Many girls dream of being princesses, and I was no exception. I always thought living in a castle would be so wonderful, moat, buttresses and all. Of course I never thought of how drafty and gloomy it all could be.
Several years ago, on a dark afternoon in December, Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, and Her Other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth of Nations, Defender of the Faith, Duchess of Edinburgh, Countess of Merioneth, Baroness Greenwich, Duke of Lancaster, Lord of Mann, Duke of Normandy sat at her desk, frowning at a computer screen. The desk had once belonged to Queen Victoria. Its surface was polished but uneven, like many other pieces of furniture in Windsor Castle, so the computer keyboard wobbled when The Queen pressed on it. She folded a piece of paper into a tiny square and slipped it underneath a corner.
And perhaps how ordinary – and tedious – the life of a royal could be sometimes, no matter how many UpperCased titles there are in one’s name. And that The Queen herself could feel unhappy and out of sorts. And one day just happen to walk out of the palace, unrecognizable beneath a hoodie with skull on its back (can you imagine?), and catch a train to Scotland to see her former royal yacht.
But The Queen being The Queen, she’s never quite left on her own for very long, and a motley bunch soon joins up in search of her.
There is Shirley MacDonald, the most senior of The Queen’s dressers. She draws the bath, looks after the wardrobe (cleaning, cataloging, repairing), lays out the clothes etc. “Shirley respected The Queen, but she was not in awe of her.” Her family had long been in service to the royal family and she had grown up used to the ins and outs of royal life.
Her good friend William de Morgan, senior butler, a “connoisseur of privilege”, for whom service is his religion: “It was what he knew how to do well. He was proud of it.”
Lady Anne, from one of the country’s richest and most aristocratic families. Whose husband lost her money in the City and died of a stroke, leaving herbs widow in her forties. Her job as lady-in-waiting (which comes with a small stipend) means being a companion to The Queen in her formal duties outside the palace: replying to letters, making conversation with politicians before The Queen was ready.
Shirley is a little suspicious of Lady Anne, as she is to most ladies-in-waiting. So it doesn’t help that the two women are thrown together in this madcap search.
Luke Thomason is the equerry, whose duties include being an extra man at the dinner table, arranging transport, entertaining guests, steering visitors through the bows and curtseys: “It was not hard work. It was an acknowledgement of hard work elsewhere. Few people knew how much The Queen’s court was still a military court, and how many of the male duties in the Household were undertaken by officers whose more ordinary experience was of unglamorous, uncomfortable postings in remote corners where they had often served with distinction.” He’s ironically not fond of people in uniform and distrustful of the Secret Service, and intends to find The Queen before alerting them, thus leaving him to lead the team to boldly go where they have never been before.
Then there is Rebecca who tends to The Queen’s horses at The Mews, who prefers animals to people. And Rajiv, who works at a gourmet cheese shop, who doesn’t quite know how to handle himself with the opposite sex and has a bit of a thing for Rebecca, whom he serves in the shop when she comes looking for cheese for Elizabeth. Elizabeth the horse that is.
And it so happens that The Queen wanders into this cheese shop on her little solitary stroll. In Rebecca’s hoodie.
It is, as you can see, quite a quirky little tale.
So not only is it a great bunch of distinct characters who band together to find her, The Queen and all the ins and out of her regular days, like figuring out ‘Mr Google’ and ‘Miss Twitter’, and practising her yoga poses, and reminiscing about the good old days , makes this story such a delightful read.
It reminded me a little of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, which Kuhn’s Queen mentions too:
“Fancy making me out to be a reader. There’s imagination for you”
One of the more fascinating aspects of this book was learning about the goings on at the palace. While this is a work of fiction, Kuhn previously authored non-fiction works about the court of Queen Victoria, and the life of Benjamin Disraeli, so I am inclined to believe that he knows what he is talking about.
And The Queen’s train trip proves to be quite the highlight of the book. She is seated at a table with a blind couple and a young man with piercings, who thinks she looks familiar but can’t quite place her. Instead he asks if she’s Helen Mirren, to which The Queen replies:
“Helen Mirren, now, she’s a beauty. Much more svelte than me,” said The Queen, patting her tummy.
“Well, you do look like her,” said the young man defensively.
Tee hee. Can you imagine?
William Kuhn is a biographer and historian, and the author of Reading Jackie, Democratic Royalism, Henry & Mary Ponsonby, and The Politics of Pleasure. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts. This is his first novel. His next book, a work of historical fiction, explores the friendship over nearly forty years of Isabella Stewart Gardner and John Singer Sargent.
Check out the rest of the tour:
Tuesday, October 8th: A Bookish Way of Life
Wednesday, October 9th: Lavish Bookshelf
Thursday, October 10th: Drey’s Library
Monday, October 14th: Kritters Ramblings
Tuesday, October 15th: Olduvai Reads
Wednesday, October 16th: BookNAround
Thursday, October 17th: Booktalk & More
Friday, October 18th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Monday, October 21st: What She Read …
Tuesday, October 22nd: A Chick Who Reads
Wednesday, October 23rd: Kahakai Kitchen
Thursday, October 24th: Walking with Nora
Monday, October 28th: My Bookshelf
Tuesday, October 29th: guiltless reading