This is a guest post from Will Noble
Queen vs. Empress
One of them is a living queen; the other is a dead empress. But which has the better biography? We
take a look at critical response to Elizabeth the Queen and Catherine the Great to decide which is the
royal write-up you should take home this fall.
Royal is in at the moment. What, with the wedding of Will and Kate last year, Elizabeth II’s Diamond
Jubilee in June – not to mention the bizarre wedding of the 85 year-old Duchess of Alba last October
– everyone wants a bite of the bling. Two of the latest titles to capitalize on this are Sally Bedell
Smith’s Elizabeth the Queen (a portrait of England’s current monarch that hopes to shed new light
on her), and Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great, an historical account of the 18th century Russian
empress who was notorious for her many lovers.
They may both have enjoyed long reigns (Elizabeth’s is still going of course), but if critic ratings
are anything to go by, it’s the Russian’s which is by far the more fascinating. Elizabeth the Queen
earns just 57%, compared to the 79% of Massie’s biography, with Bloomberg comically stating
that “…prose comes at you like a spray of saliva, its reverence bordering on rapture…” and My
SanAntonio fully deriding the bio as belonging “…in the same category of sleazy tabloid journalism
that prowls for opportunity to make quick, easy bucks.”
This less-than-enthusiastic reception to Elizabeth the Queen must in part be due to Her Royal
Highness’ saturating of the shelves; a tumult of books has been published about her over the past
two years (Michael Paterson’s A Brief History of the Private Life of Elizabeth II, Sarah Bradford’s
Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in Our Times, Andrew Marr’s The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth II and Her
People), and some critics have likely grown tired of the subject.
That’s not the only problem though. Queen Elizabeth II might be getting on a bit, but she’s still alive.
And it seems that while this remains the case, biographers may be reluctant to delve too deeply
into her personal life. Even the Penguin promo for Elizabeth the Queen sounds flat and obsequious,
promising an “up-close picture of one of the most fascinating, enigmatic and admired women in the
world.” Compare this to the salacious details of Massie’s book: “His clearly drawn depictions of the
schemes, jealousies and maneuvers of the court, and of Catherine…” raves the Denver Post, while
Open Letters Monthly praises the author’s willingness “to keep Catherine the human being squarely
before our eyes.” Catherine’s life was filled with sex, violence, intrigue and scandal. Even if Elizabeth
II’s life is more rapacious than she’s given credit for, Bedell Smith’s book doesn’t expose any of this.
It could be that Elizabeth the Queen enjoys an audience refreshed by the fall, ready to devour more
Liz-based lit over Christmas. But it will do well to beat Catherine the Great; this had an Amazon
ranking of #3 based on pre-sales alone, whereas Elizabeth the Queen is only managing #28 in the
Royalty section at present. Maybe someone should do a biography on the current Duchess of Alba.
Now that would shift some copies.