> Zed Book Club / Buzz / Royal Pages / Born to Be Queen

Photo: Eddie Mulholland/WPA Pool/Getty Images

> Royal Pages

Born to Be Queen

Fleet Street veteran Clive Irving weaves reportage into his unconventional biography of Elizabeth II, arguing she was made for the job but Charles is not / BY Leanne Delap / February 2nd, 2021


British journalist Clive Irving chose a provocative title for his unconventional biography of the monarch: The Last Queen: Elizabeth II’s Seventy Year Battle to Save the House of Windsor. Now based in the Unites States, which gives him distance and perspective on the hothouse of the royal press corps where cut his teeth, Irving’s story begins in the Fleet Street tabloid culture of the mid-50s following Elizabeth’s coronation.

Irving’s own storied career “ran parallel” to the Queen’s, and the book weaves in his direct reporting experiences on the intersection of British royalty and politics in the heady years of the 50s, 60s and 70s. After he rose through the ranks to become managing editor at The Sunday Times, he migrated to New York to work at Newsday, then became the founding editor of Condé Nast Traveler and currently contributes to The Daily Beast. “I’m an 87-year-old man writing about a 94-year-old woman,” he says in a recent telephone interview.

Irving ultimately admires the way the Queen conducted herself, “becoming more valuable as a consoling figure than a constitutional authority,” he says. “She has a maternal quality, and has become the mother of the nation.”

Book cover, The Last Queen by Clive Irving. Image of Queen Elizabeth in her younger years wearing her crown and jewels, looking off camera.

 

Not that there weren’t many, many bumps along the way, which makes up the bulk of his narrative. A newspaperman at heart, he knows they are the compelling part of any story. “She got there by sheer experience and pain. I’m critical in particular that she was slow to understand the enormous cultural shifts and wonderful social transformations” the world went through. “But today she has a beady eye on the pulse of cultural advances.”

As he writes in the book, Elizabeth was raised to perpetuate a mystique to maintain power. “The belief was that the monarchy could be sustained as an institution only if it appeared at all times to be above reproach: in order for it to exist, it had to be a fantasy.”

Family Dysfunction

Some of the juiciest bits of the book are around the dysfunctionality of the House of Windsor in the 1920s and 30s. “Much has been written about the abdication,” writes Irving. “It is always portrayed more as a constitutional and political crisis than as a serious moral failure within the royal family, but that is fundamentally what it was. And that failure, in the first place, was the inevitable result of a wretched atmosphere created in Buckingham Palace by George V, while he was head of the family, and by the weaknesses of his wife, Queen Mary. As a result, the character and behaviour of the King’s four sons played out in such a way that the abdication ended up as a choice between two of them. One was unfit to be the King, one had the Crown thrust upon him.”

 

Portrait of author Clive Irving in his study.
Photo: Courtesy of Clive Irving

 

A central premise of Irving’s view on royalty has to do with temperament and suitability for the role of monarch. By his reckoning, the Queen and her father were right for the job, and Charles, he maintains vigorously, is simply not. “The prospect of Charles III is a very alarming one.” Compared to his mother, whom Irving describes as “ageless, with great dignity, stature and respect,” and about whom we really know “very little of what she really thinks or feels,” we “know far, far too much about Charles.” He is “like an 18th century grandee,” he continues, warming up to his roasting, citing the Prince of Wales’ second court at Highgrove and his opaque finances and private-jet lifestyle. “He seems older than his mother in many ways. His way of meddling is to impose his taste on other people.” He concludes, in a wistful echo, “It’s a pity they can’t just jump to Will and Kate.”

So yes, there is dish in the book, and Irving doesn’t hold back. But ultimately, this biography is a tribute to the adaptability and stoicism of Queen Elizabeth. So back to the big question he poses: Why does he say Elizabeth will be the last Queen of England and the Commonwealth?

“One is obviously the line of succession is clearly going to be male as long as the firm lasts,” he says, a prediction that will only be borne out by time.  Secondly, he believes Elizabeth II is one of three great British queens, alongside Elizabeth I and Victoria. “The Queen, while she oversaw an era of the dissolution of the Empire and the long decline in national power, also has held the monarchy together” in difficult times, and nurtured it to evolve and to thrive and to persevere. Her long and successful reign, like her female forbears, he implies, will unlikely be matched.

Media Frenzy

The changing role of the British news media, and how it has gone from the respectful and obedient force that hid many scandals to its current gossipy free-for-all state, presents a challenge to the monarchy since it influences public perception. Irving pays particular attention to the times the British press covered up royal foibles. For example, King Edward VII’s affair with Mrs. Simpson was widely reported in U.S. and European papers while the British papers remained steadfastly silent until it became clear he intended to marry the twice-divorced American.

 

Princess Margaret
Irving says Princess Margaret, pictured in Amsterdam in 1965,  perpetuated the story that she was the victim in her doomed relationship with Royal Equerry Peter Townsend, when in fact Margaret was over him, and went on to marry – and divorce – Antony Armstrong-Jones. Photo: Les Lee/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

Ditto the saga of Princess Margaret and her thwarted romance with divorced Royal Equerry Peter Townsend, which was not covered as salaciously within the country as it was outside its borders. Margaret is a particular interest of Irving’s, who served as a consultant on the recent PBS documentary Margaret: The Rebel Princess. Irving reports The Crown’s depiction of the drama plays into Margaret’s preferred narrative. In the book, he recounts how Townsend and the princess reunited after he was sent off by the Palace to Brussels in a bid to separate the lovers. “By the time the two years of Townsend’s exile were up, and Margaret had reached the age of 25, when she was free to decide for herself whom to marry, she was over him. He was 15 years her senior and she realized he wasn’t as fun as the group she had been running around with.” Margaret kept this a secret, “because it destroyed her desired ending of being a tragic victim.”

There is much texture in the book from Margaret’s photographer husband, Antony Armstrong-Jones – named Lord Snowdon by the Queen – who worked with Irving dating back to The Sunday Times, and that 30-year acquaintance afforded Irving some valuable, firsthand insight into royal family dynamics. The commoner married the princess in 1960, but after infidelities on both sides, they separated in 1969 and divorced two years later. After Armstrong-Jones and Irving had lunch during the journalist’s early Traveler days, Irving writes: “Of all those cast members caught up in the teeming drama of the Queen’s family, Tony was the most redoubtable.”

Cliffhangers

 

Irving’s ringside seat provided him with a unique perspective. “When I thought of how to tell this story, I realized it had the ingredients of almost a thriller if I structured it carefully; I wanted to get from one chapter to another with cliff-hanger endings.”

The result is the opposite of the rigid, linear structures of many biographies. Irving surfs from crisis to crisis in the family, revisiting historical context along the way to expand on his thesis. For instance, there is foil “Tommy” Lascelles, who worked in the Queen’s press office, and “who was portrayed as a pantomime villain in The Crown, archaic and stubbornly defending the values of the past.” But in Irving’s stories, he is woven through the book in a much more nuanced way.

The refreshing thing about this book – which, unlike most recent royal offerings, does not have a photo gallery – is that it offers an unvarnished, opinionated view of the reign of Queen Elizabeth by someone who has lived the span of it. Irving watched what happened to Diana and how close she flew to the sun, and admires what he saw as her hands-on philanthropy and how revolutionary that was. Irving went back to Britain to cover the wedding of Meghan and Harry for The Daily Beast and he highly approves of the couple’s move to Hollywood. The lesson, he says, is that “no one can be more famous than the Queen.”

Queen Elizabeth II
“Meghan and Harry did absolutely the right thing by the jail break,” Irving says of their exit from royal life 18 months after this awards ceremony at Buckingham Palace in June 2018. Photo: John Stillwell/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

From his 40 years stateside, Irving now sees things through both an insider and outsider’s lens. “I think Meghan is much more experienced and more worldly than Diana. She had a professional vocation, which Diana never had. It was a big shock to her system to realize she was expected to live in a cage. Meghan and Harry did absolutely the right thing by the jail break.”

Amid the current climate of royal coverage, when we are enthralled with the signals these mostly silent women send through their wardrobes, Irving’s focus on character feels refreshing. In the end, the Queen, as familiar as she is unknowable, embodies the endurance of the monarchy, held together by the force of her will and the trappings of tradition. It shows that temperament and adherence to old-fashioned duty matters in any fairy tale about palaces and princes and princesses.

THE SCROLL

Camilla Leads Miniature Book Initiative to Celebrate 100th Anniversary of the Queen’s Dolls’ HouseThe miniature book collection includes handwritten tomes by Sir Tom Stoppard, Dame Jacqueline Wilson, Sir Ben Okri and other well-known authors


2024 Giller Prize: Noah Richler, Kevin Chong and Molly Johnson Among Jury MembersAuthor Noah Richler is chairing the jury for this year's Giller Prize, an award's body his father literary icon Mordecai Richler helped launch in 1994.


Queen Camilla to Offer Weekly Reading Recommendations in New Queen’s Reading Room PodcastThe Queen's Reading Room Podcast will feature Her Majesty's book picks as well as literary discussions with authors and celebrities every week.


2023 Booker Prize: Irish Writer Paul Lynch Wins For Dystopian ‘Prophet Song’Canadian Booker Prize jury chair Esi Edugyan called the novel a "a triumph of emotional storytelling, bracing and brave."


Sarah Bernstein’s ‘Study for Obedience’ Wins 2023 Scotiabank Giller PrizeThe author, who gave birth to a daughter 10 days ago, accepted the award remotely from her home in the Scottish Highlands


Governor General’s Literary Awards: Anuja Varghese’s ‘Chrysalis’ Among This Year’s WinnersEach of the 14 writers, illustrators and translators will receive a prize of $25,000


Giller Prize Winner Suzette Mayr Among Finalists Shortlisted for 2023 Governor General’s Literary AwardsThe 14 winners, who will each receive a prize of $25,000, will be announced Nov. 8


Five Authors Shortlisted for This Year’s $100,000 Scotiabank Giller PrizeDionne Irving and Kevin Chong are among the finalists who "probe what it means to be human, to survive, and to be who we are"


Norway’s Jon Fosse Wins Nobel Literature Prize for Giving “Voice to the Unsayable”The author's work has been translated into more than 40 languages, and there have been more than 1,000 different productions of his plays.


Scotiabank Giller Prize Longlist Recognizes 12 Authors Who Demonstrate “the Power of Human Imagination”The 2023 longlist includes the prize's 2005 winner David Bergen and debut novelist Deborah Willis. 


Duke and Duchess of Sussex Buy Film Rights to Canadian Author Carley Fortune’s ‘Meet Me at the Lake’Prince Harry and his wife Meghan have purchased the movie rights to the bestselling romantic novel, which was published in May this year.


Booker Prize Longlist ‘Defined by its Freshness’ as Nominees RevealedEsi Edugyan, chair of the 2023 judges, said each of the 13 novels "cast new light on what it means to exist in our time."


Barack Obama Releases His 2023 Summer Reading ListThe list includes the latest novel by Canadian-born New Zealand author Eleanor Catton.


David Suzuki Takes Inspiration From His Own Grandchildren for New Kid’s Book ‘Bompa’s Insect Expedition’The book features Suzuki and two of his grandchildren exploring the insect population in their own backyard.


Milan Kundera, Author of ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, Dies at 94Kundera won global accolades for the way he depicted themes and characters that floated between the mundane reality of everyday life and the lofty world of ideas.


Cormac McCarthy, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Dark Genius of American Literature, Dead at 89McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2006 novel 'The Road.'


Remembering the Life and Loves of Literary Bad Boy Martin AmisThe legendary British author has died at 73. His absence will be keenly felt, but Amis leaves behind a book shelf’s worth of novels, including 'London Fields', 'Money' and 'Success', filled with shambolic anti-heroes raising a finger at society. 


Sophie Grégoire Trudeau to Publish Two Books Related to Mental Health and Wellness With Penguin Random House CanadaThe upcoming releases include a wellness book for adults and a picture book for children, which will roll out over the next two years.


Queen Camilla Celebrated Her Love of Books by Having Some Embroidered on Her Coronation GownThe Queen's coronation gown also featured tributes to her children, grandchildren and rescue dogs embroidered into it.


Better Late Than Never: Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Unpublished Novel Set for Release in 2024'En Agosto Nos Vemos' or 'We'll See Each Other in August' was deemed by the late author's family to be too important to stay hidden


End of an Era: Eleanor Wachtel leaves CBC Radio’s ‘Writers & Company’ After More Than Three Decades on the AirAfter a career interviewing what she describes as the "finest minds in the world," the long-time radio host says she's ready to begin a new chapter.


Canadian Independent Bookstore Day Features Deals, Contests and ReadingsOn Saturday, every book purchased at an indie store qualifies you to enter the Book Lovers Contest, with a chance to win gift cards worth up to $1,000


Translation Project Will Bring Literature From the South Asian Continent to English-Speaking AudiencesThe SALT project aims to translate and publish 40 works by authors from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka


The Book Thief: An Italian Man’s Guilty Plea Ends a Caper That Puzzled the Literary World for YearsFilippo Bernardini’s elaborate phishing scam netted 1,000 unpublished manuscripts by prominent authors including Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan


The Late Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison Is Honoured with an American StampThe Obamas and Oprah Winfrey pay tribute to the writer whose poetic interpretations of the African American experience gained a world-wide audience


Five Canadian Writers Make the Long List for the Inaugural Carol Shields Prize for FictionThe US$150,000 English-language literary award for female and nonbinary writers redresses the inequality of women in the publishing world


The Furry Green Grump is Back in a Sequel to “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”Dr. Seuss Enterprises will publish “How the Grinch Lost Christmas!” in September


Chris Hadfield to Publish a Sequel to His Blockbuster Debut, “The Apollo Murders,” on Oct. 10"The Defector” brings the Cold War intrigue from space to Earth as the Soviets and Americans race to develop fighter jets


Prince Harry’s ‘Spare’ Continues to Break Worldwide RecordsThe book also seems to have put a dent in the popularity of members of the Royal Family — including the Prince and Princess of Wales.


Prince Harry’s Memoir Breaks U.K. Sales Record On First Day of ReleaseThe publisher of the new memoir, 'Spare", says it had sold 400,000 copies so far across hardback, e-book and audio formats.


Barack Obama’s Favourite Books of 2022The former U.S. president’s 13 titles include Canadians Emily St. John Mandel and Kate Beaton, as well as tomes from Michelle Obama, George Saunders and Jennifer Egan


Here are the 5 Books on Bill Gates’ Holiday Reading ListThe billionaire philanthropist is giving hundreds of copies to little libraries around the world


Sheila Heti and Eli Baxter Among 2022 Governor General’s Literary Award WinnersToronto writer Sheila Heti took home the fiction award for 'Pure Colour,' a novel the GG peer assessment committee called "a work of genius."


Suzette Mayr Wins $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize for ‘The Sleeping Car Porter’The 2022 Giller Prize jury called Mayr's novel "alive and immediate — and eerily contemporary."


Writers’ Trust of Canada Awards: Authors Nicholas Herring, Dan Werb Nab Top PrizesThe Writers' Trust of Canada awards amounted to a combined monetary prize value of $270,000.


Bob Dylan Releases ‘The Philosophy of Modern Song,’ a Book of Essays Dissecting 66 Influential SongsIn his new book, Bob Dylan offers up both critique and historical insight into various musical recordings of the last century by a variety of popular artists.


Prince Harry’s Memoir ‘Spare’ Will Be Published in January 2023The long-awaited memoir will tell with "raw unflinching honesty" Prince Harry's journey from "trauma to healing", his publisher said on Thursday.


Sri Lankan Author Shehan Karunatilaka Wins 2022 Booker PrizeKarunatilaka won the prestigious prize on Monday for his second novel ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’, about a dead war photographer on a mission in the afterlife.


Canadian Council for the Arts Reveals Governor General’s Literary Awards FinalistsThe finalists for the Governor General's Literary Awards spotlight books in both the English and French language, as well as translated works.


New Penguin Random House Award Named After Michelle Obama Will Honour High School WritersMichelle Obama Award for Memoir will provide a $10,000 college scholarship to a graduating public school senior based on their autobiographical submission.


French Author Annie Ernaux, 82, Becomes First French Woman to Win Nobel Prize for LiteratureThe author said, of winning, that "I was very surprised ... I never thought it would be on my landscape as a writer."


Hilary Mantel, Award-Winning British Author of ‘Wolf Hall’ Trilogy, Dies at 70Wolf Hall, published in 2009, and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies, released three years later, both won the Booker Prize, an unprecedented win for two books in the same trilogy and making Mantel the first woman to win the award twice.


Prince William “Cannot Forgive” Prince Harry, According to ‘The New Royals’ Author Katie NichollPrince William “just cannot forgive his brother,” according to Katie Nicholl, author of 'The New Royals: Queen Elizabeth’s Legacy and the Future of the Crown.'


Five Finalists Announced for Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for NonfictionThe winner — to be announced on November 2 — will take home the annual $60,000 prize.


Peter Straub, Bestselling American Horror Writer, Dies at 79Friend and co-author Stephen King has said the author's 1979 book, "Ghost Story," is his favourite horror novel.


Rawi Hage, Billy-Ray Belcourt and Sheila Heti Make the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize Long ListThe jury read 138 books to choose 14 titles for the long list, one of which will win the $100,000 prize, one of the richest in Canadian literature


Salman Rushdie, Novelist Who Drew Death Threats, Is Stabbed at New York LectureThe Indian-born novelist who was ordered killed by Iran in 1989 because of his writing, was attacked before giving a talk on artistic freedom.


Raymond Briggs, Creator of Beloved Children’s Tale ‘The Snowman’, Dies at 88First published in 1978, the pencil crayon-illustrated wordless picture book sold more than 5.5 million copies around the world while a television adaption became a Christmas favourite in Britain and was nominated for an Oscar.


Canadian Author Emily St. John Mandel Makes Barack Obama’s 2022 Summer Reading ListObama's list includes everything from fiction to books on politics, cultural exploration and basketball.


Canadian Author Rebecca Eckler to Launch RE:books Publishing House Focused on Female Authors and Fun ReadsThe former National Post columnist says her tagline is ‘What’s read is good, and what’s good is read.’”


Brian Thomas Isaac’s “All the Quiet Places” wins $5,000 Indigenous Voices AwardThe B.C. author, a retired bricklayer, drew on his childhood growing up on the Okanagan Indian reserve for his coming-of-age story set in 1956


Canadian-American Author Ruth Ozeki Wins Women’s Book Prize for “The Book of Form and Emptiness”The UK judges said her fourth novel, inspired in part by the Vancouver Public Library, contained "sparkling writing, warmth, intelligence, humour and poignancy."


The Bill Gates Summer Reading List Includes a Sci-Fi Novel On Gender Inequality Suggested by His DaughterBill Gates' summer reading list includes fiction and non-fiction titles that cover gender equality, political polarization and climate change.


American novelist Joshua Cohen wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “The Netanyahus”The 2022 Pulitzer prizes include this satirical look at identity politics, focused on the father of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at a crucial time in the Jewish state’s history


Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro Among Canadian Authors Recognized in Commemorative Reading List Marking Queen’s Platinum JubileeThe authors are among six Canadian scribes included on the The Big Jubilee Read list.


Queen Elizabeth II’s Aide Reveals Details of Life in Royal Pandemic Lockdown in New Addition to BookAngela Kelly, who's worked for the Queen for 20 years, discusses everything from cutting the Queen's hair to "the light and laughter that was shared ... even in the darkest moments."


New Leonard Cohen Story Collection, ‘A Ballet of Lepers,’ Set for October ReleaseThe collection features a novel, short stories and a radio play written between 1956 and 1961.


Archived Letters Reveal How Toni Morrison Helped MacKenzie Scott Meet Future Husband Jeff BezosBezos hired Scott at the hedge fund where he worked after receiving a recommendation from Morrison. Shortly thereafter, the pair married and Scott helped Bezos launch Amazon.


Prince Harry’s Memoir is Set to Rock the MonarchyFriends say the California-based royal got a million-pound book deal to write "an intimate take on his feeling about the family."


European Jewish Congress Asks Publisher to Pull Anne Frank BookThe Congress says 'The Betrayal of Anne Frank' has "deeply hurt the memory of Anne Frank, as well as the dignity of the survivors and the victims of the Holocaust."


Canadian Author Details Anne Frank Cold-Case Investigation That Named Surprise Suspect in Her Family’s Betrayal in New BookAhead of the 75th anniversary of the publication of Frank's 'The Diary of a Young Girl' in June, a team that included a retired FBI agent and around 20 historians, criminologists and data specialists identified a relatively unknown figure as a leading suspect in revealing her family's hideout.


Man Who Tricked Authors Into Handing Over Unpublished Manuscripts Arrested by FBI in New YorkFilippo Bernardini, an employee of a well known publication house, has been arrested for stealing hundreds of unpublished manuscripts.


Hollywood Legend Betty White Has a Last Laugh in New Biographic Comic BookThe creators of the biographical comic book have released similar books about Hollywood legends like Carrie Fisher, Lucille Ball, David Bowie and Elizabeth Taylor.


Barack Obama Reveals His List of Books That Left “A Lasting Impression” in 2021Obama's favourite 2021 reads include two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead's 'Harlem Shuffle' and 'Klara and the Sun,' by Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro


“Interview With the Vampire” Author Anne Rice Dies at 80 — Tributes Pour in From Stuart Townsend and OthersThe author, who was best known for her work in gothic fiction, died on Saturday evening as a result of complications from a stroke.


Norma Dunning wins $25,000 Governor General’s English fiction prize for ‘Tainna’The Edmonton-based Inuk writer explores themes of displacement, loneliness and spirituality in six short stories


Omar El Akkad wins $100,000 Giller prize for “What Strange Paradise”The former Globe and Mail reporter, who published "American War" to acclaim in 2017, tackles the global migrant refugee crisis in his second novel


South African Author Damon Galgut Wins the Booker Prize For ‘The Promise’Galgut received nominations for his 2003 and 2010 works before finally taking home the prize this year. 


Hollywood Legend Paul Newman Discusses Life, Acting and Aging Gracefully in Newly Discovered MemoirPublishers of the newly discovered memoir say the Hollywood legend wrote the book in the 1980s in response to the relentless media attention he received during that time.


Here’s What You Need to Know About the Toronto International Festival of AuthorsDirector Roland Gulliver lands in Toronto to open his second, much-expanded virtual festival with more than 200 events


Tanzanian Novelist Gurnah Wins 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature for Depicting the Impact of Colonialism and Refugee StoriesGurnah, 72, is only the second writer from sub-Saharan Africa to win one of the world's most prestigious literary awards


Miriam Toews Garners Third Giller Prize Nomination for “Fight Night” after Shortlist AnnouncedSophomore efforts from novelists Omar El Akkad and Jordan Tannahill join debut books from Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia and Angélique Lalonde


Tina Brown’s New Book, ‘The Palace Papers’, Covers the Royal Family’s Reinvention After Diana’s Tragic DeathTina Brown's sequel to her 2007 release 'The Diana Chronicles' is set to hit shelves April 12, 2022. 


Audible.ca Releases Andrew Pyper’s Exclusive Audiobook “Oracle” For New Plus Catalogue LaunchThe thriller about a psychic FBI detective is one of 12,000 titles now available for free to members


Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen to Release Book Based On Their “Renegades” PodcastThe new book will feature a collection of candid, intimate and entertaining conversations


Prince Harry Will Publish a Memoir in Late 2022Harry says he's writing the book "not as the prince I was born but as the man I have become."


> STAY UP TO DATE

Sign Up for the Weekly Book Club Newsletter