Distinguished royal writer Robert Hardman has been granted special access to the world of Queen Elizabeth. In his new book, "Her Majesty: Queen Elizabeth II and Her Court," he reveals an intimate portrait of England's soon-to-be longest reigning queen, the royal family and her monarchy. An excerpt.
‘It’s amazing that she didn’t crack’
When the world comes to look back on the early twenty-first century, two events in Britain — just weeks apart — will be lodged in the collective memory. One will be the 2012 London Olympics, a spectacular fortnight of international sporting endeavour. The other will be a celebration of a woman who has become so firmly established on the world stage that, in the words of one Commonwealth leader, she is no longer seen as merely British or, indeed, as merely human. She is the living incarnation of a set of values and a period of history. In Britain, she is Tower Bridge and a red double-decker bus on two legs, not to mention Big Ben, afternoon tea, village fetes and sheep-flecked hills in the pouring rain. In the wider world, she is the newsreel figure who has just carried on going into digital high definition. More than one hundred nations — that’s more than half the countries on earth — did not even exist in their present form when she was crowned. While her presence is taken entirely for granted at home, to millions of people around the planet she represents continuity on a scale bordering on the incomprehensible.
‘She’s incredible,’ says Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, during a poignant and thoughtful first interview on someone he describes as ‘my grandmother first — and then she’s the Queen’. No one, surely, is better placed to imagine what it must have been like to succeed to the throne, as the Queen did, at twenty-five. Sitting in his office in St James’s Palace a few days before his own twenty-ninth birthday, the Prince ponders the enormity of her task: ‘Back then, there was a very different attitude to women. Being a young lady at twenty-five — and stepping into a job which many men thought they could probably do better — it must have been very daunting. And I think there was extra pressure for her to perform.’ He remains in awe of the way she managed it: ‘You see the pictures of her and she looks so incredibly natural in the role. She’s calm, she’s poised, she’s elegant, she’s graceful and she’s all the things she needs to be at twenty-five. And you think how loads of twenty-five-year-olds — myself, my brother, and lots of people included – didn’t have anything like that. And we didn’t have that extra pressure put on us at that age. It’s amazing that she didn’t crack. She just carried on and kept going. And that’s the thing about her. You present a challenge in front of her and she’ll climb it. And I think that to be doing that for sixty years — it’s incredible.’
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Only one other monarch has marked sixty years on the throne. Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, however, was a celebration of imperial might featuring a rare and somewhat valedictory appearance by a reclusive Brittania figure. The Queen Empress was too lame to make it up the steps into St Paul’s Cathedral for her own service of thanksgiving. The clergy processed outside to her carriage instead. After sixty years of Queen Elizabeth II, the mood is entirely different. There is no triumphalism. Instead, the dominant emotion is one of pride in those quiet virtues of service, duty, stability. And the Monarch herself has no trouble with steps of any sort, whether they lead up to cathedrals or aircraft. In 2010, her list of engagements actually rose by almost 20 per cent. The schedule for 2011 – including the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, the momentous inaugural state visit to the Republic of Ireland and the state visit by President Barack Obama of the United States all within days of each other —would prove busier still.Slideshow: Life of a queen (on this page)
A jubilee, by definition, is a retrospective occasion. It is an invitation for everyone to view today’s world through a sepia-tinted lens. ‘If you compare life now, everything is incomparably better today than when the Queen came to the throne,’ says former Prime Minister Sir John Major. ‘I hope that will be a theme throughout the celebrations.’
But looking backwards, we run the risk of ignoring the most remarkable aspect of the reign – namely the monarchy today. Historians and psychiatrists talk about ‘Queen Victoria syndrome’, a capacity to shield oneself away from reality and live in the past. Queen Elizabeth II syndrome is the exact opposite.Story: Kate, Camilla and the queen take a ladies' day out
The more I have followed the monarchy professionally over two decades, the more I have seen it running counter to all conventional wisdom about family businesses and ancient institutions. The operation has emphatically not become more set in its ways as the management grows older. It has actually changed more in the last twenty-five years than in the previous one hundred and twenty-five. At times through necessity, at times through choice, it has adapted and repositioned itself again and again while the rest of us have barely noticed. ‘The great challenge of this organization is the management of change,’ says the Duke of York. ‘And that’s where the Queen has been so successful. This institution, under her leadership and guidance, has been able to change in a way and at a pace which reflects what is required by society.’ The Queen herself is an extraordinary double act – the never changing, ever changing Monarch who happens to be the oldest in history, entering her jubilee year at the age of eighty-five. Yet no one thinks of her as a little old lady in a black dress harrumphing that she is not amused.Story: The fascinating life of ‘Elizabeth The Queen’
We see Queen Victoria in Highland seclusion and set in aspic. We see Queen Elizabeth II walking dogs or watching a dancing display somewhere in the South Seas. She is a ‘now’ person, not a ‘then’ person.
This is why this book is not a life story but, instead, a portrait of the Queen today. It is not a chronology but a study of a thoroughly modern monarch.
Excerpt from "Her Majesty: Queen Elizabeth II and Her Court," by Robert Hardman. Copyright © 2012. Reprinted by permission from Pegasus.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive