Review: ‘Elizabeth the Queen’ by Sally Bedell Smith

by Kim on February 17, 2014 · 13 comments

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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!

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