It’s finally the end of Monarchy Week at Brontë’s Page Turners. Yes, I know it was the official ‘do’ on Saturday but I am always the last to leave the party. Liz won’t mind. She’s still coming down from the high that Saturday’s fluorescent green outfit induced, and was last seen running up the Long Walk in Windsor yelling ‘I’m 90, I’m a lady, and I’m still the Queeeeeeeen.’ After reading England’s Queens, I can’t really blame her for such a display.
Elizabeth Norton tells the story of each queen who has sat on the English throne, either as queen consort or queen regnant, from Boudica right down to Elizabeth II. It is a very readable jaunt through English history through the eyes of the women caught up in The Men’s Business. Norton picks out some superb stories that bring each of these women to life. I especially liked that of Caroline of Brunswick, married to George IV, who once appeared in public with half a pumpkin on her head as ‘the weather was hot, and nothing kept the head so cool and comfortable as a pumpkin.’ This late 18th century version of Lady Gaga’s meat dress confirms, as my mother always insists when presented with any youthful rock ‘n’ roll exploit, that ‘it’s all been done before.’
Predictably, it’s not all pumpkin heads and giggles for these queens, primarily because the majority of them are relatively powerless queen consorts, whose stories are dominated by forced marriages, the pressure to produce a male heir, and competition from multiple mistresses. I felt especially sorry for Mary of Modena, wife to James II, who had to give birth in front of 42 ‘witnesses’ in June 1688. No one wants that many people in the room when there are stirrups involved.
But by illustrating how few queen regnants we’ve had – nine at most in over a thousand years, if we count Boudica, Empress Matilda, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I, Elizabeth I, Mary II, Anne, Victoria, and Elizabeth II – this book prompts a bit of an epiphany. The odds of growing up with a female monarch are very slim, and in that sense, any girl growing up in Britain since the 1950s is rather fortunate. I’m not positioning Elizabeth as some sort of feminist warrior, but I wonder if girls have benefited in some way psychologically from seeing a woman in this most elevated of national positions, even if it is the consequence of the ancestral happenstance that we discussed at the beginning of last week. Our daughters and granddaughters will not be as lucky, what with Charles, William and George having it sewn up for a good many years to come.
So, I think I’ll be done with the Monarchy palaver once our Liz goes. Happy birthday ma’am. Please keep going for as long as you can, for the ladies. And next year go for glow in the dark lemon and a flashing bonnet.