Book Review: The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II

Andrew Marr
Henry Holt & Co, 2012
368 pages

I don't think I ever planned or expected to read a book about Queen Elizabeth II. But I was at the library doing research for some other stuff, and for some reason this book jumped out at me (no, not literally, the library seldom gets so exciting). And I saw it was recently published, and so in my mind it was also relatively up-to-date, and I decided to give it a try.

Elizabeth II has been Queen of England for as long as my mother and I have been alive and almost as long as my father has been. That's quite the perspective for you. It's hard for me to imagine a world in which Elizabeth II is not queen, perhaps because it's hard for me to imagine Charles as king, but whatever. It will happen eventually. That's what The Real Elizabeth sort of brought home to me, really. It's not something I'm inclined to think about much, but Marr's book gives such a detailed accounting of the way Elizabeth II handles her affairs, and one knows Charles is likely to do things very differently. Elizabeth has weathered many storms in her time as queen, and one can't help but wonder if Charles will find his own path to success.

Though of course The Real Elizabeth is based mostly on historical record and a few quotes from those who've worked for and with the queen, Marr still manages to paint a portrait of Her Majesty that gives the reader a pretty solid idea of what she must be like as a person. He also does a nice job of couching key events in her reign in political and historical context. The sum total is, naturally, a sort of defense of the monarchy as an institution, tempered by the acknowledgment that the monarchy must change with the times if it is going to continue. All in all a very safe book, but still a fine read. (I especially liked the chapter about the Britannia. I'll admit to having skipped the chapter about money.)

I always feel a little gawkish when reading a book about a current person, someone still alive or only recently deceased; there is a voyeuristic aspect to the whole thing. But maybe that's also true of books about people long dead . . . Why else read a biography except to get the scoop on someone? Biographies were, I suppose, the original form of reality programming. The Real Elizabeth is a pretty decent one, at any rate, and nothing you have to feel embarrassed about being caught with.

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