Just think of it. Our grandparents – if you are of a certain age – lived through the reigns of five or six monarchs. My grandparents were born during the last decade or so of Queen Victoria’s life so would have gone on to witness a couple of Edwards (ok, one of them rather briefly …) two Georges and our Elizabeth come to the throne. Four kings and two queens.
Coronations must have seemed relatively commonplace to them although fortunately plans for Edward V111’s were neatly, seamlessly transposed to serve Geroge V1’s.
But I – and most of my friends – have always thought of ourselves as Elizabethan babies. Whether your sympathies are royalist or republican or somewhere in between – which probably defines a lot of people who might question the inherited privilege of the institution, but revere the tradition and continuity of it – Queen Elizabeth 11 was always, simply, there.
We’ve never known any other heads on stamps or on coins. Her initials on post boxes. Her existence has surrounded us in some form or other.
I can see myself sitting cross legged on the floor of the infants’ hall at West Lodge Primary school in Pinner, staring at a print of Annigoni’s Portrait of the young queen on the wall.
And our childhood years mirrored her children’s – even if in somewhat dissimilar style.
And now one of those children is finally the monarch. At an age when few people are thinking of working even part-time – let alone taking on a full-time commitment that rarely allows for a moment away from obligatory duties.
Monarchs in literature are frequently, naturally, found in historic fiction, of course.
I spent my early and mid-teen years devouring Jean Plaidy’s historical romps through the lives and fortunes – and misfortunes – of Henry V111 and his wives, Elizabeth 1 and her contemporaries. More recently, Philippa Gregory’s novels such as The Boleyn Girl have become very popular and have provided material for film adaptations.
Rose Tremain’s novel, Restoration, set in the reign of Charles 11 (followed by the sequel, Merivel: A Man of his Time written later) is a compelling and fascinating account of that particular court, its characters and events.
I suppose the literary heights of historic novel writing would have to be considered Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, Wolf Hall with its exploration of early Tudor politics and the pivotal figure of Thomas Cromwell. I’m ashamed to say I have not read it – not in its entirety – having only dipped into it and taking the easier route of seeing the RSC adaptation for the stage which was magnificent.
Novels written in the second Elizabethan age might not have focused on the life of the Queen (The Crown claims to have done that which is debateable …) but numerous writers that have emerged during her reign have mirrored the stages in changing social order, in shifting norms, values and beliefs that have accompanied it. Think of The L-Shaped Room and The Millstone – by Lynn Reid-Banks and Margaret Drabble respectively – that portrayed single motherhood in the early 1960s and the stigma surrounding it, novels that now seem utterly anachronistic in subject matter.
And remember that it was as late as November 1960, when the queen had already been on the throne for 8 years, that the publishers of D.H.Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover faced an obscenity trial over the publication of the unexpurgated version. Penguin won, of course, and another tide was turned for the changing mores of the Elizabethan age.
So now we have a king.
King Charles 111.
And in these very early days of his reign, it’s hard to believe that we will never again see that diminutive figure in her suits, her hats, gloves and sensible shoes.
For she was remote from our lives yet inextricably woven into the fabric in a way no other pre-technology monarch could be.
After all, she even invited herself into our living rooms on Christmas Day amidst the trappings of family celebrations!
King Charles 111 quoted from Hamlet in his first address. Another quotation from the same play, mildly adapted, seems equally relevant.
We will not look on her like again.