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With the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II taking place this year, over the last year or so there have been a lot of books published about her life and reign, as well as on her family. There are bound to be a lot of rather trashy attempts to "tell all" in amongst this, but it can also be assumed there will be a few gems as well. But how to tell the difference and be sure you are buying a quality book?
The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth II and Her People has a couple of things going for it before you even begin reading. Its author is Andrew Marr, a respected journalist with a few other well received history books under his belt. Additionally, The Diamond Queen accompanies a BBC series of the same name, broadcast in 2011. Although Marr points out in his introduction that the book is not a "book of the series", but it does benefit from the work he undertook on the series, which included shadowing the Queen as she went about her official duties. From the outset you feel that you will be getting a quality book when you pick up The Diamond Queen.
Elizabeth II has reigned for sixty years, a time only surpassed by that of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. She has lived through an abdication, the reign and death of her father George VI, the social changes of the 1960s and 70s, the political tensions of the same periods, the Thatcher years, the breakdown of the marriages of three of her children, and is now embracing the digital age and enjoying being a grandmother and great-grandmother.
The Queen is famously private, and while her children may have splashed their private lives over the papers, she has always kept silent on her family life and her personal opinions. Marr recognizes this, and makes it clear he is not aiming to make any revelations about her life. His aim is to explain the role of the monarchy and the Queen herself, to look at her reign and to look at what having a monarch rather than an elected president has meant for the last sixty years.
The Diamond Queen does not fall neatly into the category of biography, but of course there is a biographical element to it. Marr writes about the Queen's childhood and adult life well, in a clear yet intellectual style. His writing is enjoyable, and even during these biographical passages is never dull. He also touches on the reigns of George V and George VI, the Queen's grandfather and father, and includes amusing details at various points through the book. One of my favourites was that George V was not keen on highbrow intellectual types - but for a long time he though the word was "eyebrow". Marr uses the word eyebrows a few times later on, with a witty effect.
Marr's talent, however, lies not in recounting details of the Queen's life but in examining her role in Britain and abroad, and in making observations on events throughout her reign. He discusses what seems like a lot of politics, but given the period of time he covers, it is only scratching the surface of what the Queen has seen. The Diamond Queen is a thoughtful book, full of observations and thought-provoking points. I was particularly interested in Marr's examination of Britain in the 1960s and 70s. The term "the Sixties" conjures up images of flower children and peace symbols, but the political reality was very different. Similarly, when we hear now about the Queen's Silver Jubilee of 1977, it is always street parties and nostalgia which is brought up. Marr looks beyond that, and I learnt that in some places the Silver Jubilee was a bit of a damp squib, with Manchester apparently deciding not to spend anything on it.
Other interesting aspects of Marr's observations include his thoughts on the press and its relationship with the royal family. This has of course changed dramatically over the course of the Queen's reign, but it was his writing on how it has changed members of the royal family which was interesting. He observed that it was the press which made Prince Philip into the rather prickly character he can be today, when once he was an outgoing and lively man, open and optimistic before he felt misunderstood by journalists and closing himself off. The Prince of Wales has changed in a similar way, and Marr wonders whether Prince William may go down the same road, especially given his mother's death and the aftermath taking place in the full glare of the world's media. These and similar observations and musings on the future of the monarchy come close to the end of The Diamond Queen, but are among some of the most interesting passages. Having thoroughly examined the role of the Queen through her reign and discussed the alternative of a republic at various key points, all the knowledge gathered through the book is now applied to looking at possible futures for the monarchy.
The Diamond Queen makes you think, much more so than the average biography. It makes the reader consider the Queen and her role, and what exactly it entails. We all know that she is exceptionally hard-working, even in her eighties, as of course is Prince Philip, but the way in which Marr looks at her reign, its key events and its pressures and difficult periods, really makes you appreciate just how much the Queen has come through - and she is still going strong, with few signs of slowing down.
Marr's writing style really is excellent, as I mentioned previously. He writes in such a way that is easy to follow and does not make The Diamond Queen a difficult read, but at the same time he also manages an intellectual style which makes it clear that this is not a lightweight book.
And literally too, this is not a lightweight book. Although the main text of the book comes in at just under 400 pages, and there are few notes at the back (he states in his introduction that he has not "splattered the text with knowing asterisks and irritating footnotes"), the hardback is heavier than average, due to it being printed on thick paper. There are three photo sections on glossy paper, which include two particularly nice photos of the Queen - one I have seen before, of her playing tag on the deck of the destroyer which took her to South Africa with her parents and sister before her marriage, and another I have not, of the Queen waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace in 2005, smiling hugely and with what is clearly genuine happiness.
The Diamond Queen is an exceptional book, of the kind that comes along rarely, and that you feel lucky to have read. There are plenty of excellent royal biographies out there, of the Queen and her predecessors, but Andrew Marr takes the traditional biography a step further with a truly interesting, enjoyable and witty book, full of wise and thought-provoking observations. I cannot recommend it highly enough; my only concern is that it may have spoiled me too much, and I will struggle to appreciate other royal biographies which before reading The Diamond Queen I would have considered top of the range. Marr has set a new benchmark with The Diamond Queen.