Review | New books delve into Queen Elizabeth’s 70-year evolution

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The Platinum Jubilee celebrations might be over, but royal fascination is forever. Fans of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II have new options for learning about her seven-decade reign. One fast, fun read tackles the most visible element of the monarch’s role — her fashion. The other book dives deep into the history of the House of Windsor.

“The Queen: 70 Years of Majestic Style,” by Bethan Holt

This book’s charm extends well beyond its pictures, though it has an impressive collection of the rarest of shots: the queen in pants. It is impossible to cover all of the queen’s looks, so Holt, fashion news and features director at Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, categorizes the monarch’s vast wardrobe into different phases of her job (on tour, off-duty), accessories (yes, there is a chapter just on jewels), milestone moments, colors, designers and more. The book discusses influential figures such as her majesty’s longtime dresser, Margaret “Bobo” MacDonald; Norman Hartnell, who designed her wedding and coronation gowns; and the keeper of the queen’s clothes today, Angela Kelly (nicknamed AK-47 for her “steely attitude”). (Kelly, with permission rarely accorded a royal staffer, has published two books on the queen’s fashion; “The Other Side of the Coin” was updated last month to include the covid era.)

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Holt’s assessments are shrewd: She notes that the queen, known for being steadfast in her public role, has not changed her private style — plaid skirt, sweater, sensible shoes — since childhood. Holt charts how the queen became a muse for designers and an icon as she has aged, even trending for a bright green suit she wore at her 2016 birthday parade (#Neonat90). Fans of both fashion and the royals can find much to like in this slim volume.

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“Queen of Our Times,” by Robert Hardman

The journalist and biographer tells an admiring story of the life of Queen Elizabeth II amid political and social issues throughout her record-long reign. At 624 pages, it is not a quick read. But it covers an impressive amount of history without getting bogged down — taking readers from the end of Elizabeth’s grandfather’s reign to the 1936 abdication of her uncle and through Elizabeth’s 70 years on the throne, including the abrupt exit from royal life by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the death of the queen’s 99-year-old husband, Prince Philip, in 2021, and the run-up to the Platinum Jubilee.

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Hardman argues that Elizabeth’s commitment to her role is driven by more than a sense of duty: “she jolly well likes being Queen and always has.” He addresses family conflicts (not just Prince Andrew), Commonwealth concerns and, lately, quiet steps of “transition” as mobility issues curtail the queen’s public appearances. (For now, Hardman writes, there is no plan to turn over the throne to Prince Charles; rather, courtiers aim to “optimize” both the 96-year-old queen and her heir as she hands off specific duties.)

He recounts some events as they happened in real time — such as the unexpected death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 — but also folds in later reflections from key figures, such as former British prime ministers David Cameron, Tony Blair and John Major, and foreign officials including George W. Bush, who recalls meeting the queen while his father, George H.W. Bush, was in office and later hosting her as president himself.

Over and over, the text debunks inaccurate depictions in the Netflix series “The Crown,” including pushing back against the show’s portrayal of the queen’s reluctance to visit Aberfan, the Welsh town where a 1966 mining disaster engulfed a local school, killing nearly 150 people, mostly children. (”Her view was that it doesn’t help anyone to have the Queen bursting into tears,” Hardman quotes one former private secretary as saying, and palace staff maintain the monarch did not want to compromise rescue efforts.) While readers may at times wish Hardman’s own views were presented more directly, he ultimately makes a clear argument that the United Kingdom — however loosely united it is these days — is unlikely to do away with the monarchy, even if the end of the Elizabethan era portends significant changes.

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Hardman’s extensive research included some access to royal archives, and he quotes from the war diaries of the queen’s father. The book is littered with original interviews, including quotes from Prince Philip and Prince Charles. “Queen of Our Times” does not have the same dishy tone and pace of Tina Brown’s “The Palace Papers”; readers may find themselves wanting less from American experts on “soft power” and more about the queen’s flexing of royal muscle (”Get that dog out of my house,” she reportedly ordered after learning that the wife of a visiting African president had snuck her pet pooch into Buckingham Palace, flouting UK customs rules). Still, this authoritative work is likely to inform both longtime fans and new followers about the role of royal diplomacy and Queen Elizabeth’s evolution from young monarch to seasoned sovereign.

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