Norwegian publishers rarely bring out books on foreign royals, believing that this is not something which will sell in this country. The occasional exception is the British royal family and this month NRK Aktivum has published Englands dronning – dronningens England – Streiftog gjennom Elizabeth IIs liv by Kari-Grete Alstad, a former correspondent in London for Norwegian state television NRK.
The author says in the preface that this is not a biography of Elizabeth II, but rather a “tale of how I, as a journalist and former London correspondent, have seen Elizabeth II from my position as a bystander. This is also a book about England, the English people and its history”. She acknowledges that the book’s title is strictly speaking wrong and that Elizabeth II is not actually Queen of England, but, the confused author adds, of “the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Wales and Scotland”!
The book begins with Elizabeth II’s state visit to Norway in 1955 – her first such visit outside the Commonwealth following her accession three years previously. This provides a glimpse of another age, when a state visit could be a cause for public rejoicing and draw huge crowds, yet be taken quite lightly by the authorities – the author quotes the head of Oslo’s police saying less than two weeks before the British Queen’s arrival that he had not made any detailed plans for how to deal with the visit and was not yet sure from where he would get the extra personnel needed. In contrast we know that when Barack Obama comes to town in less than two weeks 2,600 police will be on duty and that the police will get at least 92 million NOK extra to cover their expenses.
Alstad was herself a fourteen-year-old girl who got a glimpse of Elizabeth II during the state visit in 1955 and this chapter I found the best part of the book, although the author insists on interviewing the actor Toralv Maurstad because he had a role in a play attended by Queen Elizabeth II during the state visit. As Maurstad does not remember much of that performance 54 years ago, the author lapses into a digression about what he is doing these days.
In the next chapter she starts with the Norwegian royals’ official visit to London fifty years later and the fact that Norway, unlike Britain, still has a royal yacht makes her mention that HMY Britannia’s last great journey was to the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. This causes a seven-page digression about the history of Hong Kong, Sino-British trade relations and the opium wars before she returns to London in 2005.
What then follows is a long narrative of Elizabeth II’s childhood, mostly based on the very sugary account given by her former governess Marion Crawford in her bestselling book The Little Princesses. By the time Princess Elizabeth marries Prince Philip, we are already on page 113 with less than half the book left for the next 62 years of her life. The author then travels to Kenya to visit Treetops, where the Princess spent the night when her father died and she became queen. The author’s fourteen-year-old granddaughter accompanies her and Alstad cannot resist drawing comparisons between this child and the nearly 26-year-old Princess. Most of this chapter is however based on Jim Corbett’s book Tree Tops, which she makes a point of stressing that she “managed to track down through an antiquarian bookseller in London” (183 copies are easily available on BookFinder.com).
Then Alstad breaks off and jumps to 2005 when she attended a garden party at Buckingham Palace, which gives her a cause to write about the Queen’s clothes, handbags and corgis, followed by an account of the Swan Upping ceremony. Then follows a chapter titled “The Queen and her people”, which opens with a “scene from the documentary [sic!] The Queen”. This chapter deals mostly with Princess Diana and her death before the author tells the life story of a man of Iraqi origins who basically says he admires Elizabeth II. In the final chapter the author writes about Prince Charles, his wedding to Camilla Parker Bowles and her own visit to his Highgrove Shop in Tetbury, which she really cannot make up her mind if is spelled Highgrove or Higrove.
This is quite symptomatic of a book where the author often contradicts herself, particularly when it comes to dates. The abdication takes place in both 1936 and 1937, Princess Elizabeth was confirmed both at the age of 13 and 16, George III died in both 1820 and 1829, Queen Victoria in both 1901 and 1902 and the latter also succeeded to the throne when she was both 18 and 19.
The language is often quite naïve and filled with clichés, and the book is littered with typos and mistranslations. “Prince Regent” is for example translated as “arveprins” (hereditary prince) rather than “prinsregent” and Prince Edward’s wife is called “Duchess of Wessex”, while Prince Philip’s grandmother is made “Margravine of Milford Haven”. Both English words (like “Ascott” and “State Appartments”) and Norwegian ones (“tunell” and “tunnell”, but never the correct “tunnel”) are misspelled. Family relations also seem to be too difficult for Kari-Grete Alstad to get right: George IV was not the great-great-great-great-grandfather of Elizabeth II (in fact she is not descended from him at all), Edward VII was not Prince Charles’s great-great-great-grandfather, nor was Alice Keppel the Duchess of Cornwall’s great-great-grandmother. And none of Prince Philip’s aunts married Germans (but rather Russians, Greeks and Swedes).
The book is quite unreflective and some of the statements made in it are also rather naïve in themselves. Alstad tells us that Tony Blair’s handling of Princess Diana’s death “has later been called the most important political episode in his entire political career in the same way as the Falklands War was for Margaret Thatcher”. “Later” turns out to be Independent on Sunday the day following the Princess’s funeral. Some of us would consider that a little early to decide on the most important event of Blair’s entire political career and some of us would perhaps dear to suggest that the Iraq War was a more important “political episode”. I also very much doubt the Vatican “demonstratively” chose the Prince of Wales’s intended wedding day for the Pope’s funeral.
This book on the Queen of Britain begins well, but ends up as a badly written and rather insignificant book which almost entirely avoids Elizabeth II’s 57-year-reign. And the quality of the illustrations is horrendous.