'Young Elizabeth' grasps at the life of Elizabeth II before she was queen
When it comes to writing a biography of Queen Elizabeth II – a monarch who has never in her life granted a personal interview – guesswork and gossip must play a role.
On the 9th of September, 2015, at 5:30 pm – Greenwich time, naturally – Queen Elizabeth II surpassed Queen Victoria to become Great Britain's longest-reigning monarch: At that moment, at age 89, she had ruled Great Britain and its Dominions across the sea for 63 years and 217 days.
Despite its unprecedented nature, it was a fairly typical day in the life of this Queen: duty over self-indulgence, smooth performance (she opened a new rail line on the Scottish border), anodyne public comments, with the private hours kept rigorously off-limits to inquiry. Queen Elizabeth II has been doing things this way since she acceded to the throne in February of 1952 upon the death of her father King George VI. For longer than most of her subjects have been alive, from her coronation in 1953 right down to the present, she has enacted her role in history without consulting historians, who've had to make do without her.
There aren't, in other words, many practical, historical goals to writing a 300-page book like the latest from Kate Williams, Young Elizabeth: The Making of the Queen, which concentrates on Elizabeth's life before she came to the Throne. Such a volume can't function as a psychological portrait, since the psychology of its subject has of course necessarily altered over nine decades (“If we know the child, we know the adult” Williams writes, but can even one of her readers think such outright nonsense is true?). And it's all speculation anyway: The Queen has never granted a personal interview, so when it comes to a personal biography of the young Elizabeth, we are and always have been squarely in the territory of indiscreet nannies and gossiping butlers.
Little “Lilibet” (her childhood nickname) was born on the 21st of April 1926, the eldest daughter of Prince Albert, the Duke of York. She, her younger sister Princess Margaret, their father, and their mother Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, formed a tight-knit bond, a happy little family of “We Four,” content to live out of the spotlight reserved for King George V's firstborn son and heir, David, who would come to the throne in 1936 as King Edward VIII. Mere months after his accession, Edward VIII abdicated in order to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson, and suddenly the quiet, shy Duke of York became King George VI in December of 1936 – and Elizabeth became his heir presumptive. She stayed studiously in the background during the Abdication Crisis, donned the drab uniform of the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service during the war, and in 1947 she married Prince Philip of Greece and immediately started a family. By the time her cancer-stricken father died in early 1952, Elizabeth had been shouldering a good portion of his public duties; she came to the Throne already thoroughly versed in the ways of the job. When Williams writes that “Queen Elizabeth never expected to be Queen – and she was not trained to occupy the role,” she is simply wrong.
Or perhaps not so simply wrong; Williams clearly has a narrative idea she wants to stress in her book, a portrait of an “accidental queen” who over-compensates for her youth and naivete by fashioning herself into some kind of forbidding ideal of a modern-day monarch. In creating such a portrait – a wholesale invention of the author, but interesting just the same – Williams finds the Queen's disgraced and unofficially exiled Uncle David mighty handy as a moral foil, for instance. When Elizabeth's grandmother Queen Mary – the first British queen to see a grandchild ascend to the throne – dies in 1953, the former king arrives from New York for the funeral and we're told, “Uncle David stood for fun, irresponsibility, glamour and frivolity – everything Elizabeth had eschewed in order to create her image as the perfect Queen.” And a little later, Williams makes it even more explicit: “Every day since the accession of her father has been an opportunity for the Queen to prove how different she was from Uncle David.”
Psychologically, this feels a little pat, but something like it could be true (your guess is quite literally as good as the author's). Certainly the Abdication Crisis went into “the making of the Queen,” but so did the rocky marriages of her sister and her children, and the fire at Windsor Castle in 1992, and the death of Princess Diana in 1997, and the parade of Prime Ministers who've consulted with her since the government of Winston Churchill, and thousands of lesser headlines before and since.
The implication that her six decades on the Throne have been some sort of pre-programmed result of her two decades as a young princess at the beginning of the century is instantly unsatisfying, however engagingly the story of those decades is told. The uplifting little-princess-makes-good plot of "Young Elizabeth" will doubtless please Williams's readers, but the real story has been a great deal more complex.