My daughter called out of the blue from Clemson Thursday and asked, “Mom, did you hear about the Queen?” Her voice was a little trembly.
“You sound upset, sweetie,” I said. “I didn’t realize the Queen meant so much to you.”
Honestly, I couldn’t remember ever discussing Queen Elizabeth II with Amelia – except maybe, just maybe, during the whole Harry and Meghan dust-up? She hasn’t even watched ‘The Crown,’ for crying out loud. She thinks it looks boring.
“Well, yeah,” she responded. “I mean, she’s just always been there.”
Indeed, she has. Few Americans alive today remember a time before Queen Elizabeth II. My mother remembers watching her coronation on TV as a young girl in Alabama. (I believe theirs was one of the first TVs in the neighborhood.) And how vividly I remember her quiet, serious presence at the wedding of Charles and Diana, and all the royal weddings that followed.
Over the decades, as American culture became increasingly celebrity-obsessed – and the Windsors ever-more ripe for tabloid treatment, first in print, then online – the Queen deftly managed to skirt the spotlight, maintaining her privacy and dignity . . . and the public’s admiration.
I’ve now read upwards of 100 articles, and I’ll be damned if I can find the quote, but someone, somewhere, put it perfectly: She was an analog celebrity in a digital world.
From time to time, I think we’re all nostalgic for the “analog era” – the slower pace, the comforting sense of living within a common narrative. But nostalgia doesn’t fully explain why so many of us Democracy-loving, postmodern Americans have been engaged in a collective period of mourning over the death of a 96-year-old British monarch. We don’t even believe in monarchy here, right? We think it’s all rather backwards and silly and stuffy, don’t we?
And yet, effusive tributes were blooming all over social media as soon as word spread of Her Majesty’s passing. Pictures of Elizabeth – from every age and every stage of her reign – were popping up all over my Facebook feed, typically punctuated by teary-faced and broken-hearted emojis.
Over at the New York Times, the coverage was immediate and comprehensive, especially from a photographic standpoint. I was first struck by a dazzling photo of the crowd milling around the Queen Victoria monument at Buckingham Palace, beneath a double rainbow that had appeared in the sky just as news of the Queen’s death was announced.
I posted it on my Facebook page, of course. No teary emoji necessary.
Not everybody was feeling the love, though. If you want to read a different perspective – and I mean really different – look no further than Slate’s article, “Let The Descendants of Britain’s Empire Have Their Glee:” Subtitle: “Many people are not exactly distraught over Queen Elizabeth’s death.”
Apparently, one of those people is acclaimed academic and author Uju Anya. As news of the Queen’s impending death spread, Anya referred to her on Twitter as the “chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire” and wished that “her pain be excruciating.” None other than Jeff Bezos, himself, called her out for it, and Twitter eventually suspended her account.
The Times featured a guest essay by Harvard professor Maya Jasanoff called “Mourn the Queen, Not Her Empire,” with a subhead: “She helped obscure a bloody history of decolonization whose proportions and legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged.”
Around social media, there were kinder, gentler gestures of dissent, as well. On the day of her death, a friend of mine posted a photo of the Queen meeting Dolly Parton at some social function. His caption: “Here’s a picture of the Queen… and that British woman.”
Personally, I thought it was “too soon,” but I couldn’t help cackling. You have to know this friend.
Anyway, watching the world react to the Queen’s death has been fascinating to me, and it got me thinking about queens in general. The whole concept of Queen, I mean. The archetype. It’s a tricky one.
Here in the United States of Disney, most little girls go through their “princess phase.” Some grow out of it quickly, while others ride that phase all the way to prom night and beyond. In short, most of us women dreamed of being a princess at some point in our lives, but I don’t know that many of us dreamed of being Queen.
Oh, sure, the word has taken on a sassy new cache in contemporary slang. The Urban Dictionary tells us a Queen is “a beautiful girl, who doesn’t take disrespect from nobody! She’s smart and does what she wants when she wants. She doesn’t let nobody bully her and kicks-ass!”
But queens haven’t always had such a rosy reputation. In fairy tales, folklore and literature, the word “queen” has often been paired with “evil,” both justly and otherwise. And in “real life,” queens have often had a royally hard time of it. They’ve been known to lose their heads over the tiniest things. Literally.
Urban Dictionary aside, I think deep down, every woman knows it’s not easy being Queen. Princesses have all the adventures, the frivolity, the fun – not to mention the pretty dresses – while the Queen bears the weight of the world, holding the kingdom together with her bare hands.
Think Eleanor of Aquitaine . . . Mary Queen of Scots . . . All six wives of Henry VIII . . . and, of course, the original Queen Elizabeth. Harrowing existences, all. Yes, I’ve studied a little queenly history and I’ve read my Shakespeare. But more importantly, I’ve seen the movies!
Speaking of which, I mentioned ‘The Crown’ a few paragraphs up. Am I the only one who feels like almost everything she knows about the personal life – and personality – of Queen Elizabeth II she learned from a Netflix series?
This entire column has been one big digression, but my point, if I have one, is this: Being Queen is no fairy tale. Unlike with various princesses, fictional and otherwise, our cultural fascination with the dear, departed Queen Elizabeth wasn’t – and isn’t – steeped in fantasy and make-believe, but in something much deeper – and, perhaps, darker – in the human psyche.
In all my reading since her death, perhaps my favorite is a passage from the collected letters of C.S. Lewis, who wrote to a friend about Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, soon after the fact. I’ll just let Lewis take us out:
You know, over here people did not get that fairy-tale feeling about the coronation. What impressed most who saw it was the fact that the Queen herself appeared to be quite overwhelmed by the sacramental side of it. Hence, in the spectators, a feeling of (one hardly knows how to describe it) — awe — pity — pathos — mystery.
The pressing of that huge, heavy crown on that small, young head becomes a sort of symbol of the situation of humanity itself: humanity called by God to be his vice-regent and high priest on earth, yet feeling so inadequate. As if he said, “In my inexorable love I shall lay upon the dust that you are glories and dangers and responsibilities beyond your understanding.”
Do you see what I mean? One has missed the whole point unless one feels that we have all been crowned and that coronation is somehow, if splendid, a tragic splendour.