Tag Archives: Princess Diana

Book Review: Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn

Mrs. Queen Takes the TrainFirst, I have to give a tip of my figurative hat to the art director/cover designer for this book. I love it! What sums up QEII more than Buckingham Palace, some guards, and a cup of tea? Horses, a little handbag, and Corgis, obviously. It is a really cute little hardcover.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it was an entirely successful novel.

The book is primarily about Queen Elizabeth II (the current queen, for those of you who really don’t pay attention) and the hazards of getting older and of being a monarch in the 21st century.

The primary plot revolves around The Queen deciding she could really use a day off/a cheer-up. She is feeling her age, and her increasing lack of power and importance in modern UK life. Let’s face it, the monarchy has rarely been less liked and less powerful than it has been lately. I think the dislike reached a peak at the death of Princess Diana, and has been recovering the last year or two with the Olympics, the jubilee, the royal wedding and soon-to-be royal baby.

As I’ve said before, I am not a big fan of the royals. Most people in the US seem more fascinated by them, I suppose because we don’t have anything equivalent here, but I just can’t be bothered to care much about them. I do not believe much in tradition, in ceremony, or in a class system. I picked this book up because, even though I’m not drawn to the monarchy as a subject, it promised a humanizing look at QEII. This is the author’s first novel, having previously written several biographies and light historical books on Brits and Americans (including Jackie O, the closest thing the US has ever had to a Queen). I do think it’s interesting to consider the monarchy from the position of human beings placed into this unique and almost impossible situation. How does one adjust to the fact that they lead the country by supposed divine decree? How would you adjust to the changing times and ideas of politics and political power during a 60+ year reign? When QEII had her coronation, Churchill was the PM and the nation was still recovering from the devastation wrought during WWII. She’s still Queen, but undoubtedly the country is totally different. It is really fascinating to consider the role of a leader when you’re able to also hold it in your mind that this is just a regular person. Despite what Henry VIII might say, I don’t think any of the monarchs have ever been assigned by God or given special gifts or knowledge to allow them to lead. They are, by chance of birth, thrust into a position of leadership. I’ve already talked a little on this blog about Edward VIII and his decision to abdicate in order to marry Wallis Simpson. He couldn’t be King and marry the woman he loved, so he chose. Prince Charles, by all accounts, was asked to marry Princess Di when he loved Camilla from an early age. That obviously didn’t turn out well, but the point is that obedience and sacrifice comes with the pedigree and the real estate. It’s not a free ride. I’ve also already talked about the current climate of paparazzi frenzy over pictures of the royals, and how that will affect both Kate Middleton and her royal baby. It’s a tough time to be a royal, in my opinion. So a look inside all of the pomp and circumstance and at the reality of the situation is always a welcome thing.

Unfortunately, despite his training as a historian, Kuhn doesn’t seem to have captured a believable queen. It’s ironic, because as a historian, it is possible that this is a very accurate picture. Maybe she really does do yoga and feel comfortable talking to strangers on the street. But it doesn’t seem believable, even if it is true. Some aspects were plausible to me–the idea of The Queen not wanting to ask for computer help even though she hasn’t quite got the whole thing down–and others were really not–the queen having a secret twitter account only followed by family and friends. Even if these details are true, they don’t match with the public perception of The Queen, and there is nothing in the text to reconcile these. In scenes where The Queen was practicing yoga, I found myself picturing her in a lavender dress and matching jacket. I wondered how she could do Warrior II in panty hose. I couldn’t imagine her ever doing Downward Dog, because what if someone walked in and saw her backside in the air?

Of course the Queen is a human being, and sometimes she doesn’t wear pantyhose. It’s possible she even has yoga pants. On the other hand, how many octogenarians do you know who do yoga? If she is unusually attuned to what is young and new, then there has to be something in the text to align that with her public persona as being very old-fashioned, traditional, and proper. Otherwise, there is too much cognitive dissonance.

In the book, The Queen decides to take the eponymous train journey from King’s Cross to Edinburgh (a trip I recently made myself) in order to visit the royal yacht (which was decommissioned in the ’80s or ’90s) moored there. She sneaks out of Buckingham Palace on a whim, wearing a borrowed hoodie. She doesn’t tell anyone where she is going.

Several characters are charged with and volunteer to track her down in order to keep her from harm. They include an equerry (old-fashioned term for a sort of personal assistant to the monarch), a lady-in-waiting, a butler, a stable girl, a dress maid/ladies’ maid, and a clerk from a cheese shop. They frantically search for her, forming uneasy alliances across class lines (slightly reminiscent of Downton Abbey), and try to keep her disappearance quiet.

I had two problems with this book. The first was a lack of real suspense in the plot. We view the story from alternating perspectives, but we are never away from The Queen as narrator long enough to worry about her safety. The other characters are stressed about not finding her, but the tension of the situation and its potential dangers are glazed over and presented as secondary to the maze of social propriety involved in dealing with the monarch. There is never a sense of a non-happy ending being remotely possible.

The second problem was the portrayal of The Queen. As I said before, it doesn’t seem realistic even if it is based on real facts. So that’s a problem of writing, not of research. I think it also paints The Queen as less capable and competent than she most definitely is. The Queen in the book seems to regret that everyone went to so much trouble looking for her, and that she caused them stress. But, after being queen for 60+ years I’m fairly certain QEII knows exactly and entirely what would happen if she went AWOL. I would respect the character more if she knowingly decided to escape from her handlers. I also think that The Queen in the book is not as bogged down and restricted by her ideas of propriety and tradition than QEII must be in real life.

But where am I getting this info? What on earth do I know about QEII? Nothing, obviously. But she is a human being, who was raised knowing very early on that she would one day lead her country. She’s seen it through wars, through peace, economic prosperity and depression. She’s seen PMs come and go, political parties rise and fall. She stands alone, is the only one who can know the burden of leadership and the restrictions of monarchy. Her family has inklings, but nothing on the same level. There is no way to portray her in any book or movie that does not acknowledge this ordering of the world according to tradition and to responsibility. And in this book I just don’t think that was acknowledged enough.

I’ve read quite a few novels lately written by historians. I have no idea why they would want to make that jump. There’s an old joke that the profession least likely to get their book published is a writer! Seriously though, it’s not as easy as it looks, guys (the ones I have read were men; I am not implying that all historians are men). There has to be a more human look at the historical figures, not just an ‘accurate’ portrayal. If you described Henry VIII as large, fat, with a beard, who liked to have his wives beheaded, you wouldn’t be wrong. But you wouldn’t catch the essence of him as well as someone who might write about his frustration and anger with himself at not fathering a male child, frustration that he aimed clearly at his wives. Cutting off their heads was an easy way to blame them, and to excise the blame from himself. Is saying that accurate? No way to know. But it makes a better novel, and if you’re going to travel into the realm of fiction you have to take the leap away from concentrating on accuracy and focus instead on creating a character comprehensible and relatable.

The Royal Baby and the paparazzi

Kate's baby bumpMostly, I don’t really want to write this post, if I’m honest.  But it is a huge event in the course of British events, and will be much talked of over the coming year.  And, of course, it has already been surrounded by controversy.  So, it seems like some comment is necessary.

I speak, of course, of the upcoming royal baby.  Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (her formal title) is pregnant with what will be (boy or girl) the third person in line to the throne.

I searched for ‘baby bump’ photos to put on this post and the above came up, of Kate at Thanksgiving.  Man, look how fat she is! How did we not know?  I’m joking, of course.  I could lose 30 lbs and still look more pregnant than she does.  But no one shows this early, and the tabloids have been speculating since the day of the wedding that she was pregnant, so every shot claims to display a nonexistent baby bump.  Sigh.  Poor Kate.

I am not much of a follower of the royals. I didn’t watch the wedding, though I did watch the Diamond Jubilee, so maybe my hatred of weddings was more of a factor.  At any rate, the monarchy is not a part of British culture that I feel much affection for.  I feel similarly about the House of Lords.  Maybe some girls think about becoming a princess, but this one would rather leave all the responsibility and need to wear ridiculous hats to someone else.  Not to mention the pressure to procreate.

Whenever there has been a new heir expected or needed, Britain has been rather obsessed.  A prime example is Henry VIII and his inability to produce a male heir to rule upon his death. In those days (and for most of British history), the heir was really important.  Wars would easily and quickly break out if there wasn’t a clear next-in-line to the throne.  There were multiple civil wars over the succession, from the War of the Roses to the post-Reformation confusion between Catholic Mary and Protestant Elizabeth. The country is more stable when everyone knows and accepts who will take over when the current monarch dies.

Combine that historical curiosity with the celebrity status of the monarchy.  Ever since Princess Diana, when the stuffy monarchy was injected with something akin to soap opera drama, the press and the people clamor for information on the (attractive) royals.  Will and Harry seem to get the most of the attention, maybe because they are Diana’s sons and the public feels a sense of ownership and a sense of sharing their family tragedy, maybe because they are the most attractive of the royal family?  In the US, those are almost the only royal family members to which we are exposed.  No one knows about Princess Beatrice or Zara Phillips, except for blips here and there.  Zara Phillips and her participation in the Olympics, Beatrice and her hat at the wedding:

6a00d8341c630a53ef0154323ed96c970c-320wiBut I believe as a country we took more notice of Pippa Middleton than the rest of the royals.  Regardless of how things are different in the UK and the US, this royal baby is a big deal as a curiosity and as a potential future ruler.  But the demented need for information driving behavior in this instance is the same that drives paparazzi to lay down next to limos to get shots up the skirt of whatever celebrity happens to have worn a dress. The whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I have pity for Kate, for William, and for this child-to-be.

This intense curiosity and feeling of ownership over these public figures has already turned outrageous and tragic with a prank by two Australian DJs to invade Kate’s legally protected privacy. A prank which contributed to the suicide of a nurse that fell for their prank.  I hope they’re proud of themselves.  If I didn’t already hate DJs of all kinds, I would begin to now.

With the nude pictures that have surfaced this year of Kate and of Harry, and this invasion into Kate’s medical status and associated privacy, there can be no hope that this child or this pregnancy will be lived under any sort of protection or respect.  Even if 99% of journalists and humans were to agree that, as a human being experiencing a terrifying and not-fun 9-month journey of biological horrors culminating in a presumably rewarding, but simultaneously horrifying event, Kate deserves privacy and respect…there would be at least one person with a telephoto lens or the phone number to the hospital, who thinks only about what invasion of privacy will get them and not what it will do to Kate, Will, or the baby. I suggest a new punishment for these jerks: publish a photo up a woman’s skirt, or of someone with their romantic partner in a presumably private environment, or publicly air their medical status…do anything to violate the privacy of someone because you think their life is somehow a public entity, and something of your life should become a public entity.  Lets post these DJs medical records.  I’m sure they’ll be thrilled if everyone knows if they’ve ever had a yeast infection, or needed Viagra. Right?  They’re public figures, so it should be allowed.  Find the paparazzi and publish nude photos of them.

Of course, I don’t actually think that’s a good punishment, but I do think there needs to be some sort of responsibility.  Kate and Will, and anyone else who happens to be known, are not property of all of us. They are human beings who have to live every day in the spotlight.  Unlike Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears, they can’t have a public breakdown, shave their heads, and go into rehab.  They have to maintain composure and a semblance of grace.  Can you imagine how difficult that has to be when magazines are publishing or radio shows are airing your most private and intimate secrets? How would you feel about the people who gobbled up the articles and paid for the pictures?  Or the people who looked at them and claimed it was no harm done? Can you imagine the guilt and the rage that your stay at a hospital would end with a nurse taking her own life because people were desperate to get information about you and your constant vomiting?

I’ve gone off on a rant here, but really, I do feel an incredible amount of pity for Kate and for this baby.  I hope that, if nothing else, the death of that nurse will make a few people think twice about the obsessive need to know the details of this pregnancy.

On that note, here are a few facts about the baby, which do not in any way violate anyone’s privacy:

The rules that previously established the succession of the crown (from 1701) declare that the first-born male child of the monarch will be next in line.  That meant that if 6 girls were born and then a boy, the boy would become king. Sorry, ladies.  The current Queen is queen because she has no brothers.  But, Parliament and the monarchy are working/have worked to change this law to indicate that the first-born (primogeniture) of children will be next in line, regardless of sex.  I have a different suggestion: a man becomes king only if he has no sisters.  Radical, yes, but perhaps a good plan. Let’s look back at the British monarchy over its many year history.  Arguably, the most successful monarchs have been women–Elizabeths I and II, and Victoria.  Victoria, I think was the best monarch the UK ever saw. The men had winners too, of course, but they were very hit and miss. For every Henry V and his valiant Band of Brothers speeches on St. Crispin’s day, there was an AEthelred the Unready.  Just saying.

Experts (who on earth can call themselves an expert on this, I wonder) think that the names Elizabeth and Diana will probably be middle names if the child is a girl.  Royals are typically given 4 or 5 names. Edward VIII was named Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David.  So, there are plenty of names to go around.

As to the baby’s title, it’s complicated. Most Americans still call Kate by her name (Kate Middleton) or they call her a title she doesn’t actually have (princess). Because Prince William is not the son of the monarch but the grandson, when he got married he was given the title of Duke of Cambridge, and therefore Kate (now called Catherine) is the Duchess of Cambridge. Their first child will be called His/Her Royal Highness the Prince/ss of Cambridge.  Later children, if there are any, will be called Lord/Lady. Once the Queen dies, all of the children get the Prince/Princess title.  I’m not sure how this all works, but so says the interwebz.

The royal family doesn’t really have last names, because their titles are sufficient.  If a last name is necessary, the name Mountbatten-Windsor is used.

Assuming The Queen lives to see this child, she will be the first monarch to meet a great-grandchild who was directly in line for the throne.  The last was Queen Victoria, who met the future Edward VIII in 1894.  Edward VIII was the one who later abdicated the throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson.  So let’s hope that isn’t indicative of anything.

Apparently invasion of privacy isn’t all that new.  Historically, the Home Secretary (sort of like our Secretary of Homeland Security in the US) had to attend royal births in order to ensure that the babies weren’t switched at some point. This tradition stopped in 1936, thank god.