Capturing the Queen

Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 on the Royal Tour of New Zealand. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Crown has it all: working-class grit and aristocratic glamour; scandal and propriety; hysteria and cool restraint; mod rebellion and venerable tradition; vice and Anglican benediction. But will my husband watch it with me? Not a chance.

It pains him, he says, to watch the British monarchy pulled apart from within.

On one of our first dates, as we felt out each other’s politics, Andrew called himself a socialist, a monarchist, and a liberal Democrat. I flashed back at the monarchist part with a rebellious American egalitarianism so hot it surprised me. “So you would have been a Loyalist?” I asked incredulously. Sure enough, he found many of the colonists’ grievances petulant and saw no reason for a complete break. England had, after all, spent a great deal of money defending us against the French. Was a tea tax really so outrageous?

For Andrew, Queen Elizabeth is a still point in a chaotic and often brutal world. She was queen before he was born and remains queen more than half a century later, and he dreads the news report that announces her death. What to me seems a calcified, blood-based, gimmicky institution is to him the very definition of civility, stability, and continuity.

His affection is limited to the sorts of monarchies you see in modern Europe, he reminds me when The Crown starts our argument all over again. They provide people with a common symbol, someone the entire nation can look to, belong with. Someone who outlasts political trends and causes no rancor or division. “Who could hate Elizabeth?”

Her kids, I mutter, having just refreshed myself with Season Three. But Andrew’s interest lies in the public sphere, not the private. “The queen is the person who is always there, committed to the people without needing to curry their favor,” he says. “It’s one of the great weaknesses of a republic that every leader has to campaign, raise money, jockey for favor, risk corruption. Elizabeth stands as the embodiment of the nation and sets its shared rhythm: the opening of Parliament. The Queen’s speech. The changing of the guard. She sets the tone, lays down the framework.”

“But no one chose her,” I protest. “The Brits are simply stuck with her.”

“But she is harmless. She’s a figurehead. Her role is purely ceremonial, cutting ribbons and opening hospitals. And because she is not political, the nation can unify around her. There is no ideology to quarrel with, unless you’re just opposed to monarchy per se. Elizabeth has been incredibly careful not to stand for anything.”

I snort; it hardly sounds like praise. But I see what he means as I start Season Four. Throughout, a teasing theme has been the Queen’s tendency, duty, preference, to “do nothing.” This seeming passivity annoys the hell out of Maggie Thatcher, who shoves forward at any cost. My husband’s framing helps me appreciate the significance of the queen’s stand against apartheid (and therefore against the prime minister). What would have seemed a reflexive act to me was, for her, a brave and stubborn departure from her usual deliberate detachment. The monarchy was rarely about what Elizabeth thought or wanted, except when she was acting to protect its existence.

“When she dies,” Andrew remarks, “the world will lose a bit of constancy, a woman who has bound a significant chunk of the world together for seven decades.”

Those words come back to me midway through The Crown, when Princess Margaret tells her discouraged older sister, “That’s the point of us. We paper over the cracks. So you must hold it all together.”

“Must I do it all alone?” Elizabeth asks, plaintive in a way she seldom allows herself.

“There is only one queen.”

Heavy the crown, I think, misquoting on purpose as I watch the next episode’s hypnotic intro. The gold crown fills the screen, shown from every angle, weightier by far than the head that must support it. What a huge sacrifice, to live as a symbol.

Again and again, young Elizabeth had to suppress her own feelings and wishes. By middle age, she is brisk in her insistence that everyone around her do the same. “All our marriages are a reflection on the integrity of the crown,” she reminds Charles when he mopes about his lost love and grumbles about the immature wife he was urged to marry in haste. A wife who is now being pilloried by the insular royal family for the very reasons she was chosen: her innocence, youth, inexperience, malleability, docility, and desperate need to please.

It is almost physically painful watching Diana throw her arms around her mother-in-law, begging for affection, only to have Elizabeth hastily disentangle herself and move farther away than ever. By now she is only truly happy mucking about in the Scottish highlands with her corgis and horses.

As Earl Spencer’s media-hungry fussing has forced everyone (except Netflix itself) to reiterate, this is not a documentary. The details are quite creatively improvised. But the gist has a feel of truth, and at least a dozen times an episode, I shift from admiring to deploring Elizabeth’s restraint, then back again.

Restraint does not play well in the United States. Many progressives resented Barack Obama’s cool, calm, cerebral demeanor, his preference to analyze, reflect, and compromise. Americans tend to trust passionate drive more than disciplined restraint, because we think it lets us know the person’s heart. We also bristle at rules—witness the elation so many felt when Trump tore up protocol.

Elizabeth is surrounded by so much protocol, her own children curtsy to her. Behind that armature, her emotional life vanishes, as intended. Like a priest, she is removed from the passionate fray, costumed in composure, capable of receiving and neutralizing others’ distress.

When Thatcher breaks down during her weekly audience with the queen, she is mortified, furious at herself, the first female prime minister, for crying. Elizabeth hands her a tissue and asks why she would assume she is the first. This has been a confessional and a therapist’s office, she says dryly, through quite a few prime ministers.

I like that bit and quote it to Andrew (who is still refusing to watch). He nods. “There is a wealth of knowledge the monarch can pass on to the government.” I think about the value of that institutional memory later, when Elizabeth ignores an urgent demand from Thatcher and calmly reminds her, “When you have been in my position as long as I have, you see how quickly the nation’s fortunes can change.”

Perspective, then, and patience, and serenity—traits notably absent in the United States. Queen Elizabeth can be counted on to keep her famous cool, even when an angry, desperate young man shatters a window in Buckingham Palace, comes into her bedroom at dawn, and bleeds onto her bed. There is something honest and sincere in her character that recognizes the same traits in him. Instead of crumpling, calling for help, tricking or ignoring him, she hears him out, then bears in mind his warnings about the ruthless lack of compassion in Thatcher’s Britain.

The fact that when he despised his country’s prime minister, the queen was there for him to turn to—however rash his mode of approach—is the point. Figureheads are carved to endure storm-tossed seas, and they are set at the ship’s prow, visible and exposed, recognizable by all. They are not the engines that move the ship forward. They serve a different purpose, one that is easy to overlook if you have been trained to resist what seems merely decorative. In the States, we have substituted flags and parchment for flesh and blood, reluctant to elevate any family to permanent majesty. But while flags can be burned and parchment amended, neither is animate, conscious, and dedicated entirely to our welfare. Those we entrust with our welfare must scrabble for the privilege, often hollowing their souls in the process.

Still, it is all too easy for a human being to be torn to pieces at the prow of a boat. Sturdy materials must be used, personal lives sacrificed. Those unable to make the sacrifice are shredded into fodder for our entertainment. Those who do make the sacrifice bring stability, nobility, and continuity—and pay a price.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.