The Queen Before the Crown
Updated: Jan 14, 2019
Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state of the United Kingdom and fifteen other countries. She is also a woman, a mother and once upon a time she was a little girl yet throughout her life all of that has come second to providing the symbolic value millions of people place upon her.
By 1926 the monarchy could no longer sail on as it had before the Great War. Her grandfather the King knew this, revolutions had toppled his cousins’ thrones in Germany and Russia. Just two weeks after the Princess Elizabeth’s birth London itself was convulsed by a General Strike that many feared was Britain’s prelude to a Bolshevik revolution. The monarchy had to mean something more to more people, it had to reflect to them a better image of themselves; it had to be as normal as they were and as perfect as they wished to be.
The Princess Elizabeth was packaged and sold as the perfect daughter in a normal family, all living together in a normal house, 145 Piccadilly (where the Park Lane Intercontinental Hotel now stands). A house that had a ballroom, twenty-five bedrooms, an electric lift and a Boy Scout who operated the telephone. The Princess Elizabeth was sold as perfectly normal but really life was anything but normal. This charade of normal perfection was one of the contradictions placed on her childhood.
At three she was gifted a dustpan and brush, not something most three year-olds want and not something a princess would ever need but a normal gift for a perfect little girl. Her governess recorded that at times she seemed a little too perfect; shoes were aligned exactly parallel to the bed before going to sleep, sugar lump treats were graded according to size. It seems accounts of her exemplary behaviour were not just sugar-coating but true. However, do they present an image of a very good little girl or a very stifled little girl? And what is the difference? This impression of a stifled little girl is backed up by the governess’s description of her temper. She and her sister often fought, the Princess Elizabeth having the more explosive and violent of the tempers.
Despite the expectation of good behaviour, her parents placed no greater demands on her than that. She was born rich so all they saw they needed to provide was a happy childhood. Attempts to increase rigour of her early education were dismissed by her mother who took the view that neither she nor her sisters had had any great education and “… we all married well, one of us very well”.
Neither parent was intellectual, a reading list drawn up by her mother consisted solely of Jeeves & Wooster books. The choice of governess was based as much as anything on her aptitude for walking and love of the outdoors. This all left the Princess Elizabeth with a lingering feeling of intellectual inferiority; she would later mistake the name of Dante the poet for a horse.
Her father was proud of his daughter’s lack of sophistication. He found her lack of polish endearing. This was exacerbated by the decision to dress the Princess Elizabeth and her younger sister identically. It kept her safe from the fast-living dangers of the grown-up world that were seducing his elder brother and threatening the monarchy. Yet it was all make-believe.
The Princess Elizabeth’s parents were not that innocent; they had been to parties with the wayward Prince of Wales, they had met his mistresses, they knew what the Jazz Age was all about. They were holding back that tide of great change with their oasis of innocence, their middle-class-values family. Yet they were not that innocent and they were not middle-class. This maintenance of a false innocence left them all totally unprepared for the Abdication Crisis, a crisis brought about by one man’s outright rejection of middle-class values.
After his accession to the throne and the advent of war the Princess Elizabeth’s father thickened the aspic preserving his perfect family. And who could blame him? It was the only respite he had from the burdens of kingship.
Yet the Princess Elizabeth was growing up. As heir presumptive she was made a Counsellor of State on her eighteenth birthday. In her father’s absence she had to sign the reprieve of a murderer “What makes people do such terrible things?... I have so much to learn about people” she exclaimed. She was increasingly aware of how far removed she was from the real world and how little she knew about it.
She was also increasingly desperate to do her bit for the war effort. That chance only came when her father knew that she would be in no danger. Just before her 19thbirthday in early 1945 she was allowed to join the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Even then she was chaperoned to classes and seated away from the other young women lest her innocence be shattered. Other members record how in class she turned right around and looked at every member when they spoke to be able to see and hear as much of them as she could, how her acute shyness was undone by her desperation to reach out and meet other people.The course only lasted three weeks. When it was over she was not actually allowed to do anything, then the war ended anyway and the Princess Elizabeth was put safely back into her box.
This slow but steady desire to break out perhaps explains her unshakeable decision, made at such a young age, to marry her third cousin Prince Philip. She fell for him the moment she saw him on a visit to a naval college with her parents. It is impossible he felt the same. She was thirteen and he was nineteen. She was dressed identically to her sister four years younger. He was shaving once a day and already a man of the world but her mind was made up.
Within the limited world in which that little princess lived, he was as different as could be. As a great-grandson of Queen Victoria, a nephew of the King of Greece and the Queen of Sweden he was born royal so did not treat her with the fawning deference of everyone else around her yet he had also grown up in penniless exile so had an independence she may never have encountered before. He was of course also very good-looking.
After the War rumours of the romance soon spread. By 1946 the public started to shout “Where’s Philip?”when the Princess Elizabeth appeared in public. Her sister commented on this “Nothing of your own. Not even your own love affair”. Her love affair, thus far her sole attempt at independence, was reduced to gossip and tittle-tattle for millions of strangers.
After her marriage she would often let the wives of lower-ranked male employees line the stairs of her home at Clarence House so that they could see her walk past in her finery when she went out to banquets or premieres. She would remark to those women as she passed “It’s fun to dress up sometimes isn’t it!”.Dripping with diamonds and declaiming that it’s fun to dress up in haute couture to women who mopped floors and cleaned toilets for a living day-in-day-out was her clumsy, perhaps inadvertently offensive, way of trying to reach out to them, to try and be normal.
The Princess Elizabeth was entranced by her firstborn but she was also besotted with her husband. Whilst many women of her class saw little of their offspring in the 1940s, she seems to have spent time away from her baby that could perhaps have been avoided. For the first eighteen months of his life her son lived at a house in Surrey, only seeing his parents at weekends. Just before his first birthday in November 1949 she flew out to Malta to join her husband on a naval posting, returning after Christmas before going back out for six weeks in the spring. In Malta, she was briefly able to live the life of a naval wife. Does this make the Princess Elizabeth a bad mother? Are men judged by how much time they spend with their children or by the success of their careers? Although she saw less of her children than other women of her class unlike other women of her class she had a “career” as heir presumptive. She also had a destiny which no-one else had and this was her one and only chance to break away, to see the outside world, to breathe, to live a life less stifled, something she had been trying to do her entire life. She took that chance when she could.
When she was finally called back from Malta to a life of duty, her husband’s aunt said “They are putting the bird back into its cage” and she has been in that cage looking out at us ever since.