Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch – Sally Bedell Smith (2012)

book412Since we’d just finished watching the latest season of The Crown TV series, I decided that I was interested in learning more about HRH QE2, and having had an enjoyable read of a biography about Prince Charles (same author), followed it up with this bio of his famous mother.

Sally Bedell Smith is an American author who has a penchant for writing biographies of royalty, whether that is monarchy-related royalty (such as the Queen) or Camelot-related royalty (such as JFK et al.) This author can write very readable books and does so in a breezy rather People-magazine-like manner, so I think if you know that this is fairly superficial coverage of a very private and elite world, then you’ll be squared away. It’s not, however, a very heavy fact-based book, but Smith doesn’t claim otherwise really.

So this title covers the life of Queen Elizabeth II (or Lillibet, as the Queen Mother would call her) up until 2012, and the one word that jumps out at me after having read this now would be “dutiful”. Smith does a thorough job covering how QE2 has grown up, inherited the throne when she was a young 21-year old, and she seems to do a pretty decent writing job with the limited public information that the Palace office releases. (Obvs, no F2F interviews with the royal family.) (All the info seems to come from secondary sources, and thus the People magazine comparison.)

The Queen is portrayed as playing a huge role in continuity and consistency, whether complications arise from within her family or outside in the world at large. My own take on the Royal Family is that they are a link over the centuries in the history of the UK, and although they may be expensive to keep and house, they are also interesting in their right, acting as a strong lure for tourists from around the world. From this read, it was interesting to see how hard (some of) the family actually work in the Firm (the nickname for themselves), and although I can see the attraction of being a princess, it’s also a gilded cage in a lot of respects.

This read is obviously pro-monarchy, and does seem to be rather full of speculation rather than fact in places, but if you remember that the book is just a biographical take on a very private but public figure through an American author’s worshipful lens, you’ll get on ok with this. It’s not academic; it doesn’t break any new ground; there are no surprises in this, but it’s also quite a good read (despite all those caveats).

What I liked most about this biography was that it was also a useful primer for some of the history of England during the twentieth century. Despite growing up in England, I still had some huge gaps in my historical knowledge wrt prime ministers, Princess Margaret, politics, and other topics, and I found that this was a pretty useful history book (albeit in a sycophantic and superficial manner).

As I think about this, this title was (and is) tailored to the American market (myself included since I live here), and through that lens, it does what it says on the tin, simplistic though it may be. It’s a good birds-eye view of the world of QE2 and the people who surround her, and it was helpful to me to be able to put more context on some of the larger monarchical events that have happened during my lifetime.

However, I think it’s important to remember that this is more of a celebrity biography than anything, and perhaps is more of a taster of the life of HRH than anything else. Despite the shallow depth, this was still an enjoyable read, and I think that it’s scratched that “The Crown” itch for a while, and opened several rabbit holes down which to chase.

Now I’m going to peruse the shelves to see what else I can find to read from the TBR pile.

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The Making of Home – Judith Flanders (2014)

book455I’m always really curious about the social history of places and times: how did people live then? Under what conditions? What did they do each day, and what did their houses look like?

With that said, it’s little wonder that I really enjoyed a recent read of historian Judith Flanders’ work called The Making of Home: The 500-Year Story of How our Houses Became our Homes which covers exactly that topic, huge as it is.

Flanders is a social historian with several titles to her credit, including Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (see review here), The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (see review here), and one or two in the TBR pile (The Invention of Murder and The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London). Obviously, I enjoy her writing and what she has to say…

The idea that “home” is a special place, a separate place, a place where we can be our true selves, is too obvious to us today that we barely pause to think about it. But… “home” is a relatively new concept.

As usual, this book is so chock-full of interesting (to me) points, I ended up with a bullet list of curious facts, so hopefully, that will work for you.

  • The concept of having a “chairman/woman” on a committee or in a company stems from the fact that early in history, furniture was really expensive and out of reach for many families. If they did have enough disposable income to buy something, they might only have the cash to buy one chair (instead of a set).* Thus, if you review early paintings of domestic settings (such as in the seventeenth century), you may notice that a family may only have one chair in the room. As this was typically the father’s or husband’s place (since he was considered the most important person in the group), he got to sit in the chair. Thus, the chairman. 🙂
  • Bedding was a huge chunk of a family’s budget when starting out. For a family in the 18th century, there are records that show they paid more than a quarter of their total household income for bedding and furniture, so it was a huge investment for the average family.
  • Beds usually only had flour sacks of hay (or straw) as the mattress, and families sometimes put up to five flour sacks of hay on top of each other to give more padding. (I’m wondering if this is where the origin of the Princess and the Pea fairy tale came from…)
  • Families were all up on the latest household fashions. For example, pendulum clocks were invented in 1657. Two decades after that, almost no Dutch families owned a similar clock. Four decades after its invention, nine out of ten families owned one. And thus the world turns…
  • In 1727 in Bath, it was quite common for a middle class family to own a table, cooking pots, and a mirror, but curiously, the great majority of these same households didn’t own a cup or even knives and forks.
  • For middle class pioneer families in the US during this same time, they lagged behind their British counterparts in terms of household goods: it was very common for pioneer families out west to live in a similar fashion to the lifestyle of English families one century earlier. (Couldn’t exactly go shopping very often and didn’t have much disposable income.)
  • The history of cups and saucers: When tea was first imported to UK, the Chinese style of tea-cup with no handle was fine for how the tea was served (lukewarm). However, when the Brits started to like their tea really hot (as now), the previously handle-free cups were unsuitable and thus, handles were added to the cup. When Brits started adding milk to the tea, there was a need for a bigger cup, and when sugar came into the pic, tea drinkers needed a small spoon to put the sugar into the drink, so thus teaspoons. Teaspoons led to saucers, as a place to rest your spoon whilst you drank your tea. Huh.
  • In the Middle Ages, guests were expected to bring their own knives and forks (instead of the hosting family providing them). They were considered as personal items. Knives were originally round-ended, and thus one could not spear your food to eat it. Instead, forks were developed to spear your food once you’d cut it with your knife. Most middle class people just ate with a knife and a spoon which they would bring with them when they traveled.
  • The British Navy refused to accept use of forks until 1897.
  • Seventeenth century England houses commonly only had one fireplace in one room, and heat was seen as a luxury more than a necessity. (What were they thinking? Have you been to England in December and January? Brrrr.)

And there’s so much more, that if this type of social history whets your whistle, I think that you’ll like Flanders and her work. Plus – the bibliography is lengthy and I added quite a few new titles to my ever-expanding TBR list.

Anyway, thoroughly enjoyed this read, and now I’m very grateful for central heating. 🙂

* When Superhero and I were young marrieds, we only had enough money to buy a dining room table. (We didn’t have enough to buy the matching chairs, so for quite a few months, we only had two non-matching dining table director’s chairs.) The next Christmas, we saved up and got the matching set. Baby steps, amirite?

Added for reference:

If you like this sort of book, here are some other domestic/social history books that I’ve read in case you’re looking to add to the ol’ TBR pile. (Obvs, I like Flanders!):