History and Historiography

Royal Flush

New York Review of Books

The great achievement of Elizabeth II was that, merely by reigning for seventy years, she created and sustained the necessary illusion of permanence.” So writes Fintan O’Toole in an essay about the late queen from the Review’s next issue. O’Toole, last seen in our pages bidding farewell to a more ill-mannered British leader, is joined in the issue by Darryl Pinckney, who also finds in Elizabeth the virtue of stolidity: “Duty succession duty succession intake compression power exhaust: the engine fired. The image of stability in times of upheaval. A ship on its business in great waters.”

This theme runs through the Review’s writing about the House of Windsor. In 2006 Andrew O’Hagan observed, in his review of Stephen Frears’s film The Queen, that Tony Blair’s “populism ultimately is no match for the Queen’s resilience: if he was a concert, she is a museum, and she has seen ten prime ministers come and go.” In 2014 Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote that the monarchy serves as a “stable element” in times of crisis (adding, “Queen Elizabeth has famously never expressed any controversial or even interesting opinion…which is why she has been such a successful constitutional monarch”). And in 2011 we published excerpts from the diaries of Ivan Maisky, Soviet ambassador to London between 1932 and 1943, in which the Communist Maisky is delighted by the dull protocol of socializing with the king at tea.

Below we have collected, alongside O’Toole and Pinckney’s new articles, a selection from our archives of the Review’s coverage of the royal family—and its staying power. As O’Toole points out, “In the grammar of her reign, the operative tense was the present infinitive: to be. She was very good at being there, at carrying on for so long that the infinitive came to seem infinite.”

Fintan O’Toole
The Two Elizabeths

The queen presided over the death of a British world and yet was enormously successful in keeping alive the monarchy that symbolized it.

Darryl Pinckney
‘She Captured All Before Her’

It used to be that people complained how little they knew of Queen Elizabeth. Toward the end, her remoteness was treasured.

David Cannadine
The Merry Wives of Windsor

“Prince Charles’s public investiture as Prince of Wales at Caernarvon Castle was the first royal pageant to be conceived and planned throughout as a television spectacular. But even more inventive was the decision to present the members of the royal family no longer as public icons but as people and personalities in their own right by breaking the taboos against showing extemporaneous royal conversations and informal royal activities.”

Joan Smith
Britain’s Game of Thrones

“It is the curse of the Windsor men: they can’t resist marrying women who are more interesting than themselves.”


Darryl Pinckney
Ma’am’s Life and Loves

“In her time, Princess Margaret was a ‘national sex symbol.’ She could be in fantasy what the queen could not be. John Betjeman and Philip Larkin and John Fowles had literary crushes on her; Ralph Ellison reported to Albert Murray that when presented to her in 1956 he found her a ‘little hot looking pretty girl.’ She was a bit of glamour in Britain’s austere postwar smog.”

Noel Annan
Life at the Top

“The scale on which King George V lived was fabulous. Even at Balmoral, the Scottish summer castle retreat, there were eight footmen and five pipers for a small dinner party, and when the house party picnicked on the moors or by the river, Daimlers with gold-plated radiators delivered baskets of food and wine served by footmen.”

Geoffrey Wheatcroft
The Hedonist King Who Knew His Place

“All in all, Bertie’s upbringing was a total failure in view of his parents’ hopes. He did not become an earnest public man like his father. He did not grow up chaste, but reacted into a lifetime of libertinism. And far from shunning ‘the independent, haughty faultfinding fashionable set’ Victoria and Albert abhorred, that was precisely the society he would relish.”

Ivan Maisky
The C
ommunist and the King

“Two dozen Scottish ‘pipers’ entered the hall during the dinner and slowly walked around the tables several times, filling the palace vaults with their semibarbarian music. I like this music. There is something of Scotland’s mountains and woods in it.”

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