The Queen's Secret
I don’t think I’ve ever said anything like this before, but I’m honestly not sure I have the ability to convey how dreadful a book The Queen’s Secret is. I’ll start with some basic math: I can read a good book in a day. It took me thirty-three days to read this one.
In 1939, Queen Elizabeth is consort to King George VI (he of The King’s Speech) and mother to two children, including her daughter, today’s Queen Elizabeth II. Her life is a good one by the standards of monarchs and their subjects – filled with a good spouse, healthy children. Would that she were a more content woman. The Queen is steeped in secrets (why they used the singular of secret in the title is beyond me) – of a personal, mostly sexual (though not sexy) nature – and these concern her with a similar immediacy as the prospect of a world overrun by the Third Reich.
This is textbook historical fiction, and I mean that literally. Harper presumes an ignorance on the part of her reader that is staggering – the dialogue and internal narration are filled with dates and facts and numbers, which sound as though they have been lifted from sidebars and chronological lists in a textbook for teenagers, designed to provide only the knowledge needed to get a passing grade on the world’s easiest World History exam. (What happened in Britain in 1939? A) British teens dumped tea over the side of a ship B) Downton Abbey premiered C) World War II began.)
Queen Elizabeth is a mannered, unintelligent, self-centered heroine. What’s especially baffling is that since the prologue begins when the Queen – now the Queen Mother – is one-hundred-years-old, and the story is told in the past tense, you’d think the narration would have the tone of an aged but worldly woman, who’s gained some sort of self-awareness. Nope. She thinks once how she “wished I could trade places with someone like Bessie or Rowena with their simple, straightforward tasks” – Bessie being her maid, who, in addition to the horror of having to call Elizabeth her ruler and work through a war, lost her sister when that sister, pregnant as a result of a rape, killed herself.
This Queen wouldn’t recognize wit if she met it in the street – which she never does, because all the characters around are just like her: husband, daughters, and, tragically, Winston Churchill.
“We are on the sixth day of the sixth month, the year of our Lord 1944, and I have come to let you know how the invasion has gone thus far, Your Majesties.”
– is one of Churchill’s utterances. The dialogue has some variety, I’ll admit. It’s not all textbook prose. Sometimes the characters speak as if they’re figureheads or propagandists – it’s all ‘Keep calm and carry on’, which gets referenced more than once. From what I know of the real Churchill and his feelings about fools, if the real Queen had sounded like this, Britain would have lost the war, because the Prime Minister would have fled to the far corners of the empire to avoid suffering her presence one day further.
As for the secrets, they are the kind of secrets that would fill a National Enquirer, some not even worthy of more than a footnote in Wikipedia – I checked. Secret illegitimacy, secret surrogacy, secret artificial insemination, secret sexual assault. It’s all here. You’d think that between all this and World War Two that The Queen’s Secret would be bursting with plot. Nope. None of the Queen’s secrets ever affect her life outside her own head.
If my review came too late to prevent you from buying this book – God forbid in hardcover – I apologize. I hope you kept the receipt.