Tuesday, 10 January 2012

New book: Elizabeth II and her times

Among the books on Queen Elizabeth II of Britain published ahead of her upcoming diamond jubilee is Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in Our Times, a study by Sarah Bradford, whose many books includes Elizabeth: A Biography of Her Majesty the Queen (1996). Bradford is currently writing a biography of Queen Victoria of Britain, but has taken time off that project to produce another volume on her great-great-granddaughter. Her new book is considerably shorter than the 1996 biography and aims to see Elizabeth II in the context of the times in which she has lived. However, I am afraid I cannot say that Bradford has succeeded in that.
Bradford calls herself a historian, but has stated that she never completed her degree as she, in another world, broke off her studies in order to marry. The book bears the marks of this, as Bradford’s concept of history seems to be a record of events, not an analysis of developments.
The author tells the story of Queen Elizabeth’s life from its beginning until today, although the fifteen years after the publication of Bradford’s first biography of her are dealt with rather summarily. There is little new material and no new revelations, but Bradford has made good use of biographies, memoirs and diaries of some of the central politicians of the long reign of Elizabeth II, who the author describes as “politically, the first passive sovereign”.
But the supposed context of “our times” is often reduced simply to lists of memorable events which happened during those years a certain chapter deals with, such as one chapter which ends: “The fun was definitely over: in Asia the bombing of North Vietnam escalated with Johnson’s Operation Rolling Thunder, and Chairman Mao initiated his deadly Cultural Revolution. In the Middle East in June 1967 the Israelis rolled over the Egyptians in the Sinai, capturing the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem and taking over control of thousands of Palestinians. The next year, 1968, was a terrible year of the United States, with the assassination of Martin Luther King in April and Robert Kennedy in June; [and so on]”.
Such lists of events read like one of those news summaries which the media like to publish at the end of a year or a decade. What was the significance or influence, if any, of these events on Queen Elizabeth or the British monarchy, one may ask, but the author provides no answers. The result is that the Queen and the historical events of her lifetime are both seen isolated and not in context.
Authors of other recent books on Elizabeth II have addressed some of the key changes to the monarchy in the current reign, but Bradford passes this over. This gives the impression that the British monarchy just happens to have survived without much thought being given to how to make it relevant to changing times and circumstances.
We now seems to have reached the stage where serious authors of serious books may allow themselves to end the book, as Sarah Bradford does, by nothing less than exclaiming “God save the Queen”. Yet Bradford is not entirely uncritical; for instance, she notes that Queen Elizabeth “consistently and temperamentally has failed to prohibit her children from doing what they wanted and has reaped the consequences”.
It also detracts from the overall impression of the book that there are quite a lot of factual mistakes. Dates, years and ages are very often incorrect and the author frequently gets other facts wrong as well. To name a handful of examples George VI’s funeral took place on 15 February 1952, not the 16th; King Haakon VII of Norway did not seek exile in England in April 1940, but only when the campaign in Norway ended two months later; Franklin D. Roosevelt did not die on 27 April 1945, but on the 12th, and thus not the day before Mussolini was captured; George V’s Indian durbar took place in 1911, not in 1912; Lady Diana Spencer was not twenty in July 1980; Tony Blair, who is born in 1953, was indeed “not quite fifty-six” when becoming Prime Minister in 1997, but twelve years younger; and the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday was not the last time she appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
The idea that “Prince Philip of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg [sic] was not, as the satirists later dubbed him, ‘Phil the Greek’, but ‘Phil the German’” is certainly nonsense. For one thing he was Prince of Greece and Denmark and not of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, and furthermore his Danish family was notoriously anti-German while his mother was born at Windsor Castle and the daughter of a British subject. The fact that his sisters all married Germans does not make Prince Philip himself German.
Despite all these reservations it ought to be said that the book is well-written and can probably be read as an introduction to the life of Elizabeth II by those unfamiliar with the subject, but other books provide more insight. Sarah Bradford is the author of three good biographies of members of the British royal family: George VI (1989), Elizabeth (1996) and Diana (2006). Thus it is even more unfortunate that her latest book appears to be a left-hand work, written in a hurry and based on earlier works, while the author has had her mind on another project.


  1. I admit that I had a strong suspicion that this biography might not be much new after her earlier biography was updated around 2001.

    Thanks for this. As I've recently read the 2001 version of the 1996 biography, and enjoyed that - I think I'll give this one a quick glance through, but not focus exhaustively on it. Smallish errors like the ones you mention above tend to annoy me, when I catch them.

    There are enough books about Elizabeth to read this year.

  2. Yes, such errors are annoying, particularly when there are so many of them. In this case it is also notable that some of the mistakes are the same as in the 1996 book (which also suggests that the new one is mostly a summary of the old one). Of the new books on Elizabeth II which I have recently read I think I would recommend Robert Hardman's above the others, but I still find Ben Pimlott's book the best biography of Queen Elizabeth (a new one is published today, by the way: "Elizabeth the Queen" by Sally Bedell Smith).

  3. Thanks for your review. I will not waste money with this book.
    I am planning to buy the Sally Bedell Smith book. I hesitated about it but it seems unavoidable after I read the Daily Mail article about it.
    Also I will buy Victoria Murphy and Jennie Bond. I know Jennie Bond is not a serious writer but I am her fan from the BBC time...
    I think it´s enough, since I have Robert Hardman and Andrew Marr.
    Alberto Penna Rodrigues

  4. I read an excerpt of Sally Bedell Smith's book in Vanity Fair (the January issue, I think) and based on that it seems well-written and serious - except for that she too falls for this "Prince Philip is German" nonsense (one may ask oneself what is the reason for this hang-up among Anglo-American writers).


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