The Disarming Decoys of Elizabethanism
I was a few feet away from Elizabeth II on her royal visit to Victoria in 1984. She seemed to me a ‘decent sort’, to be English about it, but hardly otherworldly. Her consort, Philip, actually stooped to stop and chat with my young love interest. But even at eighteen, I was disdainful of the idea of the monarchy, an archaism at best, realistically, a rationalization for steep social stratification and at worst, a malingering evil that served as gaudy and expensive signage for a latter day imperialism. But as well at only eighteen, I was blissfully ignorant of the extent and scope of the oppression involved even in the twilight of the Pax Britannica. For me, Elizabeth II was a fellow philatelist and a home-front teen heroine who repaired land rovers and literally got her hands dirty doing so. But such stains as these wash off. There are other kinds of stains, as Lady Macbeth discovered, which are more challenging to cleanse.
Though it is patently correct to acknowledge that Elizabeth II had no direct political power, she did not lack influence. In a sense, her position is rather like that of the pope. No ‘divisions in the field’, as Stalin duly noted of the Vatican, but still possessed of a symbolic authority that rested upon ancient traditions. In a word, a voice, that the vast majority of us could never dream of so having. In another word, it was a voice that, from the post-colonial perspective, from the perspective of bitter and thence embittered experience, betrayed both itself and its authority through its decades of unblemished silence.
Elizabeth II was thrust into her role at a youthful age due to what the war had done to her father. It basically killed him. The feudal model is graced with a kind of superiority complex, if you will, which engenders a paternalism that for all the wrong reasons, fans of shows like ‘Downton Abbey’ seem to flock to. The same model is fraught with delusory notions of ‘divine right’ and ‘sovereignty’ that were dumped by the European Enlightenment and deeply and critically analyzed by contemporary thinkers such as Georges Bataille. That the new wealth of emerging nations is eager to reproduce such relations in a microcosm – there are now five times as many slaves in the world as there were two decades ago, though slavery was itself never a function of feudalism historically – is most disturbing. But given that feudal order, George VI was as loyal to his ‘subjects’ as they were supposed to be to him. Their suffering was his suffering, for he was, if not the ‘State itself’ – as Louis XIV decorously declared of himself and could do so prior to the Revolution – still the body politic. The wounds inflicted upon this shared symbolic corpus slowly bled George VI to death.
And so what to make of this loyalty regarding his eldest daughter? What kind of voice is the voice of a ‘modern monarch’, when the very phrase is itself an oxymoron? Is she merely a representation of the citizenry, serving them without guiding them, adding her gravitas to their collective grief, placing her ebullience in the center of their shared joy? Elizabeth II must have had many moments of doubt. One recent one that escaped the official censors which surrounded her on all sides, occurred at the climate summit in Scotland when, after listening to various politicians including Britain’s then PM, whispered to the new queen consort, ‘I find it irritating when they say and don’t do.’ Truly a ‘me too’ moment for any concerned citizen. And ‘irritating’ is a most diplomatic term to use in such a context. But just here we realize how limited Elizabeth II made her own voice. And aside from criticism, she was not at all without a piquant sense of humor, also something desperately missing in politicians. Two reported examples: outside of Windsor strolling with her single bodyguard, two American tourists asked her if she had ‘ever seen the queen?’. She replied, ‘no, but he has’, referring to her agent. And another time, she was shopping in a little village store and the young woman clerk said to her, ‘you know, you look just like the queen!’. Her dry reply: ‘how reassuring.’
It is precisely these kinds of moments that give me the sense that Elizabeth II was not devoid of the ability to speak, she simply felt that she could not do so. It is our loss, surely, because in voicing the critique which I believe to have been fully present in her consciousness, she would have been authentically following in the footsteps of her predecessor and namesake, a woman it is well known that Elizabeth II admired and studied. Elizabeth I inherited a disastrous political mess from her father, who had declared the Church of England and risked a devastating war of religion across the realm. So she quite literally supplanted the Catholic heroine by reframing herself as the ‘Virgin Queen’. She gave worshippers the very symbolism they desired from any church and thereby avoided further chaos. Whatever may have been her personal sacrifice – presumably even queens have ‘needs’, so it is highly unlikely that Elizabeth I practiced a lifetime of abstinence – she saw it as her duty to save a nation just emerging from the feudal order into the then unknown future politics of parliament and people.
In another word, Elizabeth I was a decoy figure, meant to disarm mass desire and turn it into collective adoration. I think Elizabeth II saw herself in that same light, and this is why she made the personal sacrifice of silence on all things that truly mattered over a period of seven tumultuous and hitherto unforeseen decades. The modern version of the Virgin, in both politics and religion alike, is the woman who does not speak and only appears. She does not visit but performs visitations. She does not meddle but only presents herself at the most apt moment, akin to the 1950s housewife and the indentured servant of today. To say that she was a prisoner is to only name the effect. Like her namesake, she imprisoned herself, and while we are astonished and perhaps a little dismissive of Elizabeth I’s idea of a revolutionary figurehead, we are also mournful that her distant successor was not yet more revolutionary, did not make her own revolution in what a monarch could have been. Instead, we had a duplicate of the first Elizabeth and in our modernity, it simply didn’t work. When I grieve for her passing, it will be this that I will be thinking of, and nothing else besides.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.