Queen Elizabeth: the public and private monarch

A new biography of the Queen offers insights into her relationship with Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill, what she carries in her purse and her many visits to Canada.
When Queen Elizabeth came with Prince Philip to Canada in 1957, the visit included her first live television broadcast. (Associated Press)

When Elizabeth came to Canada in the 1950s, once as a princess and later as Queen, the trips represented a number of firsts, whether it was her first live televised broadcast or her husband Prince Philip's first public "gaffe."

The 1951 visit, which featured 100,000 people crowding a Toronto park to see the royal couple, also laid the foundation for the basic public routine Elizabeth and Philip followed in the years to come.

But what about Elizabeth's private persona? How did that evolve?

Staff at Buckingham Palace assisted author Sally Bedell Smith over the three years she spent doing research and writing Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch. (Timothy Neesam/CBC)

Washington, D.C.-based author Sally Bedell Smith explores the public and private Elizabeth in her book, Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch, one of a number of biographies appearing as she marks 60 years on the throne this year.

Elizabeth has a firm and famous policy: no media interviews, which means the book is not an authorized biography. But Bedell Smith, who has written bios on Diana, Princess of Wales, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, had assistance from Buckingham Palace.

Bedell Smith's research ranges from the formal role to the strictly personal, touching on the monarch's relations with everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Winston Churchill. She also broaches one other question that has always hung around the Queen — just what does she have in her purse? (According to those who have seen inside the royal handbag, the contents aren't that unusual: lipstick, tissues, reading glasses, lozenges and a fountain pen. No money, though, unless it's a folded five- or 10-pound note for the church collection plate on Sunday.) spoke with Bedell Smith recently in Toronto.

What was the most significant revelation you discovered about the Queen?

Author Sally Bedell Smith's new book offers insights into everything from the Queen's relationship with Margaret Thatcher to how the monarch reacted when she got chicken pox and what she carries in her purse. (Random House)

I guess two parts. One was how much goes into her job and what a professional she is, and how wide-ranging her duties are.

I obviously had a sense of the Queen before I embarked on this book but I didn't fully understand how hard she works, how much she knows, how much not only her prime ministers but everyone who comes to have a private audience with her relies on her wisdom and her knowledge and her judgment.

Her role is to consult and to encourage and to warn, not to specifically give advice, and she's very scrupulous about adhering to those constitutional limitations, so that was one part that was significant and in many respects surprising.

And the other part of course was what she's like as a private person, what she's like as a friend, and as a mother and what it's like to have her over to dinner, what it's like to be entertained by her, what she's like as a wife and a mother.

You expect the queen to be dignified and dutiful and stoic and all the things we see in public, but she's also got great joie de vivre. She went to a friend's birthday party at the London aquarium and someone saw her sitting there blowing bubbles. And she loves to sing.

She is very earthy, particularly in her world of horses. On the one hand she is very prim and proper but she understands in almost a clinical way the rather violent way horses breed. Of course she's very funny. She's an excellent mimic. But mostly that she has when she's relaxing with her friends this great joie de vivre, really, this spirit.

Philip was also one of the big surprises in terms of his breadth and depth of interests and causes that he's espoused over the years. He's a far more intelligent and far-thinking person than the caricature of the gaffe-prone curmudgeon that has become kind of the default perception, thanks to a lot of the tabloids.

Of the many revelations — whether it's what the Queen said when she met Paul McCartney, or what it's like to have her over for dinner — which one do you find the most intriguing?

There were so many. I loved the one Paul McCartney told me because again it was so becomingly down to earth. The Beatles first met [her] at a Royal Variety Show [in 1963]. They were in a receiving line and they were introduced to her and she said to Paul McCartney, "Well, where are you giving your next concert?" and he said, "Slough, Ma'am." And she said, "Oh, that's right near us." What she meant of course was Windsor Castle, but it was as if, "Oh, well, you're just going to be right down the road from my house." But he just laughed remembering it because it was so wonderfully unassuming.

How has the Queen's approach to her role evolved over the past 60 years?

I think her basic approach to her role probably hasn't changed all that much. She was very well-trained.

I think what's changed over the years is the way she's allowed the monarchy to modernize in very subtle incremental ways with changing times.

When Diana died, she gave that speech and she said there are lessons to be learned from the way Diana lived and the way people reacted to her death and the monarchy under her guidance has probably accelerated their change since then. She's become much more responsive to crises.

She's become slightly less formal in the way she interacts with people, where before she might have come to a school and stood at the door and waved at everybody, now she'll walk in and she'll talk to the children and she'll look at their work. She may not get down on knees the way Diana would do, but she's much more attuned to interacting with regular people in informal settings.

You quote former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, and mention moments from some of the Queen's trips to Canada. What is your sense of her feeling toward Canada?

Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney smile as they make their way by people gathered on Parliament Hill for Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa on July 1, 1990. (Ron Poling/Canadian Press)

I think she has a great deal of affection for Canada. She's been here 25 separate times. That includes two years in the '70s when she came twice in one year. That's more than she's been to any of her other realms. I think it's significant that the first big trip she took as Princess Elizabeth was in 1951 when she came with Philip. That was a pretty arduous trip. And then in 1957 when she came, what was most significant to me is it was the first time she used television. It was the kind of warmup to her televising her Christmas broadcast for the first time that year.

I wrote a lot about her relationship with the United States, too, because she's been to my country more times than people would imagine - 11 times, including five private holidays.

She was on the west coast of the United States on a 10-day tour with the Reagans and at the end of it, she was going to British Columbia and she said, "Well, I'm going home now."

There are several mentions within the book about the Queen's relationships with her children. How would you assess how she handled being both a monarch and a parent?

I talked to quite a few people about it and I think if there's been any criticism of her over the years, it's that she put her duty before her family. There was a wonderful quote in the book from Will Deedes, who was a former journalist and very smart observer of the human scene, and he said that he felt that she was really trying so hard to be a worthy monarch that she did put her family a little bit to the side.

Based on what Charles himself said when he authorized a book back in the mid-'90s and spoke about being an unhappy child and feeling that his parents were too distant from him — he's the only one who's come out and said anything like that, but he of the four is probably the most sensitive of them.

If you had a chance to sit down and do a one-on-one interview with her, what would be your first question?

I suppose I would ask her what she thought the monarchy would look like in 25 years.

There are pressures on the monarchy to evolve and she has moved to some extent. Charles may have some ideas about moving it a little faster. He's said a little bit about it. William and Catherine are obviously, as [British Prime Minister] David Cameron said, the team of the future. People forget that William has been brought up in a quite different way even from his father. He's been brought up to blend in with people as opposed to feel he's different, so the question of how he will balance the whole notion of being a regal presence with being down to earth and connecting to people will be fascinating to watch.

And I suppose the second question would be what kind of king she thinks her son will be and her grandson will be. What she thinks her legacy will be. What's made her happiest in her reign.

And also, "Could I please take a look at at least 100 pages of your journal?" which she's kept every day since she was a little girl.

What impression of the Queen do you hope people will take away from your book?

I hope it will inspire people. I hope it will increase their admiration for her as they understand the full scope of what she does. And I hope it also will humanize her, to show that she does have these qualities that are seldom seen in public -- the laughter, the singing, the dancing, spontaneity, the moment she saw Manhattan for the first time and said, "Whee." She has this jolly and joyful side that people, because of the constraints of the public role, they just don't see.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.