Wednesday, 30 November 2011

New books: The reign of Queen Margrethe II

In the flood of books on Queen Margrethe II of Denmark – books of interviews, picture albums, year by year cavalcades, books on her art, the Queen and theatre, the Queen and archaeology, the Queen and her sisters, the portraits of the Queen and so on – I have always missed a proper biography of this perhaps most interesting of current European monarchs. Thus Jens Andersen’s biography M – 40 år på tronen, published by Lindhardt og Ringhof last Friday, is a welcome addition to the Margrethiana.
Dr Andersen, who is literary editor of the newspaper Berlingske, is one of Denmark’s most noted biographers and his tome on Hans Christian Andersen has been translated into several languages. His biography of the Queen has been written to mark her upcoming fortieth anniversary on the throne and although the Queen and other members of the Danish and Norwegian royal families have allowed themselves to be interviewed, it stands out from other Margrethe books by not being based solely on interviews with her.
Indeed Andersen has done his research well and draws on a wide range of primary and secondary sources. The fact that other voices than the Queen’s are heard, thus providing other perspectives than the subject’s, alone contributes to making this one of the most interesting books which has been written about Margrethe II.
The author has chosen to leave out Queen Margrethe’s early life (except in retrospect when relevant) and to deal exclusively with his reign, which he divides up in chronological chapters which treat a few years at the time. Often these chapters will relate some key events before leading to a more thorough exploration of one or more topics which are of particular relevance to this time period, such as for instance the Queen’s constitutional role, her use of the language, her support for the new nations which emerged out of the events of 1989-1991, or her relations with Greenland.
The book does not contain any great revelations, but adds some titbits of interest, for instance that the Queen thinks her first Prime Minister, Jens Otto Krag, viewed her as a “clumsy teenager” or that she first met the future Queen Sonja already in the summer of 1959. By this stage so much has been written about Queen Margrethe that one can hardly except much new of major interest to appear in her lifetime, but Andersen succeeds brilliantly in putting Margrethe II and her reign into the context of its times and in highlighting some of the longer lines which run through those forty years. One of the long lines he treats particularly thoroughly is the immigration issue, the other women’s liberation.
The author observes that the Queen has become quite good at expressing opinions in a way that does not make them political statements in themselves, but contributes to an ethical discussion. The author has made full use of Queen Margrethe’s New Year speeches, which are rarely dull and which she has used to voice her concerns about issues which have not always been uncontroversial. One recurring topic throughout her reign has been the immigration issue, which has not always sat well with xenophobic Danes. The author sees the Queen’s concerns with this issue in relation to her own family situation, where she has seen up close the challenges faced by immigrants.
Now that Margrethe II has been on the throne for forty years, she is universally admired and respected and the Danish monarchy stands solidly on its feet, it is very useful to be reminded that this has not always been the case. She became queen rather suddenly, at the age of only 31, at a time when the standing of the monarchy was low, and the first decade or so of her reign was marked by a severe economic crisis and a chaotic parliamentary situation.
Andersen shows not only how things have changed since then, but also how Margrethe II herself has developed. For instance he investigates how the Queen in the years immediately after her accession found her way to a deep religious faith, which has come to mean much to her, and also how she began to find her feet as an artist, which afforded her the opportunity to be evaluated by talent rather than by birthright.
The author is generally respectful towards his subject and seems to have a certain admiration for her (which indeed most people seem to have), but he is not fawning or uncritical. Also, he does not avoid some of less pleasant topics or episodes, such as the Prince Consort’s difficulties with his royal role, the award of the Grand Cross of the Order of Dannebrog to the King of Bahrain shortly before his violent suppression of the uprising earlier this year, or the controversy of the antependium the Queen made for Roskilde Cathedral.
Occasionally I found some of the more narrative parts a bit long-winded (for instance about the royal visit to the USA in 1976) and I could have wished for more on the Queen’s views and thoughts about the role of the monarchy in her own days, but the overall impression is that this is an excellent biography which adds something valuable to our understanding of its subject. This seems likely to become a classic among the vast number of books on Queen Margrethe II and a book which current and future students of her reign should not miss out on.
(As a disclaimer I should add that although I am among the historians quoted in the book, this does not disqualify me from reviewing it as I have not contributed to it).

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