Morton’s new biography of Queen Elizabeth II, who died in September, asks us to remember these earlier feats. “The dam burst on June 14, 1992, with the publication of the biography, ‘Diana: Her True Story,’” he boasts in the early pages of “The Queen: Her Life.” “The response,” he continues, “was explosive.” Fair enough: When Diana’s role was disclosed, Buckingham Palace denounced the book and threatened to have it banned. Anyone looking for similar revelations in Morton’s new book, however, will be disappointed by his latest effort to stir the royal pot. For a more scandalous read, Tina Brown’s “The Palace Papers” is the better bet.
No spilling the tea on the queen here. Instead, Morton works mostly from his previous books and other published sources, recycling what has long been part of the public record. Even the organization of the material seems informed more by “The Crown,” for which Morton served as a consultant on the latest season, than by the vagaries of Elizabeth’s life. The most scandalous bits — the inclusion, for instance, of a letter from Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, to Diana acknowledging he couldn’t “imagine [that] anyone in their right mind would leave you for Camilla” — come to us courtesy of a report printed in the Daily Mirror. The result is a narrative that hits all the plot points but without the shock value.
Of course, this is precisely as Queen Elizabeth would have wanted it. If Diana was the ultimate rule-breaker, Elizabeth was the ultimate rule-follower. She may have had a “fine appreciation of the absurd,” as Morton observes in his preface, but she rarely breached convention or emoted in public. “Never complain, never explain,” was her mantra. Such rigidity can produce its own forms of tension.
It’s painful, for example, to read about the awkward early attempts by Elizabeth and Philip to forge a “combined existence,” with all the rewriting of gender codes that entailed. It’s disturbing, too, to be reminded of the very real challenges that Elizabeth confronted as one of the “few working mothers who held high-ranking positions” during the 1950s and ’60s. How understandable, then, that Elizabeth would hesitate when reunited with young Charles and Anne after spending six months away on a royal tour in 1954. What version of motherhood was she expected to perform in front of the cameras? Handshake or hug? (She chose the handshake.)
Even the perennial criticisms of the queen’s mien — that she didn’t smile enough, despite her best efforts — reveal the bind of a woman with power. Not surprisingly, it’s in recounting these scenes that Morton’s narrative is most affecting, precisely because it offers glimpses of the human struggle. For the most part, however, Elizabeth’s self-discipline means she was able to control her story, a boon to her long reign but frustrating to no end for muckraking journalists. Anyone who has watched the many dramatizations of the queen’s life — including “The Crown” — or the coverage of her death is already well-versed in the problems of always maintaining a stiff upper lip.
Morton’s reluctance to probe, though, is not just born of Elizabeth’s stoicism. It’s also a choice. Where he once placed himself firmly on Team Diana, here he equivocates, and only more so as his narrative marches toward the present. (The book was written before King Charles took power but was rushed to print to take advantage of it.) This cautiousness is most apparent in Morton’s treatment of the scandal surrounding Prince Andrew’s friendship with the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. This is uncomfortable ground for Morton. At one point, he describes Andrew as a “witless royal falling prey to the generosity of wealthy friends of dubious provenance.” But was Andrew really “witless” in his relationship with the underage Virginia Giuffre, who has accused the Prince of raping her? Morton ought to give Andrew — and all of the royals — more agency, and more responsibility, in this story. The issues are too fresh, and too consequential, to be addressed with such platitudes.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, also pose dilemmas for the author. Meghan, Morton suggests, at one point promised to help make “the monarchy seem more relevant and inclusive in an ever-changing world.” But where does their withdrawal from royal life leave that inclusive project? In his epilogue, Morton wonders why “a white, Anglo Saxon Christian family automatically represent a diverse multiethnic nation and Commonwealth.” It’s an excellent question, and one that has become all the more urgent in light of the charges of racism that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have leveled at the royal family — within the context of a much broader history of royal entanglements with the slave trade and imperial expansion.
Morton is certainly not the only commentator opting for a milder approach following the queen’s death. Since September, there has been much hand-wringing among the public and pundits alike about the proper way to honor the sovereign and safeguard her legacy. Note the heated exchanges about historical veracity that took place in the lead-up to Season 5 of “The Crown” — capped by Dame Judi Dench’s plea for disclaimers at the start of each episode. This anxiety even extends to the royal family. Ahead of the publication of Harry’s memoir, “Spare,” and a docuseries about Harry and Meghan, the couple now seem to be questioning their commitment to candor. Let’s hope that Penguin Random House and Netflix prevail. Harry and Meghan’s truths, like those of Diana 30 years ago, may be just what the monarchy needs right now.
Arianne Chernock is a professor of history at Boston University. She is the author of “The Right to Rule and the Rights of Women: Queen Victoria and the Women’s Movement.”
Grand Central. 448 pp. $30
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