ser­vant of her loyal sub­jects

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Nick Bryant

PRINCESS El­iz­a­beth was in Mom­basa pre­par­ing her horse for the next stage of a Kenyan sa­fari when news even­tu­ally reached her from Buck­ing­ham Palace that her fa­ther had died, and she had in­her­ited his throne. Just 25, and not long mar­ried, she had been sched­uled to travel from Africa to New Zealand, a de­lib­er­ately pun­ish­ing tour that had the feel of a re­gal haz­ing rit­ual.

Whereas Ge­orge VI had sobbed for an hour on his mother’s shoul­der on hear­ing of his brother’s ab­di­ca­tion, El­iz­a­beth re­acted very dif­fer­ently. Rather than in­dulge her grief, she started to write let­ters to of­fi­cials in New Zealand apol­o­gis­ing for the abrupt can­cel­la­tion of her trip. The young monarch had been raised to be­lieve that duty was ev­ery­thing, and this small act of self­less­ness showed her de­ter­mi­na­tion to live by the words of her first ra­dio broad­cast on her 21st birth­day: ‘‘ I de­clare be­fore you that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be de­voted to your ser­vice.’’

Duty, con­ven­tion, rit­ual and fam­ily are the re­cur­ring themes in The Di­a­mond Queen, a bi­og­ra­phy by BBC broad­caster An­drew Marr penned in time for the Di­a­mond Ju­bilee. Marr sketches a por­trait of the 85-year-old monarch that her ad­mir­ers will find pleas­ingly fa­mil­iar. El­iz­a­beth is ren­dered much as Buck­ing­ham Palace would wish: as a woman of ex­tra­or­di­nary stamina, de­cency, kind­ness and brav­ery — a hard­work­ing ser­vant of her loyal sub­jects.

A ‘‘ nat­u­rally shy and quiet per­son’’, she has a ‘‘ wry wit’’, a tal­ent for mimicry, a ‘‘ shrewd in­tel­li­gence’’ and a keen ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the enor­mous priv­i­lege of her po­si­tion and also of its many con­straints. Notes Marr: ‘‘ With only one sig­nif­i­cant ex­cep­tion, her mar­riage to Prince Philip, she has done noth­ing against the grain of what was ex­pected. She has ut­tered not a sin­gle shock­ing phrase in public.’’

Dis­play­ing the same du­ti­ful ap­proach, Marr also skirts con­tro­versy, most notably the Queen’s emo­tional aloof­ness from her chil­dren. He also of­fers an un­crit­i­cal ac­count of her re­sponse to the death of Diana, princess of Wales. Dur­ing the week in which the House of Wind­sor seemed mo­men­tar­ily to tot­ter, she is por­trayed as a fiercely pro­tec­tive grand­mother who re­fused to give in to ‘‘ me­dia-stoked’’ de­mands. Prince Philip is also treated kindly, and pre­sented as a shrewd mod­erniser, rather than the gaffe-prone li­a­bil­ity of tabloid lore, who pushed for many of the in­cre­men­tal re­forms

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