Literary Reflections on QEII’s Coronation

Today concludes the Diamond Jubilee festivities of Britain’s Elizabeth II, which has commentators looking back at the queen’s coronation sixty years ago. My colleague Ruth Feingold, something of a coronation specialist, notes that A. S. Byatt’s novel The Virgin in the Garden explores the symbolism of the event.

Byatt’s novel is set in 1952, and Ruth uses it to point out that the coronation occurred at a time when England was just beginning to dig out of the devastation wrought by World War II. Many found comforting the fact that Elizabeth shared a name with England’s greatest monarch, whose victory over the Spanish Armada can be seen as the beginning of Great Britain’s rise to global greatness. Here’s Byatt pointing to the images of renewal that the coronation of the 26-year-old Elizabeth II conjured up:

In this springtime above all the primeval imagery should have for us its richest meaning; for the Coronation is the nation’s feast of mystical renewal. We have passed through a grey and melancholy winter, dark with natural disaster, darkened also in the symbolical-personal orbit wherein our society revolves by the recent loss of a beloved Queen. But the spring comes with its annual message that all disasters and losses can be transcended by the unconquerable power of new life. As a nation, as a Commonwealth, we take as our supremely representative person our young Queen, and in her inauguration dedicating the future by the ancient forms, we declare our faith that life itself rises out of the shadow of death, that victory is wrested out of the appearances of failure, that the transfiguration of which our nature is capable is not a denial of our temporal evanescence but the revelation of its deepest meaning.

Then Byatt quotes from The Faerie Queene (written to Elizabeth I) with a passage that speaks to ritual’s victory over change:

Then over them Change doth not rule and reign;
But they reign over Change, and do their States Maintain.

Different characters in Byatt’s book have different responses to the coronation. Here’s a sampling:

The Ellenbys were delighted and reassured as though the whole world wore, briefly and significantly, a Sunday aspect. Felicity Wells was in a state of cultural ecstasy, seeing the vaults of the Abbey, imitating the inhuman perspectives of the reaches of Heaven, and the Queen’s little white human face over her emblematically embroidered robes, as a promise of renovation. [T. S.] Eliot had said, and she remembered, that the “English unbeliever conformed to the practices of Christianity on the occasions of birth, death, and the first venture in matrimony . . .” Now a whole Nation was conforming to an ancient national Christian rite. It was a true Renaissance.

There’s even a character, a psychologist, who interprets the coronation as society’s way of handling its anxieties about powerful women:

Ah, said Wilkie, the Crown was O.K. because it was hereditary and at the top of a chain of symbolic parentage, as the first Elizabeth had cleverly known. The Commons were the parents of the people, and the Lords of the Commons, and the Monarch of the Lords. If the Monarch could manage to believe in God then the chain extended conveniently to infinity and was quite safe and stable. Thus, said Wilkie . . . the myths of the Dying God and the Eternal Monarch are still at work in our own culture at this juncture. The Queen protects us from the fear of Woman because she is a good, distant, unthreatening parent, and so we have our democratic monarchy.

Ruth’s own research into what was written about Elizabeth at the time of the coronation affirms Byatt’s observations about the event’s significance. Apparently Elizabeth was held up as a model for young mothers as a way to keep the home fires burning. Here’s a passage from one of Ruth’s articles:

In all the publicity that surrounded Elizabeth, this conjunction of symbolic power and domestic family virtue was stressed by everyone. In newspaper and magazine articles, souvenir books, and speeches, commentators repeatedly remarked on her youth and femininity, the way she married the tremendously historic significance of the British Crown with the commonplace responsibilities of marriage and family.

Women were encouraged to identify with their queen as a daughter, wife, and mother, just like themselves. As one book stated, “Elizabeth the Homemaker [is] a Queen…who has given a lead to women everywhere; who knows that in a world of changing values, some things remain constant; and the greatest of these, is the home.” Values might be changing, but it was up to the Queen, and to women everywhere, to preserve the social structures needed to keep the world from chaos: the family home, with mother at the heart, and the former empire (now commonwealth), with the Queen and Britain at its heart.

As Elizabeth floated down the River Thames this past weekend, another literary passage came to my mind: the scene where a much younger Belinda (the rival of the sun’s beams) does the same in Pope’s Rape of the Lock:

NOT with more glories in the ethereal plain,
The sun first rises o’er the purpled main,
Than, issuing forth, the rival of his beams
Launch’d on the bosom of the silver ‘d Thames. 
Fair nymphs and well-dress’d youths around her shone, 
But every eye was fix’d on her alone.

Belinda’s barge, it so happens, is headed for the royal palace at Hampton Court, which at the time of the poem was presided over by Queen Anne:

Close by those Meads for ever crown’d with Flow’rs,

Where Thames with Pride surveys his rising Tow’rs,

There stands a Structure of Majestic Fame,

Which from the neighb’ring Hampton takes its Name.

Her Britain’s Statesmen oft the Fall foredoom

Of foreign Tyrants, and of Nymphs at home;

Here Thou, great Anna! whom three Realms obey,

Dost sometimes Counsel take-and sometimes Tea.

Pope brilliantly juxtaposes the momentous with the trivial. He wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that, according to one poll, 92% of viewers found BBC coverage of the Diamond Jubilee “lamentable” and “mind-numbingly tedious.” But Queen Elizabeth looked classy as always so we should let her have her day. Happy Anniversary, your majesty.

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  • Farida

    Hi Robin,
    Not to take away from QEII celebrations and anyone who enjoys it, but I for one simply don’t understand the idea of a monarchy in western democracy. I also am confused by Americans’ enamor with the British royal family. I find the continued political and social acceptance of the European monarchies bewildering. I say this even though we have royal families in my culture and so my questioning of these institutions is complicated and indeed I do understand their social and political function (as is in the excerpt you share in the voice of the Wilkie character and the gender issues Ruth Feingold draws out); and I understand the social and political function of monarchies more particularly in my own national context. I just question the necessity of these institutions in the western democratic context and why their existence is rarely challenged by the citizens of these democracies. They must serve a purpose other than the ones propagated by the mass media.

    What does it say about an ostensibly democratic society when you pay homage (in every sense) to a group of people and raise them up above everyone else simply by virtue of their birth and not any one single accomplishment (I don’t count shaking hands and attending social events 265 days out of the year a singular or considerable accomplishment). What is the real purpose of monarchies in these societies? What are they holding onto in maintaining these institutions? The marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge was interesting in that it provided me with an opportunity to see how celebrity is constructed, how you can simply create a person to serve the continued entrenchment of a particular institution within society.

    In anticipation of her future role as queen, a normal girl (whose own particular achievement was marrying a rich powerful revered young man) was constructed as a bastion of virtue, beauty, generosity, hard work(!!) and further deserving of our (not just Britain but the world’s) love and adoration. This very obvious and incisive construction happened right before our very eyes and it was neither questioned nor challenged. I don’t begrudge them their wealth (so long as it is not from the public coffers) holidays or histories; what I don’t understand is the insistence on their existence as necessary components of the public and political framework of democratic nations. Kate Middleton’s own symbolic coronation was an insight into how these institutions (and the idealized characters within them) are created and further sustained. The question that I have yet to satisfactorily answer is to what end and for what purpose are these institutions maintained?

    So while I hope the Queen enjoys the celebrations and that her husband recovers fully, this daughter of the Commonwealth will not be waving a flag.

  • Robin Bates

    There’s not one thing that you say here that I disagree with, Farida. (And by the way, I didn’t realize that Uganda still has royal families.) I know that somewhere along the line, Britain’s Labor party finally stopped complaining about the monarchy and just figured that, since the Windsors aren’t involved at all in politics, they might as well just go along and hope for some economic pay-offs when there are weddings and the like. American fascination with the British monarchy is sociologically very interesting since, like you, we had a revolution breaking away from it all. Maybe Byatt is on to something when she points to the power of tradition and ritual–when everything else is in turmoil, it’s nice to have ceremonies which signal a sense of continuity and ceremony. But I can’t argue that it all seems very silly and I’d add that that Windsors (formerly the Hanovers) started off stupid with George I in 1714 and haven’t gotten any brighter over the centuries.

  • Barbara

    Farida, Like Robin, I agree completely with your comments. I think one factor in the U.S. fascination is that it just seems so exotic to us. Weird hats, fascinators, corgis. When I was a child in the early 1960’s I found a box of my mother’s books in my grandmother’s attic. One was a biography(!) of the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose from about 1938 (as I recall from that long ago reading, her grandfather was still king and it ended when she was about 10). Kind of like high class Shirley Temples without the singing and dancing. Hard cover with photographs. It was probably a gift from a paternal aunt because the Irish side of the family were definitely not fans of the monarchy.

  • farida

    Robin, yes we still have monarchies in most of the major tribes in Uganda. Their continued importance is related to identity and mainlining the culture of each tribe since many African countries are still very much organized around tribal identity, but one of the main underlying factors is the ownership of land . Don’t want to get into it over the internet but suffice it to say some tribes have far larger areas than others and some have more prime areas than other and if you factor in the recent discovery of oil in Uganda..well…
    Oh and you should read about the antics of the current King of Swaziland!!

    Barbara, one of my favorite things is to discover old books and letters and so I smiled when I read what you said. One of the best things I discovered was a poem my late uncle wrote for my mother when she was possibly about to get married. It made me think of my mother anew as a young woman venturing out into unknown territory unsure how it would all work out…

  • Ruth

    The 1953 Coronation actually is featured in a number of novels (and memoirs as well), and there’s been a decent amount of scholarship (not surprisingly) on the significance of the event, of royal ceremonials, and of royalty in general. If you’re really interested in learning more, I’d recommend Shils, Nairn, Wendy Webster, Cannadine, and Hobsbawm for a quick introduction to the topic from a variety of disciplinary and political perspectives.

    American anglophilia is (I think) a totally different story, and is really more closely wedded to our cultural fascination with celebrities of all types. Hence the much greater interest in the young and beautiful (Kate, Diana) or the entertainingly scandalous (fill in the blank) than with the monarch herself (at the present day: she got much the same treatment as Diana back in the 1940s and 50s).

  • Robin Bates

    Thanks, Ruth. John Cassidy of the New Yorker had an interesting blog post on his ambivalence and that of British leftists in general. In it he quotes his Irish grandmother:

    I feel obliged to recall [that] the Queen herself was popular with ordinary people up and down the country. “Feck them all, the English government and the Royal Family—they raped and desolated us,” my Irish grandmother, a woman of stoutly Fenian views, would say whenever she saw the Queen appear on the television. “But, oh she’s nice. Let me see her.”


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