Originally published in The Australian
Andrew Morton, The Queen, Hardie Grant, ISBN 9781789294644, $32-99
At one level, this is an extraordinarily well-informed and reasonably sympathetic account of our Queen’s life. At another level it’s an incredibly detailed and relentlessly unsparing chronicle of one family’s crises. I suppose that’s to be expected from the author of “Her Own Story”, the 1992 account of the unravelling of the Charles and Diana marriage, which did so much to “let daylight in on magic” and to disillusion people about the monarchy.
Perhaps intrusive attention on the family whose members might inherit the crown is unavoidable in any hereditary system. And these days, what family doesn’t have its “dirty linen”? How many of us could truthfully say that the divorces inside our own families haven’t been messy, and haven’t involved betrayals; or that different family members wouldn’t have bitter tales to tell of each other? Is a failed marriage a sign of bad character or an unfortunate choice; and is every failing necessarily entirely the individual’s fault or might circumstances have at least something to do with it?
To Andrew Morton’s credit, he’s found literally dozens of often uplifting anecdotes casting light on the Queen’s upbringing, personality, and way of life; the qualities and the foibles of her “strength and stay”, Prince Phillip; the strengths and weaknesses of Prince Charles; the charm plus the flightiness of Princess Diana; and the waywardness of Prince Harry. No one is perfect, not even the Queen, who nevertheless mostly emerges with credit from this deftly woven story. But why did the focus have to be so overwhelmingly on the private and the personal, given that flawed characters can also manage to lead steadfast and dutiful lives?
For instance, Morton notes in merest passing, that in some seven decades as a working royal, Prince Phillip had “shaken hundreds of thousands of hands, given thousands of speeches covering personal interests, including science, the environment and religion, and, since 1952, he had attended some 22,219 engagements in his own right”. The Queen would have done many, many more; each event tremendous for all the participants, yet Morton has written a slightly more genial version of an extended gossip column rather than a close study of her public life.
I would have thought that a serious biographer’s focus should be on the Queen’s role as national morale-booster-in-chief, her sterling contribution to the effective governance of Great Britain through 70 tumultuous years, and her efforts to maintain the bonds within the once-British family as an empire transitioned into a disparate commonwealth. Morton acknowledges her radiant declaration, as a 21 year old, that “my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and to the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong”. He’s certainly not oblivious to the strength of character inherent in such a long and dutiful life. Still, the impression he leaves is that it’s wrong to ask one family to bear such burdens and to meet such impossibly high expectations. Even though the Queen herself has uncomplainingly and unfailingly risen to every challenge and discharged her duties in a way that even the most rabid republicans have found hard to fault. And even though an elected president could hardly bring to the role of head of state the same sense of timeless, selfless authority.
How would we judge a biography of Rupert Murdoch that dwelt more on his marriages than on the world’s most consequential media empire that he created or of Boris Johnson that treated his prime ministership almost as an afterthought to an unconventional personal life? By handling so much of the Queen’s life as an upmarket soap opera, even though he largely absolves her of blame, I think he misses the point of a life that’s been nothing short of exemplary. Certainly, there’s little sense here of how successive generations have drawn comfort and strength from her presence or how well chosen and uplifting have been her interventions in our public life.
No doubt Morton has heard many royal secrets from people who should have better respected the confidentiality expected of them. There are numerous “fly on the wall” accounts of key moments in the Queen’s life, one or two jaw-dropping claims, plus too many patronising asides. Has Morton really been a “lay confessor” to the Queen’s intimates over the decades or does he sometimes bring a novelist’s imagination to the events he’s purporting to detail? The book is extensively footnoted but it’s often to newspaper accounts years after the events in question and the reader is expected to take a lot on trust.
This may turn out to be the most readable royal biography of the Queen’s platinum jubilee year but I’d be surprised if it’s the most reliable. It’s an absorbing book but “our greatest ever Queen” (as Morton describes her) is worthy of a better one.