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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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.