Miscellany — From the February 2016 issue

The Queen and I

The awful seduction of the British monarchy

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Last September, Elizabeth II became the longest-reigning monarch in British history, surpassing Victoria, her great-great-grandmother, who ruled for 63 years and 217 days. Fawning journalists behaved like King Arthur’s knights armed with pens. “Suppose she had got drunk?” asked Charles Moore, formerly the editor of the Daily Telegraph, a courtier of every age. His point was — and Winston Churchill made it first — that she is perfect for the role. She did not get drunk; or rather, if she did — and there is a school of thought that believes she is drunk all the time on gin and Dubonnet, and I would not blame her if she were — she did not show it. She does not make mistakes. We are applauding an absence of something. It is very British to salute a void. Everyone can agree on its merits.

As I read royal hagiography, which is almost disarming in its childishness, for it is a dream maker and a very particular narcotic, I wonder: are we aware, as we praise her temperament, that we are also exposing the essential weakness of a constitutional monarchy that is a genetic lottery? But antimonarchists — or “republicans” — are mocked in Britain. Our fears that a gaudy figurehead preserves nothing more valuable than a class system are traduced as ugly. Monarchy is not ugly. It sings with jewels. Hate the monarchy, it is suggested, and you hate the baby — in this case, Princess Charlotte, who is eight months old.

Postcards of Queen Elizabeth II, 1997 © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Postcards of Queen Elizabeth II, 1997 © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

The republican, too, lives under an enchantment; it is, to me, all-consuming. I have watched The Royals, an E! series in a which a fictional royal family is drugged, unhappy, or mad. I have read The Untold Life of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in which I learn that she was actually the daughter of a Scottish cook. Is it true? The royal family rarely sues, which is both dignified and efficient. A book about Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, is on my bedside table. It quotes a man who once employed the youthful Catherine as a barmaid. “Kate is a superb barmaid,” he says. “She’s a pretty girl, so she takes home plenty of tips.” I decide to tour the royal palaces. I could tell you I am doing it for insight, but that would be a lie. It is out of sheer masochism.

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’s most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “A Goose in a Dress,” appeared in the September 2015 issue. She lives in London.

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