Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in Our Times by Sarah Bradford

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Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in Our Times by Sarah Bradford

Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A medium-length biography-cum-history of Queen Elizabeth II and her reign, published to coincide with the Diamond Jubilee.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 305 Date: December 2011
Publisher: Viking
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0670919116

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As a biographer who has previously written substantial biographies of the Queen (published in 1996), of her father George VI, and her daughter-in-law Diana, Sarah Bradford needs little introduction. At around 260 pages of text, this is barely half the length of her other titles, and probably aimed more at the general reader with an eye on the Diamond Jubilee market.

True to the title, this is not merely a biography of the Queen, but very much a life and times. She emphasises the fact that the Queen has not merely lived but also reigned during an era of profound changes in culture, fashion and technology – and in Britain’s standing as a world power - in the sixty years since she ascended the throne, and the eighty-plus years since she was born.

Interestingly, the book begins almost in reverse. We enter the story at February 1952 when Elizabeth was on a visit to Kenya, unaware for several hours that the King had died in his sleep at Sandringham. This is followed by a slightly longer chapter on the abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, an event which brought his totally unprepared brother Albert (who took the regnal name George VI, in order to imply a sense of continuity with the reign of their father George V) to the throne and made her heir. In Bradford’s George VI, her bias against Edward VIII was immediately evident, but in the present volume she tells the story rather more even-handedly. Nevertheless, she makes the very valid point early on that Edward’s supposed sympathy for the plight of the unemployed was hardly borne out by his wholesale sacking of gardeners on the royal properties, in order to cut costs – on the advice of Mrs Simpson.

Only then do we start at the beginning, with the courtship and marriage in 1923 of her parents, neither of whom expected to become King and Queen. The character of the future Queen Elizabeth (the present sovereign, not the Queen Mother) is soon self-evident, a very serious individual in stark contrast to her fun-loving younger sister Margaret, clearly conscious of her destiny once her father became King. Once she ascended the throne, the emphasis is still very much on her as a traditionalist, in contrast to the man she would marry, the more modern-minded Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

Hopes of a second great Elizabethan age were built up at the time of the coronation, but within a year or so it became evident that Britain might have won the [Second World] War but it was about to lose the peace. Only a few months after the humiliating Suez affair came criticism of the Queen’s court and personal style from Malcolm Muggeridge, John Grigg and others, and the matter of Princess Margaret’s affair with Peter Townsend, a divorcee whom she would have surely been allowed to marry some two or three decades later but certainly not in 1955 when the moral code was far more rigid.

A major change in general attitudes came during the 1960s and a general lessening of deference to and enthusiasm for the monarchy, and the retirement in 1968 of Commander Colville as Press Secretary, a man who had always been careful to issue as little information to the press as possible. Under the guidance of his successor, William Heseltine, aided by the Duke of Edinburgh and his uncle Earl Mountbatten, came something of a major relaunch, designed to show the monarchy as more outgoing and accessible, beginning with the investiture of the Prince of Wales and the Royal Family film. Bradford shows how hindsight would reveal the latter in particular to be a mixed blessing, inadvertently whetting the public’s interest in the royal soap opera. Of course, nobody could have anticipated the family crises when the marriages of the three elder children disintegrated in the 1990s and the tabloids fed the frenzied appetites of their readers, determined to know everything. From 1991, with criticism of the younger royal family’s lifestyle during the Gulf war and the economic crisis of the time, to the acrimonious breakdown of the Prince and Princess of Wales’s marriage and death of Diana six years later, times were indeed lean for the monarchy. After the new millennium, the death of the ever-popular Queen Mother and the Golden Jubilee, and the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the pendulum appears to have swung the other way.

The Queen’s relations with her various Prime Ministers are well dealt with, from her rapport with Callaghan and her differences with Heath and Thatcher, to some extent the result of her preference for the Commonwealth vis-a-vis European integration. It is however perhaps too early to pass anything approaching a definitive verdict on such matters. Any book of this kind must to some extent be an interim report; but Bradford has written a very readable, satisfyingly impartial life and times of the monarch as she approaches her Diamond Jubilee. It is regrettably marred by one or two inaccuracies; Elizabeth was the third, not the first, grandchild of George V; and John Lennon returned his MBE in the autumn of 1969, not January.

Our thanks to Viking for sending Bookbag a review copy.

If this book appeals then we can recommend A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr.

Buy Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in Our Times by Sarah Bradford at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in Our Times by Sarah Bradford at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in Our Times by Sarah Bradford at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in Our Times by Sarah Bradford at Amazon.com.


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