[The following is from the end of a long article entitled, “The very private woman behind a public symbol.” It appeared in The Toronto Star in 2002.]
There seems little doubt that the disciplined dedication Elizabeth brought to the job deprived her children of the maternal warmth they should have had, Charles in particular.
A former courtier told Bradford that he wouldn’t soon forget being in the room once when the young prince came in to say good night while the Queen was working on her boxes [of official documents]. On his way out, she said absent-mindedly, “Good night, darling.” Charles stopped in his tracks, turned and said in a surprised voice, “You called me darling.”
Charles would later hint strongly to his biographer that his father’s impatience and his mother’s emotional remoteness were in large part to blame for his adult insecurities, even for the failure of his marriage.
His mother, it transpires, had always been detached, offering little guidance or support, let alone practical advice on the vicissitudes of life.
With what Bradford described as a habitual capacity for “considered inaction,” Elizabeth stayed clear of the Wales’ marital mess and demanded they divorce only when her senior aides insisted it had to happen or the whole royal institution would be irrevocably damaged.
The mother-son relationship is inevitably coloured by a central fact of both their lives. The price of getting what Charles desperately wants—to be king—is his mother’s death. (Having his long-time mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, welcomed into the royal scheme of things likely will require the same. The Queen’s only known comment on the long-suffering Camilla has been disdainful: “She does look rather used.”)
Three of the Queen’s four children divorced in the ‘90s and the marriage of her youngest son, Edward, has been subject to innuendo since it took place. Elizabeth, apparently, was mystified by the litany of conjugal catastrophes and took briefly to asking close associates: “Where did we go wrong?” It was a rhetorical question. No one was likely to tell her the truth, but under cover of anonymity they’ve certainly told her biographers.
According to a blunt former private secretary: “If the Queen had taken half as much trouble about the rearing of her children as she has about the breeding of her horses, the royal family wouldn’t be in such a mess.”
Indeed, it is said that Elizabeth is truly comfortable only with her dogs and racehorses because, unlike the two-legged population, they behave naturally around her.
Uninterested in music, art or literature—unable to talk about what’s really going on politically, unwilling to discuss the latest brouhaha in the family—her social conversation tends to be limited to the vagaries of animals.
She doesn’t make it easy, even for high-born, long-time acquaintances, as one of the Queen Mother’s ladies-in-waiting recently told Turner: “I think she is genuinely shy (but) it really is hard work to sustain a conversation with her if you have no views about vets and flea collars.”
Elizabeth is fully at ease only with Philip, now 80, her husband of 54 years. Her defining relationship has always been with him—not with her mother, her sister or her children, but him.
They are temperamentally different but understand each other on a deep level, sharing the same views and values. She is said to be remarkably tolerant of his outbursts of temper. According to Bradford, Philip “shouts at her like he shouts at other people, but she doesn’t seem to mind.”
If he strayed occasionally in the past—was rather “more loyal than faithful”—the marriage has survived and, to all appearances, thrived.
Even today, notes Bradford, when Philip pays Elizabeth a compliment, her face “lights up like a child, like she’s been given the world.”
Perhaps only she understands how constrained a mercurial man like him has felt walking for five decades in her shadow.
He, in turn, is protective of her.
He knows how she can laugh till the tears roll down her face, how she can be screamingly funny, mimicking the odd assortment of characters she has to deal with or the tourists poking their faces through the palace gates, hoping for a peek at the world within.
He understand that she never has, and never will, regard the crown as the prize in a popularity contest.
Only Philip really knows the true Elizabeth, the private woman behind the public symbol. And he isn’t talking.
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