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God Save the Queen From Biographers

ELIZABETH: A Biography of Britain's Queen,\o7 By Sarah Bradford (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux: $30; 564 pp.)\f7

April 21, 1996|Margo Kaufman | Margo Kaufman is the official royal watcher for the Book Review

Seventy years ago today, the future Queen Elizabeth II entered the world by caesarean section, the first child of then-Duke and Duchess of York. Though third in the line of succession, Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary (named after her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother), wasn't expected to ascend to the throne, let alone become the matriarch of the world's most public dysfunctional family.

But her parents had no sons, Edward VIII fell in love with Wallis Simpson, his successor, George VI, died prematurely, and thus in 1952 at age 25, the shy, corgi-loving "Lilibet" (as she is known to her family) became Queen of Great Britain, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. (And arguably the only woman in the world who doesn't worry about a professional glass ceiling.)

Being queen has its disadvantages, such as a continual stream of unauthorized biographies, the latest of which is the thorough, but not particularly illuminating, "Elizabeth," by Sarah Bradford, who is in private life the Viscountess Bangor. Readers familiar with earlier, livelier portraits, most notably "Majesty," by Robert Lacey (1971), "The Queen," by Elizabeth Longford (1983), and "Sovereign," by Roland Flamini (1991), will find few surprises; in fact the author uses many of the same quotes and anecdotes.

For instance, there's Sir Harold Nicolson's memorable description of George V's tenure as Duke of York: "For 17 years he did nothing but kill animals and stick in stamps." And generous helpings of Elizabeth's governess-turned-author Marion Crawford's observations from her book, "The Little Princesses," the very first royal tell-all: "Long before most children do, Lilibet took an interest in politics, and knew quite a bit about what was going on in the world outside." (Bradford reveals that Crawford betrayed the Windsors because she needed money--surprise!--and that she ultimately lost credibility as a royal journalist when she wrote a magazine column on June 16, 1955, vividly describing the Trooping of the Color when that year the ceremony was canceled because of a rail strike.)

In all fairness to the author, writing an enlightening book about a monarch who last made a public scene when she cried at her own christening must be an exercise in frustration. Tabloids and tell-alls, like Andrew Morton's "Diana, Her True Story," have whetted the world's appetite for salacious gossip. Yet the queen doesn't give interviews, access to the private diary that she has kept since she was a child is forbidden until after her death, courtiers won't talk for fear of losing their grace-and-favor homes and she genuinely loves her mate.

A reader looking for dirt will be disappointed. The queen's husband, Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is reputed to have had affairs with "a princess, a duchess, two or perhaps three countesses, two peeresses and a few untitled ladies." Elizabeth once fired a lady-in-waiting who felt compelled to enlighten her about her husband's alleged infidelities and she privately refers to her daughter-in-law Diana, Princess of Wales, as "that tiresome girl." (This has to be a record for mother-in-law restraint.)

The author's greatest strength is in the offbeat detail. We learn that Queen Mary once exclaimed when being driven past a harvested field, "So that's what hay looks like!" Prince Charles leaves his staff stuffy memos about minor household problems such as "This sponge is dry. Please see that it is watered immediately." And when Prince William was born, the queen was said to have insensitively remarked, "Well, at least he hasn't got his father's ears."

Still, far too much is made of her majesty's failure to be a hands-on mother and her tendency to adopt "the family ostrich stance in the face of unpleasant personal situations." Unlike Queen Victoria, who drew up lists of suitable mates for her children as soon as they were born, Elizabeth is reluctant to meddle. "If the queen had spent as much time over the mating of her children as she does on her horses, all this might not have happened," an unnamed courtier states. Making the queen accountable for the antics of Charles, Di and Fergie may give the book a patina of topicality, but it ultimately makes the author seem petty.

Whatever her defects--bad taste in hats, a preference for four-legged creatures--the fact remains that Elizabeth was trained from birth to serve her country and she's done an admirable job. Just for being a spectacularly rich, 70-year-old woman who is photographed constantly and yet has never resorted to a face lift, she deserves a 21-gun salute. So let me take this occasion to wish her majesty a very happy birthday. God save her from the next book--by Kitty Kelley.

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