Queen Elizabeth: A graceful, distinguished and decidedly un-literary monarch
In 1977, to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, Philip Larkin wrote a few lines about the monarch in a letter to his editor Charles Monteith, which he (in typically lugubrious style) described as being available for “first chiselling rights.” Larkin, who famously turned down the role of poet laureate after the death of John Betjeman’s in 1984, was a reluctant public poet: in that same letter to Monteith he described himself as “no good at this lapidary lark.” Yet in poetry he still managed to encapsulate something of the respect and the love that many felt for the 51-year-old monarch:
In times when nothing stood
But worsened, or grew strange,
There was one constant good:
She did not change.
It is little surprise that, after the Queen’s death, these brief thoughts went viral on social media—which no doubt would have horrified Larkin, just as Keir Starmer’s recitation of the lines in his tribute to her in the House of Commons would likewise have been anathema to the conservative poet. But he captured what has been seen as a universal truth about Elizabeth—her unchanging and ever-fixed nature—and he did so with almost brutal economy. His remark about how times “worsened, or grew strange” is just as appropriate to 2022 as it was 45 years ago.
Yet as we attempt to come to terms with the passing of the longest reigning monarch in British history, we may look to literature for comfort, and find that the results are surprisingly thin. Apart from Larkin’s lines, remarkably few official poems have remained in the popular consciousness. For a Queen whose first Laureate was John Masefield and whose last was Simon Armitage—with C Day-Lewis, Betjeman, Ted Hughes, Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy in between—there has been a paucity of memorable poetry produced. Perhaps this suggests the laureateship is a bind rather than a privileged position when it comes to untrammelled poetic inspiration, and that an (admittedly ailing) Larkin chose the correct path when he turned it down.
The Queen was, famously, not a literary woman. While her husband Prince Philip had some fondness for the poetry of TS Eliot, which he described as “deep but narrow”—and once, only half-jokingly, forbade a journalist from telling anyone of this unexpected penchant—Elizabeth was more comfortable with the straightforwardly entertaining novels of Jilly Cooper and Dick Francis; the latter’s depiction of racing was especially close to her heart, given her lifelong love of horses. It was not for nothing that Alan Bennett’s 2007 novella The Uncommon Reader took as its concept that the Queen might have become obsessed with literature after a chance encounter with a mobile library. The central joke is that—as she has her mind broadened by reading the likes of Henry James, Jean Genet and Sylvia Plath—she starts thinking for herself, and thus her interest in books becomes a constitutional danger in its own right.
Bennett, who unlike his peers holds no knighthood, Companionship of Honour or similar royal-approved distinction, has always had an ambivalent relationship towards the royals. His presentation of the Queen in his play A Question of Attribution, about her friendship with the art historian and traitor Anthony Blunt, treads a knowingly fine line between caricature and sympathy. As played on both stage and on television by Prunella Scales, there is a sense of an intelligent woman who is consciously playing a part, just as Blunt is, and that the two of them find surprising common ground in this mutual concealment—albeit in a fashion that can barely be expressed out loud. Bennett’s lifelong interest in the rituals and traditions of Englishness has seldom been better expressed.
One of the surprises about the Queen is how little she has featured in novels written during her reign. She appears fleetingly in Roald Dahl’s The BFG, in a more substantial capacity in Sue Townsend’s comic “what if” novel The Queen and I—in which, after the abolition of the monarchy, she finds herself living on a council estate nicknamed “Hell Close”—and Emma Tennant’s novella The Autobiography of the Queen imagined what would happen if Elizabeth, wearying of a life of duty, had thrown it all in one day and travelled to St Lucia, adopting the pseudonym “Gloria Smith.” And, of course, the formal trappings of the Queen’s reign—coronations, jubilees, weddings and the like—have appeared as backdrops in any number of books.
But there has never been a serious attempt by a major literary novelist to get to grips with what it must be like, from a psychological and social perspective, to be the monarch. Even as one idly wonders what an Kazuo Ishiguro or a Hilary Mantel—or even, more mischievously given his treatment of Thatcher, an Alan Hollinghurst—could do with such material, there has been a general unwillingness to explore the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth in any detail. The most successful recent novel to have featured her as a character was the first instalment in SJ Bennett’s Windsor Knot series, which reimagined the Queen as an amateur sleuth, but Bennett would be the first to admit that she was writing entertainment, rather than attempting to penetrate the monarch’s inner psyche. And, of course, the semi-fictionalised presentation of the Queen in Peter Morgan’s Netflix series The Crown has encouraged viewers to regard Elizabeth in different terms altogether, not least because of the excellent performances by Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and—by all accounts—Imelda Staunton.
Perhaps now there will be a surge of novels that attempt to come to terms with the Elizabethan era. Yet it is ultimately Larkin’s description of her as a “constant good” that is the abiding feeling many have. Protagonists must usually be flawed to be interesting. The Queen was not without her faults, but she was also someone who was imbued with that most unfashionable of personal qualities—a sense of duty—and this is something that defined her reign and life. At some point, there will be an examination of this attribute that will make for a thrilling read. But until then, we should mark the passing of a decidedly un-literary monarch with the grace and compassion that her distinguished reign deserves.
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