CNN and Fox were fine, but you had to tune in to the British news channels to get the full weight of the Queen’s death on Thursday. Every anchor, every reporter, spoke in a voice burdened by grief. So it was easy to forgive one Sky News commentator when she said, “At a time when it’s all about having a brand, the Queen stood in defiance of that trend.”
In fact, it’s hard to think of anyone who had a more cultivated brand than Elizabeth II. Her every public appearance, every utterance, every twitch was carefully calibrated toward the image of a stately monarch. Yet you can also understand what the Sky commentator meant. For most of us, having a brand means slapping pictures on Instagram of ourselves mid-parasail over a beach in Florida or mid-six-mimosa brunch at an outdoor bistro with only seventy-three of our closest friends. Our teeth sparkle; the sun shines; the mundane stretches are blotted out. It’s a narcissistic thing, a commercial promotion of the self. The message is: this is how I have chosen to spend my time, and isn’t it just glorious?
Elizabeth never had that choice. Her fate was decided for her. Her uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne in 1936 in order to marry an American divorcée. Her father was then coronated King George VI, and when he died after a relatively short reign, the crown passed to his daughter, Elizabeth, at the tender age of twenty-five. Four years earlier, during a radio address from Cape Town, she had seemed to accept the inevitable: “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” And so it was.
What stands out most about that quote, and about the Queen generally, was her absolute submission of the self. There was no exemption for love, as her uncle had made, or cloying need for me time, as Meghan Markle seems to constantly require. Her surrender to her duty was total. Much of her life would be planned down to the minute; the needs of Britain had to come first. It had to feel at times like a porcelain prison, or at least something to be escaped for longer than a pheasant hunt up at Balmoral.
Yet she rarely showed signs of stress. Even during 1992, her annus horribilis, when Windsor Castle burned and her children’s marriages unraveled, she allowed herself little more than a few public tears and a frank address at Guildhall. She understood through it all that the position she inhabited was vastly larger than she was. Its great robes dwarfed her feelings. She was the embodiment of her nation, and that nation needed strength, manners, stoicism, loftiness.
How many of us would embark on a life like this today? We don’t even like to make comparatively smaller sacrifices, one reason (among many) that military recruitment and religious vocations have plunged. What we do want is the parasailing and the brunches — to live our best lives, as the internet loves to put it. The idea of setting our desires and appetites on hold, of submitting to a greater institution so as to make sure it outlasts us, goes against the ethos of the day. Aren’t those institutions just racist patriarchies anyway? They can get in line; we’re long past due for a mental health day.
One can only imagine how the Queen reacted when she first heard that precious neologism. What Elizabeth II understood was that civilization is dependent on sacrifice. I am not a monarchist because I don’t think hereditary privilege is a sufficient mechanism for the conferring of enormous power — the monarchy is only as good as the monarch herself. Yet allow this much: for seven decades, Britain had a very good monarch, a very good monarch indeed. May she find peace in death knowing she really did live her best life.