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The best books about Queen Elizabeth II’s life: From a young princess to her Diamond Jubilee

She reigned for seven decades, but few of us knew the real Lilibet

Victoria Howard
Friday 16 September 2022 18:22 BST
She famously never gave interviews, so we only knew her through her speeches
She famously never gave interviews, so we only knew her through her speeches (The Independent)

For many of us, we felt as if we knew the Queen. A constant in our lives, on the money we use and on our TV screens each Christmas, it is easy to understand how people have been moved by her death on 8 September. She was a well-respected and popular figure, and a cohesive force for the nation, as testified to by the success of the platinum jubilee celebrations, and the comfort taken from her Vera Lynn quote at the height of the pandemic: “We will meet again”, that’s now become so poignant in so many ways.

“Inevitably a long life can pass by many milestones,” the Queen said as she, in her usual quiet fashion, became Britain’s longest-serving monarch in 2015. “My own is no exception.” And didn’t she see some milestones? Witnessing humankind land on the moon, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Brexit vote, her reign began with Christmas broadcasts shared on the radio, but her final few were available on smart speakers. Her reign shaped, documented and helped measure the world as we know it.

Elizabeth II was not just a bystander to historic events, she and her own family were at the heart of numerous memorable occasions: including the positive, such as her numerous jubilees, and the weddings of her grandchildren, from William to Beatrice. However, during this time the family – and the rest of the country – also saw the death of Diana in 1997, and the Susssexes deciding to step down as senior royals and move to the US. While 2019 saw Prince Andrew’s car-crash Newsnight interview, and sexual abuse allegations.

But did we truly know the real Lilibet? Famously, she never gave a true interview, and her inner circle was impenetrable. Discretion has always been, and remains, the watchword of the royal household. The closest we have got were her annual Christmas speeches, which she penned herself. Yet we have witnessed her sense of humour, exemplified by the James Bond sketch at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. And we have been allowed to uncover some aspects of her true character, as the press clamoured to quote those who met and spent time with her, or former staff, who dared to write their own books, but this is just a small part of the real woman who wore the crown.

The next best things, then, are books, written by those who knew her, worked with her, or have a flare for research and storytelling. These books are recommended to offer a better glimpse into the Queen’s personal life – behind the baize doors of the palaces and the bright coats that made up her working ‘uniform’ – as well as offering a deeper understanding of her work as monarch, a role she performed for 70 years.

‘The Other Side of the Coin’ by Angela Kelly, published by HarperCollins

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Penned by The Queen’s dresser and confidante, The Other Side of the Coin is a must-read to find out about the Queen from someone who knew her in a distinctly intimate way. While there is a large biographical element to the book, detailing Angela Kelly’s journey from Liverpool to the palace and her 25-year royal career, she shares her insights into how the royal wardrobe works and offers us a real look at the off-duty Queen: a funny, caring and simple woman.

Dubbed “the Queen’s Gatekeeper” thanks to her forthright manner and protective nature of the monarch, Kelly shares not only personal photos, but anecdotes that touch at the heart of the Queen’s personality. Such was their bond, the Queen not only authorised a three-book deal for her dresser, she ensured Kelly would retain her grace-and-favour apartment in Windsor, following Charles’ accession, which is a noticeable departure from convention.

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‘Queen of the World’ by Robert Hardman, published by Random House

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This account is well-researched by veteran royal writer Robert Hardman, who focuses on the quiet diplomatic career of the Queen and her international influence. What makes this so compelling is that we don’t often see or understand the sway the Queen had – a passing comment here, a well-timed invite there, and the impact such seemingly innocent actions could have.

But Hardman shows us the successes Elizabeth II achieved, in particular with the Commonwealth, which he suggests has only endured due to the Queen’s popularity. This book is a real eye-opener to the influence the soft power of the monarchy can wield and how Elizabeth II was accomplished in knowing how and when to dispense it. You’re left with a feeling that King Charles III really does have big shoes to fill.

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‘The Queen’ by Matthew Dennison, published by Head of Zeus

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Dennison’s biography is worth the effort of the sometimes-stilted language to get closer to the real Elizabeth. He deftly weaves together a wealth of sources, painting the late monarch as a dedicated and humble public servant, with a pragmatic approach to her work. She used the soft power she had skilfully, and never assumed the people’s affection or loyalty.

The author is willing to probe into family issues – such as the failure of three out of four children’s marriages – and, with this being a newer work, is able to hint at the connection between the decline in influence the Queen had over her family since 2017, following the retirement of Prince Philip and the departure of her private secretary Sir Christopher Geidt, with the likes of the Duke of York’s car-crash interview, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s abrupt departure.

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‘The Little Princesses’ by Marion Crawford, published by Orion Publishing Co

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Published in 1950, Marion Crawford, also known as Crawfie, was governess to Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. This sympathetic, and almost sycophantic, assessment of their childhoods, through the eyes of someone who helped shape them, offers insightful tales of Elizabeth’s personality – generally an obedient, tidy, and well-behaved child, traits that have served her well.

Crawford saw Lilibet grow into a teenager who took on the royal duties given to her with “immense seriousness and zeal”, but Crawford was ostracised for putting pen to paper, and later attempted suicide. A must for those with an interest in the Queen and how she came to be the person she was.

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‘The Queen: Elizabeth II and the Monarchy’ by Ben Pimlott, published by HarperPress

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Ben Pimlott’s book is a hefty but absorbing one, covering the decades of the Queen’s reign until 2002, with a sharp focus on the political side of royal life.

Updated for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, Pimlott assesses how the Queen was the link in the Commonwealth, arguably her greatest legacy, and highlights parts of the role we sometimes forget, such as the weight that comes with such responsibility and the sheer boredom that must accompany handshakes and small talk week in, week out. For those more interested in the official side of royal life, rather than the gossip and family drama, this should be on your bookshelf.

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‘At Home with The Queen: Life Through the Keyhole of the Royal Household’ by Brian Hoey, published by HarperCollins

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Little has changed in the royal world since Brian Hoey unpicked the intricacies of royal life and workings of the palace in the early millennium. Though not specifically about the Queen herself, gaining knowledge of the world she operated in helps to better understand the person she was.

We learn titbits such as the Queen had longer bedsheets than Prince Philip, as she preferred a “deeper turnback” to her bed (they had separate rooms to ease the burden of busy diaries), and that she looked forward to hearing the piper who woke her up each morning. The book enables us to see the quirks of royal personalities – the Queen’s devotion to her corgis, and Princess Anne’s forthright nature – as well as how the household functions with hundreds of members of staff and numerous departments, so alien to many of us.

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The verdict: Books about Queen Elizabeth II

Every couple of years, biographers and historians try to approach the Queen’s life with a fresh viewpoint, so it’s a very crowded topic area. No doubt, following last week’s sad news, there are more in the pipeline, which can now span her life in its entirety.

Highly recommended titles go to The Little Princesses, as an intimate portrait of an aristocratic girl who knew not her future as Britain’s stalwart head of state, and to Robert Hardman’s assessment of the soft power Elizabeth II wielded, which we often think is very limited. Our favourite book of this selection, however, is Angela Kelly’s The Other Side of the Coin, thanks to her 25 years of personal access to the monarch and the details she gives about how the private side of royal life works. With biographical elements bringing Kelly – a rather unknown figure – herself to life, it makes for entertaining and now slightly sombre reading of the Queen’s life and schedule, from someone who would sit and watch TV with perhaps the world’s most famous woman.

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