Book review: The Queen: Her Life, by Andrew Morton


If 1992 was a terrible year for Queen Elizabeth II, She held Andrew Morton responsible for many of her woes. In Diana: Her True Story, published that year, Morton exposed Princess Diana’s struggles — tensions with Prince Charles, the threatening presence of Camilla Parker Bowles, Her bulimia and suicide attempt – reveal the shocking extent of the House of Windsor’s dysfunction. The account became even more damaging when, after Diana’s death in 1997, Morton revealed that Diana had cooperated fully with him, sending him secret tapes. “I’ve had a couple of royal deepthroats,” Morton once boasted. For a former tabloid reporter, it was the ultimate scoop. The collaboration is immortalized on screen in the new season of The Crown, with Diana telling her story on a tape recorder with the help of her friend James Colthurst.

Morton’s new biography of Queen Elizabeth II, who died in September, asks us to remember these early feats. “The dam broke on June 14, 1992, and the biography ‘Diana: Her True Story’ was published,” he boasted in the first few pages of “The Queen: Her Life.” “The reaction,” he continued, “was explosive.” Fair enough: Buckingham Palace condemned the book and threatened to ban it when Diana’s character was revealed. However, anyone looking for a similar revelation in Morton’s new book will be disappointed by his recent efforts to stir up the royal family. For a more scandalous read, Tina Brown’s “Court Papers” is a better choice.

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Don’t spill tea on the queen here. Instead, Morton’s work is largely drawn 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 to be more influenced by the “crown”, Morton was a consultant in the most recent season, Not the vagaries of Elizabeth’s life.The most shameful parts – including, for example, a letter from Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, to Diana admitting he couldn’t “imagine” [that] Anyone in their right mind will leave you for Camilla” – come to us according to a report in the Daily Mirror. The result is a narrative that recounts all the plot points but has no shock value.

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Of course, that’s exactly what Queen Elizabeth wanted. If Diana is the ultimate rule breaker, then Elizabeth is the ultimate rule follower. As Morton puts it in his preface, she may have “a good understanding of the absurd,” but she rarely breaks convention or expresses her emotions in public. “Never complain, never explain” is her mantra. This rigidity can create its own form of tension.

For example, it’s painful to read about Elizabeth and Philip’s awkward early attempts to establish a “composite being” that required all the rewriting of the gender code. Equally disturbing are the very real challenges Elizabeth faced in the 1950s and 1960s as one of the “few working mothers to hold senior positions.” It’s understandable, then, that Elizabeth was hesitant to reunite with the young Charles and Anne in 1954. Six months after she left for a royal tour in 1954, she would be hesitant. What kind of motherhood does she expect to be in front of the camera? Shake hands or hug? (She chooses to shake hands.)

Even a long-standing criticism of the Queen’s demeanor – she doesn’t smile enough despite her best efforts – reveals the shackles of a powerful woman. Not surprisingly, it is in narrating these scenes that Morton’s narrative is most moving, precisely because it offers a glimpse into the human struggle. For the most part, however, Elizabeth’s self-discipline meant she was in control of her story, a boon for her long reign but a never-ending frustration for whistleblowers. Anyone who has seen the many dramatizations of the Queen’s life (including The Crown) or reports of her passing has mastered the problem of keeping the upper lip stiff at all times.

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Morton’s reluctance to probe, however, was not just due to Elizabeth’s stoicism. is also an option. He was once firmly in Diana’s place, where he’s ambiguous, and as his narrative moves toward the present, he’s even more ambiguous. (The book was written before King Charles came to power, but was hastily published to take advantage of it.) This caution was most evident in Morton’s handling of the scandal surrounding Prince Andrew’s friendship with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. It was an uncomfortable reason for Morton. At one point he described Andrew as “a foolish royal who fell prey to the generosity of wealthy friends of unknown origin”. But was Andrew really ‘stupid’ in his relationship with underage Virginia Giuffre, who accused the prince of raping her? In this story, Morton should have given Andrew — and all the royals — more agency and more responsibility. These issues are too fresh and too important to be addressed with such clichés.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, also pose a dilemma for the author. At one point, Meghan promised to help “make the monarchy appear more relevant and inclusive in a changing world,” Morton suggested. But what will their exit from royal life leave behind this inclusive project? In his epilogue, Morton wondered why “a white, Anglo-Saxon Christian family automatically represents a diverse, multi-ethnic nation and federation.” That’s a good question, given the Duke and Duchess of Sussex Allegations of racism against the royal family – an issue made more pressing and imperial expansion against the broader historical backdrop of the royal family’s entanglement with the slave trade.

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Morton is certainly not the only commentator who has opted for moderation following the Queen’s death. Since September, the public and pundits have been uneasy about the right way to honor the monarch and protect her legacy.Note the heated exchange about historical authenticity that took place prior to Season 5 of The Crown – Capped by Mrs. Judi Dench asking for a disclaimer at the beginning of each episode. This anxiety extends even to the royal family. Before Harry’s memoir “Backup” was published, There’s also a documentary about Harry and Meghan, and the couple now seem to be questioning their commitment to candor. Let’s hope Penguin Random House and Netflix prevail. The truth about Harry and Meghan, like the truth about Diana 30 years ago, may be just what the monarchy needs now.

Arianne Chernock is a professor of history at Boston University. She is”Dominion and Women’s Rights: Queen Victoria and the Women’s Movement. “

Grand Central. 448 pages $30

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