THE QUEEN: Her Life, by Andrew Morton
Ever since his early-1990s blockbuster “Diana: Her True Story,” about the Princess of Wales (which was expanded after her death), Andrew Morton has been the best known and most accessible, if not the foremost, biographer of England’s royal family. He’s on a first-name basis with the lot of them, at least on the page.
Before “Diana,” Morton had written books on Andrew and Sarah. After “Diana,” he turned to William and Kate; to Wallis; to Meghan; to Diana and Diana and Diana again, like a whirling dervish of dish, and most recently to Elizabeth and Margaret. (A Monica Lewinsky book was in there, too.) He’s been upstairs and downstairs, chatted with courtiers and correspondents and, he hints, befriended some in the innermost circle who’d rather stay anonymous. He could have written a stand-alone biography of Elizabeth in his sleep — and now perhaps he has.
“The Queen: Her Life” was originally supposed to be published next spring, but then Her Majesty, in a final act of her famous grace, died in time for the holiday book-buying season — and, as it happens, the fifth season of the Netflix series “The Crown,” in which Morton, receiving the ultimate tribute to his trade, is played by the actor Andrew Steele.
I cannot fault his publisher for wanting to capitalize on this confluence of events. But even though the new biography was finished in August, according to publicity materials, it feels rushed and undernourished. That doesn’t seem entirely worthy of its sturdy subject, who was born in 1926, and, Morton writes in one of several flights of floridity, quickly put to sleep beneath “an imagined layette of magic and myth, a gossamer blanket where new threads were constantly interwoven into the patchwork of legend and reality.” Like Linus Van Pelt’s, this was “a blanket that would accompany her throughout her life.”
No matter what one thinks of the monarchy as it has changed and frayed, been interrogated and even ridiculed, the woman this baby would become, and her long-running leadership, deserves thoughtful analysis: more than a dash through the existing literature and a quick dip into Special Collections.
Even during a rote command performance, Morton can be droll and dry, noting that our heroine’s upbringing was “less Disney, more brothers Grimm” and that her gilded paternal bloodline included a dentist. I enjoyed learning the word “rumbustious,” and that the royals once amused themselves on a beach in a downright Kennedyesque fashion, flinging “small pellets of bird dung”at one another and then catapulting into the sea. Though tellingly, Elizabeth sat out the fun.
But all but the most uninformed readers are in for quite a bit of recapitulation, often of facts that are already canonical. Four times they’ll be told that Elizabeth’s father, King George, suffered from “gnashes,” or outbursts of temper, caused by frustration over his stammer. Thrice they will be reminded that Princess Margaret and her husband, Antony Armstrong-Jones, were leading glamour symbols of the Swinging ’60s . Diana’s bulimia, which she revealed to Morton in ’92 and then again in a notorious interview with Martin Bashir (also depicted on the new season of “The Crown”) is revisited: fleetingly but repeatedly .
Elizabeth had a red box of government dispatches delivered almost daily; her chronicler’s red box is stuffed rather with cliché. Since Bob Dylan has his own book out right now, I might have allowed Morton one rueful observation, after John Lennon tells an audience of royals to “just rattle your jewelry,” that “the times really were a-changin’.”Reaching for that phrase again as Prince Edward is permitted to cohabit with his future wife Sophie Rhys-Jones in adjoining rooms at Buckingham Palace smacks of simple laziness. The phrase “wide of the mark” appears twice in three sentences. And did Morton really type that his subject would be “a hard act to follow”? Yes, yes he did.
“The Queen” isn’t terrible; it’s just terribly serviceable, with names, dates and places cantering past like Elizabeth’s beloved horses over the course of 375 pages — which, if you do the math, is under four for each year of her life, like a special-edition Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The tense changes necessitated by her death could have used one more combing-over. “She has the kind of face that looks angry when she is trying not to smile,” Morton writes. We have a name for that here, my good man.
And some odd or unnecessary anachronisms and Americanizations leap out, like that Queen Mary, Elizabeth’s mother-in-law, sought a “therapist” for advice about her son Edward’s affair with Wallis Simpson; and that Elizabeth and Margaret’s nanny, Crawfie, took them for distracting excursions on London’s “subway.”
These might be minor traffic violations if “The Queen” weren’t overall such a clip job — deft and confident, but a clip job nonetheless. And often Morton is clipping … himself. The publication of “Diana: Her True Story” is treated with odd impersonality, cited and then consulted, along with a sequel, “Diana: In Pursuit of Love,” for chapters on the disintegrating marriages of the queen’s children, and her infamous “annus horribilus,” when Buckingham Palace was severely damaged in a fire and Morton became part of the narrative. The author even appears in his own index. Maybe that’s living the dream.
If you know nothing whatsoever about Elizabeth Windsor, this is a perfectly satisfactory primer. But if you’re a buff of the royal soap opera, it will feel like standing at a party having to nod and grin politely while your husband, maybe after a few too many Pimm’s cups, tells one of his favorite tales, that you’ve heard a million times, too fast, to strangers.
THE QUEEN: Her Life | By Andrew Morton | Illustrated | 375 pp. | Grand Central Publishing | $30