Princess Diana and Prince Charles: Separate Lives

Diana is ready to declare independence, putting in doubt the future of the troubled House of Windsor

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The reason why even the most enthusiastic republicans do not see the end of the crown is the Queen herself. The most common comment about her is that < "she has not put a foot wrong" in four decades. When she succeeded her father in 1952, she found that he had left the institution in very strong condition, largely because of the family's performance in World War II. Elizabeth's parents stayed in London while the bombs dropped. As her mother famously declared when asked whether she or her children would flee the country, "The children will not leave unless I do. I shall not leave unless their father does, and the King will not leave the country in any circumstances whatever." After the bombing sorties the King and Queen were out in the fields of rubble, consoling and encouraging the wounded and the homeless. The monarchy still draws on those reserves of love and loyalty. When the Queen Mother dies, the nation will come together as it may not for any occasion thereafter.

The Queen inherited little of her mother's charm or her publicity smarts (to this day when the old lady travels in the ceremonial horse-drawn coach, tiny, hidden bulbs highlight her face). The present Queen's props have become national jokes -- the pack of corgis, the kerchief, the ever present purse with nothing in it, least of all cash. Like her father, she is shy. A recent TV show detailing her routines, Elizabeth R, has a painful vignette of the Queen visiting an old people's home. She asks one elderly soul, who is obviously not dressed for the street, whether she lives there. Then, does she have a room of her own? When the woman says yes, the mistress of a thousand rooms replies, "That must be rather nice."

One might in the current climate question whether a nation needs to underwrite a performance like that. Sue Townsend, author of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, has just published a novel called The Queen and I, which imagines that the royal family has been consigned to a public housing development by a stern republican government that has overthrown the monarchy. The book is both funny and impudent, but it contains a portrait of Elizabeth that is admiring in spite of itself. Townsend plays up Her Majesty's awkwardness, but of all her clan she adjusts best to her alien circumstances, simply by applying common sense and pluck.

Homely values, so simple and yet, it seems, so elusive, are apparently the secret of her exemplary reign. In Elizabeth R, the Queen becomes eloquent when reflecting on her own outlook. She recalls the moment when she gave a young soldier an award for gallantry: "I said, 'That was a very brave thing to do.' He said, 'Och, it was just the training.' I have a feeling that, in the end, probably that is the answer to a great many things."

And in the end, that may be the answer to what went wrong. The training that Her Majesty received from her parents did not prove easy to pass along to the next generation. She and Prince Philip, both austere and chilly as parents, were able to instill a concept of duty in their children, but not the warmth that still radiates from their grandmother.

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