America’s soap-opera fascination with Queen Elizabeth II

My mother often shared two memories of her experiences as a young woman during World War II: her grandmother, an Irish woman with memories of hunger and fear under British rule, who cheered the Blitz to the horror of her family; and the awe-inspiring sight of the royal family remaining in London even as bombs fell on Buckingham Palace. Like millions of others, my mother thought young Princess Elizabeth, who later volunteered as a military truck driver and auto mechanic, was particularly heroic.

Queen Elizabeth II, who died Thursday at the age of 96, would live at the center of such a complicated and often conflicting mythology for decades to come.

As has been said many times, we look to the royal family for the kind of jeweled, gilded, carriage-and-chauffeur-driven institutional rituals that this country, by choice and definition, does not have.

But Queen Elizabeth II captivated us on an even more fundamental level. For Americans who experienced her with physical and emotional detachment, she was an almost mythological character, the most enduring main character in the world’s longest-running soap opera.

Over the years, this character has been cast in many lights: fairytale princess, colonial despot, self-sacrificing monarch, greedy figurehead, underappreciated professional wife, callous mother-in-law.

Though she’s been queen longer than most of us have been alive, Elizabeth typically entered the modern American conversation through either celebrations — weddings, anniversaries — or scandals. The marriage between Prince Charles and Diana Spencer renewed American interest in the British monarchy – and when that marriage ended in scandal, revealing Diana’s deep dissatisfaction, many blamed and continue to blame the Queen. After Diana’s death, Elizabeth’s silence for days reinforced the belief that she cared little for the people’s princess, that her coldness had actually contributed to Diana’s tragic fate.

Others believed it was the queen who had been mistreated. As screenwriter Peter Morgan discovered in The Queen and more recently in seasons 3 and 4 of The Crown, one of Elizabeth’s greatest talents was her ability to remain both iconic and enigmatic. Each of her actions was open to interpretation because, as monarch, she refused to answer definitively to questions or criticism.

There is perhaps no other person who has lived in the modern public limelight for so long and yet remained essentially a cipher, a well-known figure who is not really well known at all.

That’s one of the reasons The Crown was as successful in the United States as it was in Britain. While royalists and others pressured Netflix to add an absurdly unnecessary disclaimer that the series is a work of fiction, audiences understood that it represented exactly what Elizabeth II was able to do successfully: an almost magical crossroads between reality and appearances to occupy.

Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II "The crown."

Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown.

(Markus Mainz / Netflix)

The 19th-century political writer Walter Bagehot argued that the unwritten British constitution relied on two types of institutions: the efficient and the dignified. The efficient, including the House of Commons, did the work of government, while the dignified upheld the monarchy, the honor of the nation and, to a lesser extent, its narrative.

Elizabeth’s understanding of Bagehot’s definition takes up an entire episode of The Crown, but her engagement with the larger concept drives the entire series. So are the inherent contradictions in their lives that have fascinated Americans for generations. Like her father before her, she was pushed into a job she didn’t want long before she felt ready. She lived in a fancy palace but, like the overworked bureaucrat, was chained to her desk and schedule. She was her nation’s symbolic leader, but unable to voice her opinions on almost anything.

She was the essence of privilege but also of duty; She might have had a splendid collection of hats and several locks at her disposal, but she never seemed to live the high life. By all accounts, she was happiest in Scotland trudging through the mud where she hung out in Balmoral, but also, until recently, driving her own Land Rover. And where she died.

More than anything else, Queen Elizabeth II was an increasingly singular fixture in a frantically changing universe. In recent years, she seemed to exist in a world separate even from the rest of the royal family. When allegations of sexual abuse led to Prince Andrew being stripped of his royal titles when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle left the family they accused of racism, the Queen’s longevity tempered any criticism leveled at her by or through her descendants was.

The royal family may be in tatters and the fate of the monarchy has been in question for years, but Elizabeth II was England’s beloved queen until her death.

Scandal and celebration, birth and death, war and peace, prosperity and decline: for nearly a century she has watched her country and the world weave and change through modernity while standing firmly, for good and ill, in a role , which she believed was instituted by God and was certainly ingrained for centuries.

We knew that day would come, just as we know that even the most epic story must end, that even the most resilient character will finally fall silent, but there’s no avoiding the shock or filling the vacuum. Impossible as it may seem, the queen is dead and we shall never see another like her on this earth.

What happens next will simply be an epilogue. America’s soap-opera fascination with Queen Elizabeth II

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