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Monarch in a well-tended cocoon

The cultivated aloofness of Britain's Elizabeth is seen as a key part of her success.

June 02, 2012|Henry Chu
  • Britain's Queen Elizabeth II talks with officers at an event with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 5th Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Scotland in London on May 30, 2012. The queen keeps a busy schedule of public appearances.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II talks with officers at an event with… (Lewis Whyld / AFP/Getty…)

LONDON — Her face is everywhere: on stamps, coins, mugs and book covers. Her likeness has just been reproduced for the 23rd time at Madame Tussauds, London's famous wax museum. More visitors come to gawp at her house than probably any other residence in the world.

Yet after reigning over Britain for longer than most of her subjects have been alive, Queen Elizabeth II is the country's "most familiar enigma," in the words of one TV presenter.

Yes, the white-haired 86-year-old keeps up a grueling schedule of public appearances that would test someone half her age, especially during this season of celebration of her Diamond Jubilee, marking 60 years on the throne. This weekend, the queen kicks off a four-day extravaganza by going to the races Saturday and cruising down the Thames on Sunday at the head of a flotilla of up to 1,000 boats.

But a certain regal aloofness, a touch of otherworldliness that lends some credence to the title "Your Majesty," is a crucial component of her long success as monarch, some say.

"You do need a little bit of mystique," said Sue Daws, 52, who lives in northern Wales.

Note to heirs: You might want to work on that.

Elizabeth is the last member of the House of Windsor for whom royalty and celebrity don't overlap, or at least not by much, a distinction many observers credit with helping to preserve the monarchy's appeal.

Her discretion and dignity are in marked contrast to the behavior of her four children. Unlike them, she doesn't submit to tell-all interviews about unhappy marriages, hasn't had details of her sex life laid bare in the tabloids, didn't take part (not even for charity) in an embarrassing game show called "The Grand Knockout" in 1987 (as did Princess Anne and Princes Andrew and Edward, in a moment that for many Britons represented "the breaking of royalty's magic spell," as one writer later put it).

"The queen has always avoided what she calls stunts," said Robert Lacey, author of the just-published "The Queen: A Life in Brief." "The monarchy has got to distinguish itself from other aspects of British public life."

Part of Elizabeth's aura of solemn reserve is natural to her temperament and her generation, with its harrowing experience of world war and its innate aversion to making a spectacle. Lacey notes that she grew up in the era depicted in the movie "The King's Speech" -- the king in question was her father -- when mass media were still novelties and engaging them wasn't automatically part of the British sovereign's job description.

But some of the queen's detached grandeur is carefully cultivated and maintained.

There are countless biographies, but no autobiography. Her public comments are polite, unexceptionable and totally unrevealing. Everyone knows about her love of dogs and horses, but only those closest to her have any real inkling of the thoughts beneath the diamond tiaras and behind the guarded smile.

"She is the most portrayed individual in history, more than anyone you can think of -- popes, prime ministers, presidents," said Paul Moorhouse, curator of a new exhibition, "The Queen: Art & Image," at the National Portrait Gallery here in London. "The paradox is, what does anyone know about her? Her opinions are a closed book. Nobody but her intimate family knows what she thinks."

Royal protocol certainly helps perpetuate the idea of a person set above and apart. At meals, guests are supposed to stop eating when the queen does. (It's said she keeps a final morsel on her plate to roll around so that others can keep noshing without embarrassment.) Even her family members have to rise when she enters.

But with that air of exaltedness comes a delicate juggling act, royal watchers and historians say.

Though fundamentally unknowable, the queen can't be too distant and unapproachable. At the same time, she must somehow give the impression of being close to her people. Her private motto is, "I have to be seen to be believed."

"In modern times, the British monarchy has been an accommodation of two opposing factors. One is a sense of aloofness or majesty or royalty, and the other is the opposite, the sense of being almost an ordinary human being," said Michael Billig, a social scientist at Loughborough University. "If they don't get that balance right, they're likely to be unpopular."

Hence her many appearances opening hospitals, christening ships and inspecting military regiments, always in her trademark hat and pearls. In fact, when Britons are asked to explain their admiration of the queen, many talk about how diligent she is in dispatching her duties, how the "old girl" soldiers on despite her age. She is only the second British monarch to celebrate a diamond jubilee; the first was her great-great-grandmother Victoria, 115 years ago.

"The queen has become popular because there she is, an elderly woman who's still working," Billig said. "That's a very down-to-earth assessment."

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