Holding On: the British Monarchy

Biography contrasts the peerless public life with the private foibles of Queen Elizabeth

Elizabeth

By Sarah Bradford

Farrar Straus Giroux

564 pp., $30

Americans tend to look at British royalty in one of two ways: with a giddy awe that makes them fall all over themselves at the feet of visiting "royals;" or with a bemused disdain that harks back to their republican origins and their parting with King George.

But neither view has much relation to the reality of Britain's central symbol of governance. Or to the questions that symbol raises: Is the queen central or peripheral, relevant or outdated? This book doesn't resolve those questions, though it keeps them in sight. What it does, with relative success, is give readers a thoroughly detailed, largely sympathetic look at the current monarch's near half century on the throne.

This history often swings between fascination and tedium. The queen's relationship with her various prime ministers, for instance, is intriguing - a lesson in how seriously Britain's top politicians, whether Tory or Labour, take their duties to Her Majesty. The sometimes endless cataloguing of royal aides, equerries, and staff, on the other hand, is likely to be deadening to all but the most devout student of court life.

That other, more populist kind of royalty devote - the consumer of every rumor of scandal emanating from Buckingham Palace - will find plenty to latch onto in Sarah Bradford's "Elizabeth." As Bradford documents, there are ample facts behind the rumors, and, of course, there are now the public confessionals of Prince Charles and Diana.

But the Charles and Diana saga fits into a larger picture sketched by Bradford, which really began with that earlier royal trauma - the fateful love affair and abdication of Edward VIII in the 1930s.

Elizabeth was sharply aware of the events that led to her own father's elevation to the throne. That awareness heightened her sense of the commitment and self-sacrificial ethos needed to keep the monarchy on something approaching even keel. The tragedy of her life is that others in the Windsor family didn't seem to get that message - not her own sister, and certainly not her children.

But even while the crystalline image of a right-living royal family shattered around her, the Queen remained a dignified, thoughtful central presence, consistently on the right side in matters of state - such as opposing apartheid, supporting the Commonwealth, and favoring union with Europe - ready to bend to the public will on such matters as shrinking or eliminating the allowances given royal family members and paying income tax like her subjects.

Bradford offers criticisms of Elizabeth's lack of sensitivity to personal matters concerning her children, but gives her nearly flawless marks on her public role.

To return to those questions of where the throne resides in British life and politics, if Elizabeth's model could be perpetuated, the monarchy would probably have an assured future. It may anyway, given the depth of the tradition, but it certainly helps if the tradition can be bolstered by a life well led.

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