The imaginary lives of the Queen

Life in “Hell Close” takes some adjusting to but adjust she does, after a fashion. Here she is, for instance, grappling with the almighty challenge that is getting herself dressed each morning: “She missed the deft fingers of her dresser fastening her brassiere. How did other women cope with those hooks and eyes? One needed to be a contortionist to bring the two together without assistance.”

It’s noteworthy that even a staunch antimonarchist like Townsend retains a degree of warmth in her mockery. But if such irreverence would have shocked the generation that feted Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, it was soon to give way to something still more iconoclastic: pity.

By the time Emma Tennant published her 2009 novel, The Autobiography of the Queen, the palace had weathered not only the fallout from Princess Diana’s death but also parliamentary disquiet over concessions provided to minor royals, the trial of former royal butler Paul Burrell, and assorted embarrassments such as Prince Harry being photographed in Nazi regalia. It’s little wonder the Queen came to be depicted as yearning to escape royalty’s gilded cage. And so, disguising herself as one Gloria Smith, she slips out of Balmoral on a foggy morning and heads to the Caribbean island of St Lucia.

It’s a theme William Kuhn picked up four years later in Mrs Queen Takes the Train. Feeling her age de ella and oppressed by further tabloid coverage of her family’s woes de ella, Kuhn’s Queen dons a skull-emblazoned hoodie and head for King’s Cross station, attempt on making her way to Scotland. If this good-natured yomp fails to conjure up an especially memorable Queen, it does have fun demolishing the little we think we know: one of her favorite pastimes of her is correcting biographies of herself. For instance, “Lilibet”, her famous nickname of her, has nothing to do with “Elizabeth”. Instead, we’re told that it derives from the words “little bit”, as in: she could have a little bit of pink-iced cake if she were a good girl. The diminutive “was a tease, really, a pinch, a reminder that it was undignified for a princess to be greedy for cake.”

Inside the royal bubble

The sheer bizarreness of life in the royal bubble, and the extent to which – vast advantages notwithstanding – it also has the potential to leave anyone raised within it at a profound disadvantage in terms of behaving like a fully functioning human being, is nimbly conveyed in The Windsor Knot (2021), the first novel in SJ Bennett’s enjoyable and deeply-researched series in which the aged sovereign becomes an amateur sleuth. “She did n’t know if she felt more sorry for the castle or the man”, the Queen reflects upon learning that a musician hired to perform at a Windsor Castle soiree has been found dead in her bed. “It was much more tragic for the poor young pianist, obviously. But she knew the castle better. Ella Knew it like a second skin. It was awful, awful.”

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