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Fit for a Queen

Why the world celebrates Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee

Queen Elizabeth II of England, Diamond Jubilee, British royal family

Portrait of the Queen by John Swannell/Camera Press

Thousands of beacons of light will be lit tonight from England to Kenya, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Caribbean, and Canada to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II of England. Elizabeth ascended the throne 60 years ago this week, after her father, King George VI, died of lung cancer. This marks only the second time in the more than 1,000-year history of the British monarchy that a ruler has served long enough to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee (the other being Queen Victoria).

The yearlong celebration of the queen’s six-decade reign culminates tomorrow with a morning Service of Thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral that is expected to draw a global television audience of approximately three billion viewers, easily topping the numbers for last year’s wedding of the queen’s grandson, Prince William, to Kate Middleton. Following the service (carried live by CNN), the royal family will travel by carriage in a procession from Westminster Hall to Buckingham Palace. More than one million people are expected to line the route.

Now 86, Elizabeth appears more popular than ever. A recent survey by Ipsos MORI found that the British public’s support for the monarchy is at an all-time high, with 80 percent of adults wanting Britain to remain a monarchy and only 13 percent favoring a republic style of government. Much of the credit for that, royal observers say, goes to Elizabeth, whose unwavering sense of duty and public service has helped the royal family withstand several public relations disasters, among them the queen herself coming under attack for being out of step with public sentiment after Princess Diana’s death in 1997.

For some perspective on the queen’s impact on the monarchy, BU Today spoke with modern British history expert Arianne Chernock (below), a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of history. Chernock is currently at work on a book, The Queen and I: The Right to Reign and the Rights of Women in Victorian Britain, which explores Britons’ responses to queens who reigned during the 19th century—not just Queen Victoria, but also Queen Isabella II of Spain, Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar, and the Begums of Bhopal, India. Her first book, Men and the Making of Modern British Feminism, received the John Ben Snow Prize from the North American Conference on British Studies.

Arianne Chernock author, Men and the Making of Modern British Feminism book, British history, Boston University College of Arts and Sciences

Photo by Vernon Doucette

BU Today: How would you assess Elizabeth II’s reign?

Chernock: Elizabeth II may not be the most charismatic or flashy sovereign, but she certainly has displayed remarkable perseverance. Since 1952, when Elizabeth became queen regnant, Britain has experienced some seismic changes: the liquidation of Empire, demotion to “junior partner” of the United States, crisis in Northern Ireland, membership in the European Union, and the expansion and contraction of the state. And the royal family itself has had to contend with its own share of troubles in recent decades: the divorces of Diana and Charles, and Andrew and Fergie, the mishandling of Diana’s death, Harry’s ill-conceived plan to dress up as a Nazi, to name just a few debacles. These scandals have played out in very public and often painful ways. Given these developments, I would argue that Elizabeth’s greatest accomplishment is that she has not lost the monarchy. This may not seem like much to brag about, but it is in fact quite significant.

Public support for the royal family after these scandals seemed to be at an all-time low in 1992—a year the queen referred to as her “annus horribilis.” What accounts for the turnaround to the current outpouring of affection?

While republican sentiments do seem to be waning in Britain right now, I wouldn’t read too much into the current monarchical mania (much of which is highly manufactured). I don’t think that the buzz—the commemorative “bookazines” cramming airport bookstalls, the fawning biographies, the new wax likeness at Madame Tussauds—necessarily translates into an “outpouring of affection” for the royal family. Many Britons I’ve spoken with are simply happy to have an extra bank holiday this week. At the same time, I will never forget an elderly woman I met several years ago in northern England. Her house was crammed with commemorative plates and mugs from every royal wedding, birth, and jubilee celebration in recent memory. Her commitment to the royals was unquestionably genuine.

How have British perceptions about queenship changed from the 19th century to today?

In the 19th century, the jury was still somewhat out on whether queens (and kings) should reign or rule (that is, whether sovereigns should play a purely ceremonial role in government or take a more active hand in matters of state). The precise terms of “constitutional monarchy,” an arrangement introduced with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, continued to be negotiated. This gave Queen Victoria a good deal more political leverage than Queen Elizabeth II—leverage only compounded by the fact that Victoria presided over an empire that at its height controlled a quarter of the world’s population. By contrast, we can all agree that Elizabeth is a ceremonial figurehead, who oversees a far more modest collection of islands and territories. I would also add that Victoria had a taller task as a female sovereign in the 19th century as compared to Elizabeth in the 20th and 21st centuries. When Victoria became queen in 1837, at the age of 18, she really had to invent the role for herself—determine what it would mean to be a sovereign and a woman, and eventually also a wife and a mother (to nine children!). This in an age, no less, when conduct books and domestic manuals instructed women that they should aspire to become nothing more than “angels in the house.” Elizabeth, simply by dint of when she was born, has had more models of womanhood to draw on, and the public’s acceptance of her sovereignty has no doubt been buoyed by the Women’s Movement and Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministry. Even so, Elizabeth has had her own share of personal and professional dilemmas. Being the sovereign—whether a man or a woman—is never easy.

How do you explain the mystique and fascination that continues to surround the royal family?

It would be easy to argue that the royal family’s fortunes have risen on the backs of a few particularly charismatic and fashion-forward figures, especially Princess Diana and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton). But our enduring fascination with, and occasional condemnation of, the royal family—on both sides of the Atlantic—is also tied to the ceremonies and traditions attached to the institution, the pomp and circumstance of monarchy. Queen Victoria, after all, was far from a fashionista. But she was remarkably adept at public ceremonial. The Diamond Jubilee festivities this week showcase the surprising durability of royal pageantry.

Then, too, there is the implicit agreement between the Windsors and their subjects that to be popular, the royal family must be of the people. Queen Victoria worked very hard to project an image of herself as middle-class in her values and concerns, and as someone committed to good works. Her descendants have continued to fulfill this mission to the best of their ability (and with varying degrees of success). This is why Diana is so fondly remembered as the “people’s princess,” and why Elizabeth is involved with more than 600 different charities. It is also why Kate insists on doing her own shopping, walking the dog, etc. The paradox of modern monarchy is that royals are doomed if they seem too elite. I’m reminded here of the “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!” feature that runs at the front of Us Weekly—to be celebrities, the royals have to act as if they are, in fact, just like us, or at least, enough like us that we can relate to them (but not so like us that they appear undeserving of their special status).

What about the public opinion polls showing that support for the monarchy—8 out of 10 Britons—is at an all-time high?

Well, again, we could chalk this support up to profitability. Thanks to a “fairy tale” royal wedding last year, and now the jubilee, the royal family has proven remarkably good for British business (important in a time of economic austerity). But I think the commitment to preserving the monarchy also speaks to the broader appeal of tradition in modern Britain, especially given the loss of empire, demotion on the world’s stage, and devolution at home. There has been a lot of soul-searching in recent years regarding the meaning of “Britishness”—remember Gordon Brown’s failed attempts to establish a “national day” celebrating Britishness? In this context, many Britons crave tradition, and the monarchy is the ultimate symbol of cohesion and continuity.

There’s a lovely scene in Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925), set a few years after World War I, where Clarissa Dalloway pauses on the street to watch Queen Mary’s car pass by. “The car had gone,” Woolf writes, “but it had left a slight ripple which flowed through glove shops and hat shops and tailors’ shops on both sides of Bond Street. For thirty seconds all heads were inclined the same way…strangers looked at each other and thought of the dead; of the flag; of Empire…For the surface agitation of the passing car as it sunk grazed something very profound.” People cling to monarchy, particularly in times of transition and crisis.

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John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

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