They keep talking about duty. Everyone eulogizing the dead Queen mentions it. The bedrock. The steady presence. The anchor. They might not mean it, but left unsaid behind every discussion of her unwavering faithfulness to her husband of 73 years and the dutiful practice of the religion she led is a thudding “…CHARLES.”

This is what happens when a nation chooses its leaders by DNA. Sometimes it’s a splendid gal who lasts a good three-quarters of a century with little fuss. Sometimes it’s Charles

I care about any of this because it’s possible to find a form of government appalling while still admiring its leader. Besides, English majors, when educated properly, study the history of the language, which rapidly becomes a history of its people. We get attached. So I have found myself watching more coverage concerning the death of Queen Elizabeth II than an actual British person. Since 90% of this consists drone shots of a coffin on the road, it runs in the background of my work day, accompanying the clicks on the keyboard. I look up when there are trumpets, bagpipes, or horses.

The world has lost a remarkably low-maintenance queen, if there is such a thing. The more I contemplate the unusually high ratio of drama hurricane to useful people in her life, the more impressed I am with Elizabeth II’s performance. We took her for granted as Grandma of the World, but the odds were against Elizabeth II as she became a leader in a world that had just broken apart the last of the major monarchies.

She became Queen in an era when her status was remarkable if only, as a woman in the 1950’s, because she had a rare extra career path to consider. But her last official act was to greet her new Prime Minister, and as the graduate of two women’s schools, I would be remiss if I did not notice that the three major players in this event– the ruler, the PM, and even the photographer– all bore ovaries.

As Elizabeth II contemplated the inferiority lined up behind her, I believe the woman simply refused to die, bailing only when the grandchildren started squabbling too. The calm, dignified lady who withstood World War II and a series of subway bombings peaced out and left the mess to the Prince of Tampon when became apparent her great-grandchildren would grow up in Los Angeles, sponsored by Netflix.

Her willingness to modernize when it mattered is thrown into increasing contrast as the medieval flourishes that accompanies a change in rulers unfurls. Some of these events are broadcast for the first time in human history, and so we are confronted with the sight of smartphones capturing displays of stiff livery, bedecked trumpets, and long white wigs. Even in mourning, Great Britain has fashioned itself a fairy tale.

As if in sympathy, other aspects of the events surrounding Elizabeth II’s last moments were stubbornly throwback: The Prime Minister learned of the Queen’s final illness via passed note, and an official paper announcement was posted outside Buckingham Palace even though the first tweets had long since circulated.

But there’s no escaping 2022, and, as the people of London awaited the arrival of the Queen’s casket, they held up smartphones, creating among themselves the modern form of the candlelight vigil. Yet this, too, was apropos for “One-Take Lizzie,” so called because she was so professional in front of mics and lenses that she often recorded speeches and the like in a single attempt (while I’ve never seen a better Olympics Opening Ceremony stunt, her finest acting performance was the tougher assignment– against a CGI bear rather than literal Daniel Craig.) Then it was on to the next obligation.

…CHARLES.

Her whole life was an obligation. It was an unstinting, 70-year rebuke. It was one in which she never had to worry about housing or food or health insurance, true, but imagine a daily existence of wall-to-wall smiling, handshaking, polite chatter, and at least pretending to be listening. It’s not onerous to wave once from a balcony, but to do so year after year after year is a job like any other, all during long days of unending politeness, putting others at ease, and decided maintenance of dignity before a million and done cameras (and, now, pocket cameras) eager to capture the slightest misstep. Her royal nightmare of an uncle called it “princing” and hated it so much that he quit.

It seems to me that our British brethren are embracing an opportunity to unleash a bit of national feeling– the way we used to, with armbands signalling one’s mental state rather than emojis in social media bios. “This is a very British way of doing things,” a BBC commentator said approvingly, watching the RAF slowly carry her coffin down the ramp of a C-17 in the pouring rain.

This is something we’ve lost, rather; as squirmy as a colonial monarchy is in 2022, I am jealous of the UK’s ability to express a shared identity even across national borders. And even on the rare occasion when we had the opportunity to introduce our full American selves to by the Grace of God Queen of the Realm and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, and Defender of the Faith, this is where we took her:

This took place in 1991, when the Queen and Prince Philip hit the bleachers with Barbara Bush and the first President Bush–all of them gone now–and the Queen of England had the very great honor of meeting Frank Robinson. And, notably, Cal Ripkin Jr.

I mention the Iron Man here because these two icons likely understood one another. They were grand grinders. Elizabeth II was in this mess only because her uncle was an aforementioned world-class drama hurricane, resigning the kingship because he didn’t like Parliament’s compromise offers regarding his ill-advised marriage. Also, as it turns out, being king is hard.

So he fled. Elizabeth’s father was stuck with the tough part of being a member of the Royal family–the actual work, and during World War II at that–while his elder brother enjoyed the fruits without the tilling, because…. what do you do with a former royal? (Now we know–a Netflix deal–but that wasn’t so much an option in 1936.)

Her father’s early death, likely hastened by the immense stress of the war and the sudden acquisition of a title he did not want, was a major factor in her long reign, which required not a couple weeks of queening, but every day, all day, until she died. The press referred to her home in Scotland, Balmoral, as her “summer retreat,” but those massive red boxes stuffed with daily homework kept coming, as they had every single day of her life since 1952, even as she sat in shock at being the Queen, even as she lay in childbirth, even the day after her husband died. After all, she knew who was really in charge.

Just so, Cal Ripken went again and again to the batter’s box, but then, he at least got to sleep in once or twice in January. His greatness came not from any particular skill–although he won two Gold Gloves and was the 1982 Rookie of the Year–but from his simple decision, day after day, to show up. He showed up and showed up and showed up and, in a world in which plans are cancelled with a few button taps, that stands as a more spectacular feat than any home run record.

Watching in bemusement from an ocean away, it’s easy to view the doings of the Royal Family as an extended reality show or unending sports event. Indeed, as the Queen’s coffin passed the crowds lining the rainy streets, many broke into applause or cheering. She had finished the race.

Indeed, I think she would have been more excited over the cheers half a world away, at Pimlico. A horse she’d bred, West Newton. came home in front. This would have resulted in a great burst of pride for this keen horsewoman, who likely would have been a manure-shoveling breeder in another life, and maybe even happier for it.

West Newton’s mama, also bred by the late royal, is named Queen’s Prize. He came from behind. The odds were against him. He paid out. He won because he kept at it.

4 Responses

  1. Rednat

    i just thank god every day George Washington had the guts to cross the Delaware River on that faithful night so we don’t have to worry about this monarchy non sense!

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Our Presidents certainly dress more reasonably, I’ll say that. Then again an Englishman would point out that we weren’t even in existence when these medieval traditions started up…

  2. Mark Moore

    My wife and I have been wondering if the British monarchy can survive the next 20 years or so until King Chuck 3 can pass things over to a new generation (one that might be able to adapt enough to make it work). Frankly, I’m thinking it won’t.

    In response to Her Majesty’s passing, I’ll simply echo what a small, polite bear in a blue coat and red hat tweeted …

    “Thank you, Ma’am, for everything.”

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I really can’t emphasize how impressed I was with her acting in the Paddington skit. Most people freeze up and are very awkward and fakey when playing themselves. Not One-Take Lizzy! Especially the way she said “Never mind,” you can see the young lady who just wanted order from the world.