In Canada, this is the Victoria Day holiday weekend, marking the beginning of summer. The day is named for Queen Victoria (birthday, May 24, 1819), the monarch on the throne when this new country was organizing itself and we are all very grateful that the Powers in Charge turned their collective attention to the business of designating holidays. That they named this day after Queen Victoria speaks to their attachment to the crown of England and the esteem in which the monarchy was held in those distant days.
Of course all that has changed, and the British monarchy today is a quaint anachronism. It is, however, the world’s most visible and famous matriarchy, having an unbroken line of defining women dating back to Queen Victoria. The men on the throne were weak, ineffectual sorts, oversupplied with the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha blood which rendered them rather gormless and to a man they sought out strong defining partners. From 1936 to today, five steely women alternately nearly destroyed the monarchy (Wallis Simpson), redefined it (the Queen Mother ), stabilized it (Queen Elizabeth II), nearly destroyed it again (Princess Diana), and rendered it irrelevant (Camilla Parker-Bowles). As we await the announcement that Prince William has proposed to Kate Middleton, it’s interesting to explore the women who have preceded her and ponder what part she will play in the future of the monarchy.
Wallis Warfield Simpson, a twice divorced American, brought the throne perilously close to destruction in 1936, and defined the monarchy’s world view to this day. She was a cunning, ambitious woman who stole the heart of Edward the Eighth and prompted him to abdicate the throne as he tearfully announced that he could not bear the weight of the crown without the support of the woman he loved. Charles Higham’s superb book The Secret Life of the Duchess of Windsor chronicles her journey. From early days as a poor aspiring deb in Baltimore, to her mysterious sojourn in China (some say as a skilled prostitute), through her two early marriages, Higham follows a ruthless, manipulative woman, who puts herself in the way of a weak and narcissistic David Windsor (Edward was his chosen coronation name), who throws caution and decorum to the wind, and embarks on a sybaritic and self indulgent life with Wallis, travelling the world openly as lovers. Once the British press broke their complicit silence on the affair, a full constitutional crisis ensued and he was forced to abdicate. Higham does a wonderful job of painting a picture of the “bright young things”, making ready to take over the monarchy, to their painful fall from grace and their empty existence as vagrant émigrés, living in Paris and searching for meaning for the rest of their lives. The British were unforgiving, never allowing the couple to return to England after their scarper out of the country and this humiliation drove them in to the arms of Hitler, who planned to restore them to the crown when he won the war. To understand why the Windsors think and behave as they do today, and why the current Queen will never abdicate, this book is a must read.
Hugo Vickers helps us understand the next phase of the monarchy in his scholarly yet immensely readable biography of Elizabeth, The Queen Mother. Often regarded as a bonnie lass from Scotland, a sweet tempered grandmother to the nation, Vickers debunks those quaint notions with dispatch in his book. Elizabeth finally married Prince George after he wore her down with his proposals and they settled in to a life of happy domesticity. They watched with horror as the crisis unfolded in 1936, and understood that their private days were over as George was to ascend to the crown upon the abdication of his brother David. Not only was he woefully unprepared for the role, he was a reedy, shy, self conscious man with a pronounced stammer which rendered him incapable of speaking when under any stress. Vickers is masterful in his description of the transition which forever changed their lives. Elizabeth understood that the British people had become entranced with the love story of Wallis and David, supporting their marriage and ascendance to the throne. In a stroke of genius, Elizabeth, who understood that George was incapable of governing on his own, invented “the Royal Family” playing off her brother-in-law’s departing words that he could not govern without the support of the woman he loved. Elizabeth commissioned a film of the family at work and at play (a brilliant move which forever engaged the British public with the King, the Queen and the little Princesses) and set about to create of herself the “un-Wallis”. While Wallis was a chic clothes horse, much admired in her Mainbocher and Schiaparelli creations, Elizabeth studied the portraits of former monarchs, and styled herself in the manner of women in Winterhalter paintings, and commissioned Hardy Amies (the royal clothier) to create the frothy, feminine pastel outfits she wore for her entire life, which defined her as a soft, sweet woman of the people. She refused to leave London during the war when it was being bombed, and earned the undying respect of her subjects when she toured the bombed-out East end of London to support and encourage the families whose homes had been destroyed. She was Queen for a mere 16 years, but Queen Mother for 51. She was a public relations and branding genius who put the survival of the monarchy above all else, forever scarred by the drama of the abdication and the close call the institution had with irrelevancy. (Ironically, as we shall see in the Princess Diana segment of this post, she sowed the seeds of its second near-death experience.)
Elizabeth II, the current Queen, has now reigned for 58 years, 3 months and, with one notable exception, has never put a foot wrong. She ascended the throne at the age of 26, as a young wife and mother and devoted her life to duty and the crown.
The Queen – A Biography of Elizabeth II by Ben Pimlott is a workmanlike biography of a remarkable life. Queen Elizabeth has served 12 British and Canadian Prime Ministers and known 12 US presidents, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. (KfC says Australia and Italy come next on his list of visitors – for the record, her reign has seen 11 Australian Prime Ministers and 45 Italian heads of state.) If she lives until September, 2015, she will surpass Queen Victoria as the longest serving female monarch in history. Her story is the story of the 20th and 21st centuries and to follow her reign is to follow the history of all the important themes of modern British history. When she makes her 24th visit to Canada next month, this indefatigable monarch will be received with the warmth and affection she has earned as a steadfast supporter of the people and institutions of the country.
Her devotion to duty, though, has come with a price. Three of her four children are divorced and the Windsors became the poster family for dysfunctional relationships in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Considering that one of the most painful times of her life involved denying her sister Princess Margaret leave to marry Peter Townsend, the love of her life, because he was divorced, it is indeed ironic, although not surprising, that her family is in marital disarray.
In 1997, she followed the advice of tone deaf courtiers and responded coldly and remotely to the death of Princess Diana, incurring the wrath of her subjects. She had reigned with a supreme sense of duty and decorum, but was ill-equipped to understand or respond to the emotional outpouring caused by the premature death of Diana. While this was the cause of her “annus horribilus”, and once again imperiled the very monarchy, she gradually restored calm and dignity to The Firm and has not has a bad annus since. She has lost her beloved mother and her much loved sister Margaret, but invests much in William, who carries her hopes for the regeneration of the monarchy in the future. What she thinks of Prince Charles, and his prospects as a king, is a mystery, and deservedly so.
Princess Diana’s life is much chronicled, but the definitive work remains Diana, Her True Story by Andrew Morton. Written with her full cooperation, and that of her friends, this is the story of the consequences of the Windsor’s ill conceived choice of a brood mare for Prince Charles. The Queen Mother was instrumental in tipping Diana for The Bride, as she was the granddaughter of Ruth, Lady Fermoy, her Lady in Waiting, and was presumed to know the drill: get married, produce an heir and a spare, and then go on about your business, as your husband goes on about his (in this case, Camilla Parker Bowles). But Diana was having none of it, and when, as a young and beautiful bride, she realized that her husband had never given up his torrid relationship with Camilla, and was openly flaunting it with the country set, she took a page from the Queen Mother’s book and proceeded to win the hearts of the people, in her eventual quest to become the Peoples’ Princess. She was glamorous, warm, modern, and just plain fabulous. Aside from stalking heart surgeons, and the odd fling with a footballer and various psychics, she came to devote her time to good causes – AIDS awareness, land mines. Had she lived she might well have become a saint — or blown herself up, we can never know. Her record of poor choices in men ultimately caused her death. She and Dodi Al Fayed were en route to see the Paris chateau of Wallis Simpson and Edward the night she died. Her lasting contribution to the monarchy is in the gene pool, which she has greatly enhanced. Her attempts to modernize the institution have fallen on fallow soil, as Prince Charles has reverted to days of yore and is given to muttering to his plants and criticizing architectural carbuncles, often crossing constitutional lines with his opinions.
And finally, Camilla Parker Bowles. Camilla, The King’s Mistress: A Love Story by Caroline Graham is a sanitized but still prurient account of the affair between Prince Charles and Camilla which started when they were both 18 years old and continues uninterrupted to this day. It prevailed through each other’s marriages, the birth of four children (two to each) and 44 years of life itself. She is a thoroughly unlikeable woman to those of us who know her only by her story. To those who DO know her personally, she is apparently a topping great gel and wonderful fun. She is not beloved by Prince Charles’ subjects, and if he does become king and she does become his queen (which she will do), they could well render the monarchy irrelevant and hasten the road to a republic. Poor hapless Charles has led a life waiting for his mother to die – which must be a very strange way to exist. If the Queen follows her mother’s example, she will live to a very old age indeed, and Charles could be a very doddering old thing when he is crowned. Not a good sign for someone who so closely resembles his great Uncle Edward. And who is not helped by his consort, an entitled and unloved woman.
And now we wait. Kate Middleton will be the next in this line of powerful women – each having shaped the monarchy, some for better, some for worse. To date, Kate remains a cipher. She is a beautiful, elegant young woman who has kept her own counsel and kept her set in check. No tittle tattle to the press, or embarrassing stories popping out of the closet. All we know of her is that she has played a brilliant long game, and appears to have learned lessons from predecessors’ past mistakes. The monarchy is in serious need of a glamour infusion, and she is well equipped for that. But can she reform it in the face of the intransigent courtiers who have re-taken the court in service of the Queen and Camilla? We wait………