Very good monarchs must surely dislike innovation, if only to acknowledge the fact that innovation must surely dislike them. It may be said that Queen Elizabeth II has been especially skilled in this respect, having fought every day since her coronation on June 2, 1953, to oppose any sort of change in the habits of tradition and to preserve the British monarchy from the encroaching vulgarity of public feeling.
When people say they love the Queen that is often what they love—her stoical, unyielding passivity—and one has to look to Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, to find a monarch who might match her, and even beat her, as an idol of intransigence. “The Queen is most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of ‘Woman’s Rights,’” wrote Victoria in her journals, “with all its attendant horrors on which her poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety.” Victoria always had the habit of expressing her views in the third person, and the above was written in 1870, a year, it might help us to remember, when everyday British women were just being allowed by law, for the first time, to keep the money they earned. Being in touch with one’s subjects, female or otherwise, was not seen to be a very necessary part of the job back then, and it might stand as one of the more limpid ironies of monarchy that the sovereigns who are most out of touch are usually the ones most loved.
Nevertheless, one might pity the present Queen. Where Victoria only had women’s suffrage and Charles Darwin to rub up against, poor Elizabeth had Princess Diana, and there we entered a whole new phase in the life of an endangered species. There was always a question about how far Queen Elizabeth could go in the twentieth century without coming a cropper due to new waves of populism gone awry, and in Diana Spencer she met the near-hysterical embodiment of that tendency. In her famous Panorama interview with Martin Bashir in 1995, the one where she outed her husband as an adulterer, Diana looked down the television lens as if she were looking through the sights of an automatic weapon. Here are some examples of how she spoke in that interview about her role within “The Firm”:
DIANA: I remember when I used to sit on hospital beds and hold people’s hands, people used to be sort of shocked because they said they’d never seen this before, and to me it was quite a normal thing to do. And when I saw the reassurance that an action like that gave, I did it everywhere, and will always do that.
BASHIR: What was the family’s reaction to your post-natal depression?
DIANA: Well maybe I was the first person ever to be in this family who ever had a depression or was ever openly tearful …