Emma Tennant, The Autobiography of the Queen: A Novel.
Arcadia Books, Ltd, 2007. 978-1-905147-88-5.
Another annus horribilis looms: membership in the European Union continues to chip away at the role of the monarchy; new Scottish laws will open Balmoral to the public; and another royal scandal is making headlines. Seeing “a world in which she no longer believed she had a role to play,” the Queen packs her bag and, armed with a forged passport in the name of “Mrs. Gloria Smith” and the Cambridge emeralds in her purse, flies Upper Class Virgin Airlines to the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.
Although traveling alone results in some agreeable surprises—her suitcase, for example, has wheels and can be pushed like a pram—the Queen’s lack of experience in independent living has serious consequences. Before the day is out, she has lost suitcase, emeralds, and passport; been denied entrance to the Rainforest Bar; and spent the night on a cot in the back room of The Rum Shop, a modest establishment belonging to Austin Ford, her hapless but kind “escort,” who calls her “Auntie” and suspects she has escaped from an institution. She has also discovered that her new house at No. 5 Bananaquit Drive, which should be ready for occupancy, is just a hole in the ground.
In the face of calamity, what is a monarch to do?
If she is the monarch in Emma Tennant’s The Autobiography of the Queen, she keeps a stiff upper lip, plans to locate her builder and get construction back on track, and shows her gratitude to Austin by tending bar at The Rum Stop. Then, after drinking a “deliciously sweet concoction,” she sits on the starlit beach and tells Austin about her life—the War and the emeralds and her Uncle David, and the terrible secret her father passed on to her while they were hiding in the basement of Windsor Castle as German bombs fell from the sky. While reminiscing, she imparts another secret—the reason for her “momentous decision” to come to St. Lucia alone: “‘One has the duty, would you not agree, Ford, to set out the tapestry of one’s life, to supply for the future a true account of one’s encounters and decisions…In short, Ford, one is here to write.’”
At this moment, the Queen changes from an object of satire into Everywoman. She has withdrawn to St. Lucia because in a rapidly changing world, she feels unneeded and unwanted. By the time her journey is over, the woman who calls herself Mrs. Gloria Smith has been hungry, poor, tired, and practically invisible to the people around her.
As I watched the Queen try to navigate an unfamiliar world, I wondered how many other women feel—and are—discounted by society every day because their hair is white and they have no political or economic power. How many, like Tennant’s Queen, nevertheless retain their resourcefulness and their determination to survive? And how many feel a need and a duty to “set out the tapestry” of their lives for others to read?
It’s difficult to imagine that Queen Elizabeth II, an experienced politician, businesswoman, and public servant, as well as a trained mechanic, would be as helpless as her fictional counterpart under the same conditions. It’s harder to imagine that she would allow herself to become separated from her purse.
And because she is more discreet than Mrs. Smith, she’ll almost certainly not write her autobiography—a shame, since it would be a fascinating story, even if it didn’t include a dark secret whispered during the Blitz.
A delightful book, The Autobiography of the Queen provides an afternoon’s amusement and food for thought as well.
Emma Tennant is a British novelist and editor. Her many novels include Pemberley, The French Dancer’s Bastard, and Thornfield Hall; The Beautiful Child is awaiting release. She is also the author of Corfu Banquet: A Seasonal Memoir with Recipes.
Hilary Bailey is a British novelist and editor. Among her publications are Mrs. Rochester, After the Cabaret, and Connections.
The book reviewed above was purchased by the reviewer, whose only incentive was to share her opinion of a book she enjoyed.