Books

The best books to read about the Queen, from The Palace Papers to The Secret Guests

If you read a lot about the Queen, you get used to a certain phrase: “she must have been feeling…[sad, happy, angry]”. The books about her are full of speculation, because so much is unknown – the late Queen Elizabeth II was a woman about whom we know everything and nothing. Authors try to convince us that they know her secrets.

It used to be that there were two kinds of royal books – anodyne and sickly sweet, or else muckraking and vicious. It’s not so cut and dried these days, and even the most enthusiastic royal books will express mild criticisms or questions, while any anti-royal book wanting to be taken seriously has to back up its claims in an age of fact-checking. But still you can identify some distinct categories – the coffee table books of photos, the insider views (friends and staff), which tend to be very admiring, while outsiders shine a colder light on the royal family.

You wonder about some of the authors – are they still welcome at the Palace garden parties? And would an author’s being banished by the royals perhaps be a recommendation for a book about them? It’s a complex business.

Of course, there will be a small avalanche of new books about the late Queen on its way now, but from the existing books, which are still worth reading? Let’s take a royal tour, looking at the monarch from every possible bookish angle…

The Palace Papers, by Tina Brown

This rip-roaring read came out earlier this year, while Brown’s Diana Chronicles first appeared in 2007, and between them they cover the second half of the Queen’s reign exceptionally well. Brown has great contacts, and takes a cool view of the Queen.

Best for: A good balance of gossip and authenticity, and a picture of how the Queen tried to adapt herself to modern life and her wayward family.

Queen Elizabeth II Her Life in Our Time, by Sarah Bradford

Bradford is a noted historian and biographer. Her 2011 is readable, thorough, and well-researched.

Best for: The full story, told calmly. Just the Facts, Ma’am (and a bit of speculation).

Elizabeth the Queen: an intimate biography, by Sally Bedell Smith

Bedell Smith is American, and her book is much more journalism than history – but that is not a criticism. Solid facts are presented in a flashy, entertaining way. Because it is aimed at the US market, she tackles the mysteries of British and Royal life – which can be helpful even to those who live here.

Best for: Being like a long-read in Vanity Fair (where she is a contributing editor) – classy, ​​but still celebrity-obsessed.

Playful portrait of the Royal Family (Photographer: Bettmann)

The Royals, by Kitty Kelley

Another American, Kelley was famous for her gossipy, juicy tell-all books, and she tackled Britain in The Royals (1997). It was not (contrary to popular belief) “banned” in the UK, but wasn’t published here because of libel laws – back then keen readers had US friends send it over to them. It is outrageous and yet disappointing: she throws a lot of mud, even if it makes no sense, and very little of it sticks – by which I mean that it may well be true but she doesn’t provide evidence. The accusations – if you care – were of drug-taking, alcoholism, affairs, and being mean and lowbrow.

Best for: how Royal journalism and gossip worked before the Internet.

More where Books Features

The Queen, the Dresser and the Wardrobe (updated version, 2019), by Angela Kelly

Kelly has been the Queen’s dresser, stylist and in-house fashion designer for more than 20 years – her book gives a full explanation of how the Queen’s clothes are chosen and obtained. The truly surprising thing is that she was allowed to write it. (The Royal Governess Marion Crawford, “Crawfie”, was completely blacklisted after writing an anodyne memoir of the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in 1950).

Best for: behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Queen, and of Kelly “wearing in” the Royal shoes.

Our Rainbow Queen, by Sali Hughes

More clothes – beauty writer Sali Hughes produced a fabulous pocket-sized book in 2019, with the inspired idea of ​​grouping photos of the Queen’s outfits by color. It looks like those lovely Dorling Kindersley children’s books on colour, but made for adults, and is flat out beautiful. The Queen was doing colour-blocking before it was invented. All the better for not being chronological.

Best for: coffee tables – even the most ardent Republican would pick it up and flick through.

Queen Elizabeth II (wearing Queen Mary’s Russian Sapphire Brooch) watches her horse Fabricate at Royal Ascot in 2018 (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)

Ma’am Darling, by Craig Brown

Craig Brown’s 2017 book is a very unusual biography of Princess Margaret – laugh-out-loud funny, scurrilous, and with interspersed sections of fiction. (He imagines alternate lives for her – a bit Sliding Doors). You would imagine The Family hated it, and it is occasionally uncomfortably intrusive.

Best for: a very thorough picture of the two sisters whose lives were so entwined.

Lady in Waiting, by Anne Glenconner

One of those horrified by the Craig Brown book was Anne Glenconner, friend to the royal sisters and lady-in-waiting to Margaret. So she wrote her memoir in 2019, and you might be expecting she would be looking back with self-satisfaction over all their comfortable lives. But it is far from that – it is honest and searing, sometimes unconsciously so, and whether you love or hate the royals, it is unputdownable.

There is also a major item of interest right now: Anne was one of the maids of honor at the coronation of Elizabeth II, present even for the parts of the ceremony that were considered too private to be filmed. Almost no one else who had an active, adult part in the ceremony is still alive, and that knowledge of the coronation is something she holds alone.

Best for: proving that Royals are not ‘just like us’.

Charles & Camilla, by Gyles Brandreth

Brandreth writes entertainingly and knowledgeably about the Royals – he knows and likes them, but doesn’t hold back. His Charles & Camilla (2011) is required reading for anyone wanting to understand their unusual relationship, and full of fascinating details. His Philip: The Final Portrait (2021) is just as good on another unusual relationship, that of Prince Philip and the Queen. Brandreth inserts himself into his books, but always justifiably and self-deprecatingly – he is unexpectedly winning.

Best for: deep, deep dive into the Big Question about the Queen’s marriage. (Verdict: No adultery. Probably.)

Chip Channon’s Diaries

The Royals feature in many diaries, letters and biographies of notable figures of the 1940s and 1950s – for instance the Mitford sisters were well-connected, particularly Debo, Duchess of Devonshire. Chips Channon’s Diaries (vol 2, new edition 2021) contain one killer quote – in an entry in 1941, when he has met Phillip Mountbatten: “He is to be our Prince Consort and that is why he is serving in the Navy… but I deplore such a marriage. He and Princess Elizabeth are too inter-related.” The then-Princess was 14.

Best for: context – the privileged life back then.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip putting finishing touches to the Christmas tree during the filming of the 1969 documentary, The Royal Family. (Photographer: Bettmann)

And now we turn to fictional representations of the Queen.

The Windsor Knot, A Three Dog Problem, by SJ Bennett

SJ Bennett writes crime stories with the Queen as sleuth. They are highly enjoyable, and imaginative, and respectful, and strangely seem to give an insight into Her Maj. What will become of her series…? The author must have thought about it.

Best for: Her Majesty as Miss Marple

The Queen and I, by Sue Townsend

The Adrian Mole author has Elizabeth II ending up in a council estate after the government abolishes the monarchy. Townsend makes her fantasy an amusing way of looking at modern life back in 1992, building on a certain affectionate view of the royals as vaguely endearing people who know nothing of life. You do wish Adrian Mole had come to visit them in their council house.

Best for: Schitt’s Creek populated by the Royal Family.

Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett

Bennett’s 2008 novel has the Queen suddenly discovering books… She visits a mobile library van that turns up at Buckingham Palace and starts borrowing. It is a slight story with witty moments. “Human resources… used to be called personnel”. Or actually not – “it was called servants”.

Best for: learning about Bennett rather than the Queen.

The Secret Guests, by BW Black (John Banville)

Booker-prize winning author John Banville (under the name BW Black) wrote a bizarre alt-hist novel in 2020, in which Elizabeth and Margaret go to live in the Republic of Ireland during the Second World War. Obviously not true, but an intriguing concept which makes for an atmospheric and haunting book.

Best for: young Elizabeth learns more about her neighbor country, and so do we.

The Royal takeaway: for a rounded view in three books, choose Tina Brown for the story, Sali Hughes for the pictures, and SJ Bennett for fun.

Leave a Comment