I don't normally buy biographies of royal subjects and I rarely read them. Mainly because they tend to have too many sensationalized details already written about in dozens of other books. For the most part it's the same story, different dustjacket. If it does deviate from chronological biography, the books tend to be a forum for the onesided and venemous viewpoints of the author (example: Charles - Victim or Villain by Penny Junor).
Claiming to know his subjects personally and with the promise of no unnamed sources, I decided to read Philip and Elizabeth: Portrait of a Marriage. Ultimately the title 'Portrait of a Marriage' is a bit deceptive, as the book becomes more about Prince Philip than it does on his relationship with the Queen (see list of Prince Philip's Achievements at the end of the book). In this case, it's not much different from Basil Boothroyd's Philip: An Informal Biography. Of course that was 35 years ago, so 'Philip and Elizabeth' continues where Boothroyd left off.
The book begins with the life stories of Prince Philip and the Queen, but none of the information is unique; it can be found in any biography. The story of their romance and courtship comes across as seemingly one-sided. As the Queen does not give interviews, we are left with Philip's unsentimental and pragmatic view of the relationship . Prince Philip is quoted in the book as saying "I suppose one thing led to another, it was sort of fixed up. That's what really happened." Considering that this book is supposed to be a 'Portrait of a Marriage' we are left with little to go on regarding its genesis. We are reminded several times throughout the book that Philip is not inclinded to introspection, nor recollection, which becomes tiresome after a while and makes it frustrating to get an accurate picture.
Any juicy information is prefaced by the author ("Although it's really none of your business..." or "Of course we don't need to know. It's none of our business..."). True but then why write a book in the first place? With only one half co-operating with the author, we are left with friends and relatives of the couple to fill in the blanks. To understand his subject better, the author resorts to some misguided psychoanalysis of Prince Philip, but with no clear insight.
Their relationship with their children has its own chapter, and other than Prince Charles' side of the story in his own book by Johnathan Dimbleby, we are left with the impression that, given the circumstances of their lives, the children had a fairly normal and pleasant upbringing. "We did the best we could" is Prince Philip's reply. Although the media would have us believe that the Queen and Prince Philip are distant and cold parents, they come across as anything but. Understanding and sympathetic, these qualities are particularly evident in their relationship with Diana.
Rumours about their married lives and Philip's affairs are addressed. The author makes a valiant attempt to dispel notions by interviewing friends, relatives, some of the women in question and the Prince himself, with rather unsatisfying results. It's hard to take the conclusions at face value when these women are referred to as Prince Philip's "play-mates".
Despite this, I believe the author has maintained an objective viewpoint of his subject. He does not sensationalize any aspect of their lives. But it is only towards the end of the book that the portrait comes into its own. After almost 60 years of marriage, the Queen and Prince Philip are revealed to be a couple who are different, yet friends. Happy, they respect, understand, and complement each other.
And with their share of ups and downs, following the path towards this conclusion makes this book enjoyable to read.
© Marilyn Braun 2006
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