By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post
The final portrait of Queen Elizabeth II performing her constitutional duty showed the 96-year-old dressed in a cloud of gray, from her signature bouffant to her box-pleated skirt. A long gray cardigan, devoid of bedazzlement, hangs below her hips and a neat blouse is unbuttoned at the neck. As she leans on her walking stick, she smiles into the camera with her head slightly tilted and her eyes peering over a pair of reading glasses. A large fire glows in the background of the drawing room; an architectural designation that succinctly indicates the scale, opulence and lineage of her home in Scotland, the one known simply as Balmoral.
The photograph, taken two days before her death, is a study in gray. It’s a mesmerizing, vaguely disconcerting close-up of a woman once so defined by resplendent grandeur, her boldly colored wardrobe and her ever-present corgis, that to see her alone in the stance of a well-heeled but stooped elder, is to find her almost unrecognizable. Almost.
The photograph was taken on the occasion of her meeting with Liz Truss during which the queen asked the prime minister to form a new government, a familiar ritual for the United Kingdom’s longest-serving monarch who this year celebrated her 70th year on the throne. That she carried on with all the requisite royal stagecraft to the very end of her life was a reflection of her commitment to her role and her duties; as well as a reminder of just how stubbornly she adhered to history and its troubling complexities until the very vibrancy was drained out of her.
Here, at the end of it all, is an old woman. She exuded continuity. She changed little even when so much called out to be changed.
In the aftermath of her death, these things are in tension. She was a stabilizing force; she was a reminder of the racism, colonialism and violence upon which much of that stability was built. She was graciousness and decorum in human form. Her dignity obscured a bloody trail from the African continent to the Caribbean that she herself did not create but that nonetheless led directly to her.
It may be that no one else could have held such competing perspectives at bay for so long.
She ascended to the throne in 1953 wearing a coronation gown that was fairy-tale-like in its extravagance. Created by Norman Hartnell, it was embroidered with silver and pearls and paid homage to the national emblems of Great Britain and the countries of the Commonwealth. The young Queen Elizabeth II, not long out of her teenage years, with the glow of youth and a tinkling bell of a voice, pledged her life to duty. The mythology of her exceptionalism, with all the accompanying custom-made accoutrements, spoke of privilege at a time when such a concept was not under broad interrogation. She spent a lifetime upholding the past with her brightly colored suits and dresses and her matching hats. Her attire was optimistic, formal and authoritative; it did not speak of dominance by brute force in the way that a military uniform would. Her enduring image is that of a pleasant church lady, not of a soldier, a table-pounding tyrant or a browbeating aristocrat.
She spoke of service not power. The public learned of the burdens of the crown as if they were out of her control, as if she, herself, were not the crown. She enforced its rules, maintained the hierarchy, smiled politely while men bowed and women curtsied. Her power might have been wrapped in silk and satin, but nonetheless it was there.
Her continuity, which is to say her hold on power, is spoken of as a virtue but the degree to which it’s admired depends upon one’s vantage point; it depends upon whether what is carried into the future is a pleasure or deeply painful. On the American side of the ocean, we have no monarchy. We’re a toddler nation compared to the United Kingdom. But we are familiar with the torment, the glory, the complexity of continuity. Do we hang on to the emblems and traditions of the past, the ones that celebrate dominance over Native Americans or African Americans? The ones that recall a time when power was even more concentrated? Or do we excise the shame?
Do we leave the monuments? Uphold the institutions? Admire the noblesse oblige of those whose inherited wealth is tainted, whose advantages came at a price that others had to pay? Do we simply get over it, whatever our bequeathed it might be?
Queen Elizabeth II, the person, will be mourned by a family that loved her, respected her or simply made peace with her. She is “granny,” after all. And it’s easy to empathize with a family that’s suffered such a loss and a country that imbued a singular figure with similar emotional importance.
The institution, which speaks to class, imperialism and a kind of mythic rapture, is being lavished with pomp and ceremony. The institution is subject to a national holiday. It is also reviled and decried by those around the world whose forebears suffered under its weight.
For those who argue that now is not the time for harsh words, now is precisely the time. Really, it’s the only time. The genteel lady in the large hats, the primary colors and the sensible shoes who made such a full-throated argument for endurance is no longer drowning out the voices of those who cry out, not even for restitution, but simply for apology. Without the glint of her tiara and her jeweled brooches, there is clarity. Was she a symbol of what was or an ally for what could possibly be?
In the end, there was the click of a camera’s shutter and the result was a simple portrait of a gray-haired woman in pleats and woolens. With it came the briefest respite from the glitter, a moment to consider what the past meant and what the future can mean. But already the questions and doubts and frustrations are overwhelmed by the rush for continuity. This time pledged by a man in a bespoke suit and a four-in-hand knot.
Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press. Follow her on Twitter @RobinGivhan.