06/05/2012 09:13 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2012

Hilary Mantel and Sally Bedell Smith's Histories Bookmark The Diamond Jubilee of QE2

"A QUEEN....must live and suffer under the world's eye. No woman is above her but the Queen in Heaven, so she can look for no companionship in her troubles. If she suffers she suffers alone, and she needs a special grace to bear it." Those are the words of Henry VIII's first
discarded wife, Katherine of Aragon, quoted in Hilary Mantel's brilliant historical novel, "Bring Up the Bodies."

This quote struck me, as I finished reading Mantel's book over the weekend. A weekend I also spent with Sally Bedell Smith's "Elizabeth The Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch." A weekend that was full of news reports about the modern monarch's Diamond Jubilee

"Bring Up The Bodies" is the endlessly fascinating, terrible tale of the fall of King Henry's second wife, the fiery, manipulative Anne Boleyn. But it is told from the point of view of her final nemesis, Thomas Cromwell--silky, patient, relentless--whom Anne had originally elevated to defeat Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More. Both these men were set against Anne and the King's obsession with her that had led him to break with the Church of Rome.

What is so striking about this fiction based on fact, is that it dares to contemplate Cromwell's thoughts as he plots to bring down the queen. The book highlights the cool cruelty of royal conspiracies--the allegiances never to be trusted...the casual remark stored away for less casual use...the matter-of-factness as each faction is lifted high and then discarded, often fatally.

  • ALTHOUGH nobody these days is sent to the Tower, the isolation and rigor of royal life does not vary much from the days of the rack and thumbscrew. (Nor does the cool cruelty of malice in the palace.) I heard quite a few people register surprise that there is such interest, still, in British royalty, and the Queen's endurance. More than surprise, there is resentment--as if we Americans are paying for anything over there. The truth is, though Britain is in bad shape financially, they love their queen, their traditions, the pomp and circumstance. Just as we wallow every four years in orgies of praise and condemnation for those who run for president. (And presidential campaigns don't result in billions of dollars in tourism profits.)

    It's not fun to be queen. Or a prince. Or Duchess of Cambridge (that's Kate Middleton, the future queen.) Some think of them lolling about in sybaritic opulence, but forget the hundreds of public appearances (at least one every day) and endless charities. Not to mention the subjugation of many natural impulses of anger, boredom, sensuality, goofy good humor--at least in public. And even in private, one is rarely alone, completely alone.

    Queen Elizabeth II is not like any queen of old. She has not beheaded anybody. She has not declared a war. (She cannot, that is no longer the function of a monarch. She reigns but doesn't rule.) This Queen Elizabeth has enjoyed robust health, is still married to her prince, has seen none of her children pass away. She has been a model of decorum, dignity and ruthless only in her determination never to cede her throne until she dies.

    But she has been affected by the two great scandals of 20th century royal life. The abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, to marry Wallis Simpson. This put her father on the throne--a job he never wanted--and, after his early death, Elizabeth herself ascended the throne at the age of 25.
  • MUCH LATER, she saw the monarchy rocked again from within by the rebellious, unhappy, half-feminist, half-harpy super celebrity that was Diana, Princess of Wales. During her life Diana created a new, refreshingly relaxed approach to royal behavior. She also created chaos. In death, she forced the queen to acknowledge her. Had Elizabeth resisted, her popularity would have toppled.

    Smith's book is not as glamorous, dangerous or sexy as other biographies of other queens. Certainly it contains none of the dread that permeates "Bring Up the Bodies."

    But it is a fascinating chronicle of a woman bound and born to serve, beyond anything she expected or wanted. But once chosen she has never faltered. One cannot come away from this story--which goes up to the marriage of Prince William and Kate--without a great deal of admiration and sympathy. Queens still suffer alone. The crown jewels aren't everything. They are not even hers. They belong to England. Just as Elizabeth does.

    The best quote in Smith's book comes not from Queen Elizabeth, but rather from her mother, known for decades as The Queen Mum. Once she was widowed--no longer bound to the actual duties of being a king's wife after her daughter took over--Mum lived a freer, happier life, full of convivial, much more casual gatherings and friendships. Nor did she have to change with the times, cosseted by memories of her services during World War II, the Queen Mum was loved unconditionally. (She was, however, astonishingly agile, the busiest of all the royals.) As she neared the age of one hundred, increasing hobbled, she defiantly refused a wheelchair or a cane.

    "Time is not my dictator. I dictate to Time," she declared. Her daughter, in the relative privacy of her country home at Balmoral Castle, might say the very same thing.
  • THE OLD LYME Art Academy in Connecticut held an Andy Warhol Pop Arts gala the other rainy night and the sun came out just as it was going down which encouraged hordes of people to descend in costume and glitter for the occasion. The seated dinner was sold out! I don't wonder, now that they've called Diana Atwood Johnson back to the helm of this artful art school. The students and local artists had copied Warhol works for the tented walls and I tried to buy their Marilyn Monroe, which was better in every way, in its imitation of Andy. But shucks, someone else anted up nearly $1,000 for it.