Review: ‘Elizabeth the Queen’ by Sally Bedell Smith

by Kim on February 17, 2014 · 13 comments

Post image for Review: ‘Elizabeth the Queen’ by Sally Bedell Smith

Title: Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch
Author: Sally Bedell Smith
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2012
Publisher: Random House
Acquired: Bought
Rating: ★★★★★

Why I Read It: I’ve wanted to learn more about Queen Elizabeth II ever since I stumbled across a documentary about her during her Diamond Jubilee in 2012/2013. I finally picked up this book as part of the President’s Day Reading Challenge at Nonfictionado (links here). Thanks for the push to read this one, Cindy!

Review: Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was, in many ways, an unexpected queen. She was the daughter of Prince Albert, the second son of King George V, which made her third in line to the throne at birth, but easily pushed out of the way if a son were born. Her father was thrust into the spotlight and onto the throne in 1936 after King George V died and Elizabeth’s uncle, Edward, abdicated the throne to marry American socialite Wallis Simpson. That made Elizabeth the heiress presumptive, the future queen if her parents did not have a son.

Elizabeth II took over the throne after her father died in 1952 and has been the ruler of England and head of the Commonwealth of Nations ever since. Only her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, has reigned longer. In her time as queen, Elizabeth II has overseen national and international crisis, managed personal and political controversy, and helped guide the monarchy through some turbulent times. In Elizabeth the Queen, biographer Sally Bedell Smith chronicles Elizabeth II’s 62 years on the throne and explores what life is like for a working monarch.

Elizabeth the Queen is a giant book (720 pages, 562 of which are narrative) but I flew through it in the course of a week. I squeezed as much time as I could to read this book each day because I thought it was such a great read and a glimpse into a world I’m so very curious about.

The book worked well for me because Smith did a great job of balancing politics, personality and gossip in the story. Every time it started to feel like the talk of the Queen’s relationship with a prime minister was getting tedious, she’d throw in a funny little detail that illustrated Elizabeth II’s sense of humor. I really liked those glimpses, which I think also speak to the level of detail and reporting that went into the book — interviews with some 200 people close to the famously media-averse monarch.

Another thing I loved, but that I think also could be a critique of the book, is that Smith is incredibly generous to her main subject. She doesn’t shy away from Elizabeth II’s mistakes, but she also doesn’t spend a lot of time dissecting them or of criticizing the Queen for making them. This is a contrast to her treatment of other people close to the royal family. It felt, to me, like her characterization of Princess Diana and the rather disastrous circumstances of her marriage and falling out with the royal family, was a little harsh. In the reviews I skimmed on Goodreads, it seemed like people who were big supporters for Diana had strong negative feelings about the biography, while others didn’t seem to mind.

I’m so glad that I took the time to pick up this book, despite the daunting size. I don’t think I could have picked a better book for my first dive into the current British monarchy. Elizabeth the Queen was thorough, generous, and a real joy to read.

Other Reviews: Citizen Reader | Other Women’s Stories |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

bermudaonion (Kathy) February 17, 2014 at 7:02 am

My mom loves biographies and is obsessed with the British monarchy so I’ll have to get a copy of this for her. I think she’d love it!


Carrie February 17, 2014 at 8:50 am

I am SO glad you read and enjoyed this book! It was one of my favorites in 2013. And I totally agree with your Princess Di assessment. It was the only part of the book that seemed a little heavy-handed.

I’ve linked up to your review, and here’s a link to mine:


Kim February 20, 2014 at 8:24 pm

I was really surprised at how negative the sections on Princess Di were. I don’t know much about her outside her death, but the book seemed a little dark in those sections.


Trisha February 17, 2014 at 6:11 pm

It’s nice when a biographer doesn’t harp on the flaws; some bios read more like gossip mags.


Cindie @ Nonfictionado February 17, 2014 at 7:30 pm

Glad you enjoyed it so much! You know when you fly through a book of that size that it has to be good. This has definitely been added to my TBR pile.

Thanks for participating in the challenge!


Kim February 20, 2014 at 8:25 pm

Yes! I knew it was good because I was waking up a little early every day so I could squeeze in a chapter before work.


Jennine G. February 18, 2014 at 10:38 am

I do like to read biographies of people who were a huge part of history. I don’t always feel I know what I should about certain parts of history and so this is the easiest way for me to get it. But sometimes it’s hard to find a good one.


Citizen Reader February 18, 2014 at 3:44 pm

Great review!
I enjoyed this book too; particularly the bits about how fond the Queen is of horses and horse racing. I knew about the corgis, of course, but the horse angle was new to me.


Kim February 20, 2014 at 8:25 pm

Yes! I loved that too. I had no idea she was an outdoors person either, which I think is rather charming.


Katie @ Doing Dewey February 19, 2014 at 9:28 pm

This sounds wonderful! I love biographies and don’t think I’ve read many about women, but I’d like to change that. The size of this one is a bit daunting, but it sounds like it was so good, you flew through it anyway. I might give it a try :)


Kim February 20, 2014 at 8:26 pm

For the length, I felt like this one read really quickly.


Allison @ The Book Wheel February 20, 2014 at 12:28 am

I’m adding this to my list. I love biographies and am fascinated by the monarchy. Plus, it sounds fairly quick for the length of it.


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