Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images
There go the royals, shaking hands and cradling bouquets and reminding us all that they’re there, that they’re working, that they have, in their parlance, a “role.” The “walkabout” — the art of working rope lines to greet and appease the public, perfected by Queen Elizabeth in the early 1970s — is one preferred medium for asserting their existence. Another, the royal tours to Commonwealth countries and foreign allies, are just walkabouts at 100 times the cost and press coverage. The dukes and princesses and consorts move through the crowds and drop tiny crumbs of personal information for the waiting public — Prince George is learning to tie his own tie; he and his two siblings eat cereal and apples for breakfast — but otherwise stay, as the Queen Mother put it, “utterly oyster.”
For 96 years, the queen indeed stayed quieter than any of them. She folded herself into a tidy, airtight (ermine-lined) box; all we saw was the stately exterior. (When her coffin rolled through London’s ancient streets in September, loaded with the royal standard and her jewel-spattered crown on a poncy purple pillow, the appearance was only slightly less revealing than any other.) Her opinions? Under wraps. Her gaffes? Borne of silence. She famously said that her public appearances were a crucial element in keeping the monarchy real for her constituents: “I have to be seen to be believed.” But she was a living ghost. The monochrome, electric pastel outfits, designed to turn her into a homing beacon, served in lieu of personality.
Andrew Morton’s publishers have rushed out The Queen: Her Life; it was originally scheduled for a spring 2023 release, but it’s far more beneficial to drop a biography just after your subject has died. Morton has been wringing every last drop from the crystal-soaked drawing rooms of Buckingham Palace for the past three decades. Diana: Her True Story (1992) kicked him up the ladder from member of the royal reporting pack to princess whisperer. Morton knew how to glom on. His next book was Diana: Her New Life (1994), then Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words (1998) and Diana: In Pursuit of Love (2004). Finally, there was a 25th-anniversary edition of Her True Story. Truer and furiouser. (Along the way: bios of Meghan Markle, Wallis Simpson, Prince William and the new Princess of Wales, as well as disastrous unauthorized books on Madonna, Angelina Jolie, and Tom Cruise.)
As its title suggests, Morton’s The Queen: Her Life is not a biography of Elizabeth Windsor, recently deceased resident of the London suburbs and walker of corgis. If it had interrogated its subject, it would be a biography of an idea, a lifelong role that subsumed one woman’s existence. As an exercise in paint-scraping, a biography of this woman is impossible — neither the queen nor Elizabeth Windsor is findable, no matter how many layers are stripped; nobody is giving up the goods on Her Maj. The Queen, a grab bag of anodyne anecdotes and Wikipedia-deep chronologies, doesn’t want to pin her down anyway. Like its subject, it just wants to sell itself.
Morton struck it lucky with Diana. Her biography took off because, as part of her tango with the press, she’d sent him audiotapes in which she shared stories about her time under the pale thumbs of the Windsors. And the former Princess of Wales couldn’t help but intrigue. Her disco-ball character bounced light in every direction; she spun around to reveal fragmented sides. By contrast, the queen’s life is a black hole, just how she wanted it.
Which doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Tina Brown’s bonkers considerations of the royal family at large (The Diana Chronicles and The Palace Papers) churn up hilarious, revealing details — the cherubs on the Queen Mother’s four-poster bed “had their angel’s clothes washed and starched every month.” You can practically smell Brown’s burning shoe leather in the reporting. After sharing the dirt, she cogently analyzes the effect the monarchy has on the public, and the effect the public has on the monarchy. Sure, she has a strange predilection for equating equine enthusiasm with sexual vigor. (Palace Papers: “Women who risk the speed and danger of the hunt are likely to be sexually adventurous”; Diana Chronicles: “Women who love horses usually love sex. It is no accident that for girls, the onset of puberty is often marked by an obsession with horseflesh.”) But then again, she also knows the literal ins and outs of the royals’ bedroom behavior.
Brown gives the people what they want — the minutiae about the Windsors’ cash habits (the Queen Mother annually spent eight times her personal budget of £643,000), their ass-backwards misunderstandings of the world (the queen thought it best her depressed sister Margaret pursue therapy, “perhaps when she’s better”), and their mundane bullshit (she went to a pub for the first time in the 1990s and stood still waiting for a tray to come ’round with drinks). We have to know that there is complexity under all those jaunty fascinators, otherwise the thought of their genetic good fortune (minus the ears) will short-circuit our un-royal brains.
In contrast, Morton fires off press-release prose that sounds as if it’s straight from the mouth of the Buckingham comms department: Elizabeth’s life in Malta before her ascension was “an experience that she always looked back on with affection and gratitude”; she was also “always interested in and appreciative of those who worked for her.” Occasionally he finds some dirt, but usually acts stunned to hear it, as if the idea of Prince Philip having an affair or the queen making Prince Harry wait weeks for an appointment to see her has never before been suggested. Morton knows the life’s strokes, but doesn’t (or doesn’t want to) fill in the fine points.
Then again, you already know her life details. The oldest child of the “spare,” Elizabeth unexpectedly became heir at age 10 when her uncle abdicated. Queen at 25, when her father died while she toured Africa. Married to Philip, four kids, absolutely shitty year in 1992, screwed things up when Diana died, longest-reigning monarch, Paddington Bear sidekick.
But what do we do with a biography of a person who refused to present herself as a person? What we know of the queen is that she was fundamentally decent, cordial, a sucker for her kids’ extravagant demands, a tippler in the evening, able to endure the dullest events with equanimity, and rather horsey herself. (You’ll find no claims here about the queen’s sexual prowess.) She revealed her true feelings — if they existed — so rarely to anyone but her husband, Prince Philip, that Morton finds it shocking she told her dresser, Angela Kelly, that they “could be sisters.”
Morton cannot, or will not, survey the monarchy with the eye for absurdity that it deserves. Talking about Elizabeth’s parents, King George VI and the Queen Mother, he notes, “In an age of uncertainty, mass unemployment, and poverty, they were the embodiment of an ideal of ordinary, decent, God-fearing folk who lived modestly and sensibly.” And then, without a hint of irony, he goes on, “Even though they resided in a grandly exclusive town house adjacent to Hyde Park, complete with ballroom and electric elevator, it was the fact that they preferred a cozy home life to cafe society that ensured their popularity.”
Suspension of disbelief is more vital in royal biography than fiction, but Morton’s incredulity is nowhere to be found. He quotes Tommy Lascelles, private secretary to the queen and her father, as saying that Elizabeth and her sister Margaret’s childhood production of Sleeping Beauty was “worthy of the West End,” as if a man in that position would shit all over the royal children’s theatrics. He quotes Elizabeth’s dear childhood friend, Alathea Howard, as saying “she never desires what doesn’t come her way,” as if anything — foreign travel, a personal yacht, the 2,868 diamonds in the Imperial State Crown, the 775 rooms of Buckingham Palace, the subjugation of her millions of citizens, her own children’s heads bowed in supplication, the 50,000 acres of Balmoral Castle in Scotland — did not come her way. The only thing Elizabeth ever lost was the rest of the empire.
Not that Morton touches the monarchs-as-colonizers with his white biographer’s gloves. Politics are only brought into the chronology when Elizabeth ran up against major history, the same big boom moments The Crown zooms in on for maximum character exposure: the Aberfan mining disaster in 1966, Elizabeth’s discordant meeting with Jackie Kennedy, her tour of apartheid South Africa. “It was a nation,” Morton writes, “as the princess concluded, where some live like kings.” Even if she saw the irony in that, Morton doesn’t. Though he does note how funny they all found it when “Uncle David” — King Edward VIII, noted Hitler enthusiast — taught young Elizabeth and her sister the Nazi salute.
Morton twists himself in knots to excuse all but the most paltry defects of her character, a tactic that destroys any chance of his turning the flat image of the waving old lady into a person endowed with innate individuality. (He also explains Prince Andrew’s reputational collapse as “a classic example of a witless royal falling prey to the generosity of wealthy friends of dubious provenance.” Andrew remained close enough with Jeffrey Epstein after the latter’s child sex-trafficking conviction that the two were photographed in 2010 during the prince’s weeklong hangout at Epstein’s $50 million Upper East Side townhouse.) It also inadvertently makes her appear much stupider than we know she was. He insists that the queen could not have even known about eating disorders in the early 1980s and therefore didn’t see Diana’s disappearing flesh as a problem. When he notes that she was “out of sorts” at the prospect of not seeing 4-year-old Prince Charles and 3-year-old Princess Anne for half a year when she embarked on a tour of ten Commonwealth countries in November 1953, his own upper lip is too stiff to wonder whether the queen’s royal duties mattered more than the emotional well-being of her children. She “had to endure a sorrowful parting,” he explains (italics mine), as if her tear through Australia on a backbreaking state visit served any greater purpose than tenuous preservation of the shitshow empire.
What is a queen for? Morton accepts at face value the most ludicrous system of government mankind had fashioned. (“You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!”) And he, like every other chronicler of Queen Elizabeth, repeatedly mentions her attachment to her work, her absolute dedication to plowing through every “red box” of state documents she received each morning except Christmas Day. But he doesn’t pause to consider that the “work” of the monarch is self-perpetuation. Dig through the briefs, prepare for ceremonial meetings, stay up to date on economic affairs and cultural touch points so that one can appear cogent on the topics and keep the cycle churning.
I know I’m asking too much of a book designed to suck in airport buyers, the kind looking for a transatlantic-length fix of light gossip and shimmering tiaras. But for God’s sake, let’s find the longest-reigning English monarch a real biographer, instead of a drive-by life hijacker. I, for one, want to know where the institution ended and the woman began. After all, she seemed sweet but ramrod, what my own grandmother would have called “a real spitfire.” If a woman was this determined to hide herself, it’s the biographer’s job to at least try to rout her out.