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Dictators, Dresses and Dorgis: The Books That Throw Unexpected Light on Elizabeth II

From the woman who picked her hats to the nanny who was drummed out of her flat, The Guardian editors pick the writers who got to the heart of the Queen—and the phenomenon of modern monarchy.

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a queen smiling from the backseat of a car

Queen Elizabeth II sitting in the backseat of a car on her way to the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown during her visit to Canada, 6th October 1964. Photo by Terry Fincher /Getty Images

Thousands of books were written about the Queen. Many were banal, some syrupy, a few hateful and most just plain wrong. But there are gems, too: biographies and histories but also novels that throw sharp and unexpected lights on this most singular – and silent – of women.

Ben Pimlott – The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II
An academic historian and Labour intellectual, Pimlott was not the obvious person to take on the task of writing the life of the Queen. We should be grateful he did. With access to many new parts of the royal archive, and interviews with everyone from Princess Margaret to Hardy Amies, Pimlott offers a pin-sharp analysis not just of the woman but of the whole phenomenon of modern monarchy. He’s especially good on the Queen’s relations with her prime ministers. Clearly she could detect nonsense at 50 paces.

Angela Kelly – The Other Side of the Coin: The Queen, the Dresser and the Wardrobe
Royal servants are not supposed to get too close the royal family, and they are certainly not supposed to write books about them. But Kelly, who worked as the Queen’s dresser for nearly 30 years, is the exception. Kelly became a much trusted personal assistant to the Queen, not only coordinating all those hats and coats in primary colours, but also designing outfits from scratch. Her achievement was to ensure that her employer was quite simply the most instantly recognisable person in the world.

Marion Crawford – The Little Princesses: The Story of the Queen’s Childhood by Her Nanny
In 1950, Crawford experienced the full chill that comes with being cast out of royal favour into utter darkness. She published an account of her life as governess to Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret without the full permission of the royal family. Crawfie’s book may seem slightly coy to us today, but it does contain gossip about George VI and the Duchess of Windsor that horrified the Queen Mother, who had warned her that royal servants needed to be “utterly oyster”. Crawfie was drummed out of her grace and favour flat and never spoken to by any member of the royal family again.

Robert Hardman – Queen of the World
The Queen spent more time travelling the world than any other monarch, constantly negotiating political minefields with the lightest of treads. Hardman tells the story of this untold diplomatic career, splicing examples of the way HM deployed “soft power” with plenty of gossipy insider chat. She met some rotters along the way, like Ceausescu and Amin, as well as Mandela and JFK. And she charmed them all without giving anything away. Hardman is particularly good on the eccentric presents she received, from a pair of Brazilian jaguars to a baby crocodile in a biscuit tin.

Jane Stevenson – The Empress of Last Days
What if the rightful heir to the British throne was actually a young black scientist living in Barbados? This is the premise of Jane Stevenson’s exquisite novel, part historical narrative, part piercingly contemporary analysis of spin. Stevenson employs her prodigious historical knowledge to explore the way colonial legacies still impinged on the royal family at the beginning of the 21st century, and doubtless will continue to do so.

Penny Junor – All the Queen’s Corgis
After all the guests had gone home and the servants retired for the night, the Queen had her corgis. In truth these Welsh herding dogs are not the easiest companions and Junor has the scoop here on all their bad behaviour, from biting footmen to nipping at ambassadors. And then there’s the sex. One corgi mated with Princess Margaret’s daschund and the result was a clutch of “dorgis”. Still, the Queen loved them all, feeding, walking and even travelling with them. And they, in their turn, loved her back without having a clue about her day job.

Jacqueline Wilson – Queenie
It is 1953 and Elsie Kettle is thrilled at the thought of going to London to see the coronation. But disaster strikes and Elsie ends up in a children’s ward with TB. Her best friend is the hospital cat called Queenie, who has some wonderful tricks up her paw for making the hours speed by. Wilson uses the thrill and glamour of the coronation as a counterpoint to a portrait of a children’s hospital in the first years of the NHS. It is a touching reminder of how the world has changed since Elizabeth came to the throne.

Andrew Marr – Elizabethans: How Modern Britain Was Forged
Marr traces the people who made the second Elizabethan age what it was. These are the activists, artists, sports heroes, scientists and performers who moulded modern Britain as it emerged from the black and white postwar world of the Queen’s father, George VI. This is not a tidy or smooth story, but it is full of energy and a kind of wonder at what was achieved under the rule of a woman who, just like the first Queen Elizabeth, was never expected to become Queen.

Craig Brown – Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret
You might not think that satirist Brown’s brilliant, eviscerating biography of Princess Margaret could have much to tell us about her sister. But Elizabeth is on every page, the sensible one acting as a foil to the scatty, sexy and monumentally selfish Margaret. This should make the Queen seem dull, but in fact what emerges is a picture of her extraordinary restraint and sense of duty. Touching too is the fact that the princess, despite her multiple unpleasantnesses, remained a devoted sister and loyal servant of the Queen, whom she clearly adored.

Victoria Murphy – Town & Country: The Queen: A Life in Pictures
So much of the Queen’s life and career was about the visuals. This luscious coffee-table book is packed with photograph after photograph of Elizabeth in her multiple roles: as happy-go-lucky princess, solemn heir to the throne, bride, impossibly young monarch and all the way through to her latter days as a grandmother to the world. Journalist Murphy supplies useful contextual notes, but the pictures are the stars. They tell us everything we need to know about exactly what we have lost.

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This post originally appeared on The Guardian and was published September 9, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

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