I was probably the last person on Earth to watch “The Crown” on Netflix. And, like everyone else, I loved it.
But I’m a little biased. Years ago, a DNA test revealed my ancestry to be 64% English, which is apparently more English than English people. So a love for Queen Elizabeth II is in my blood. Once I finished the series, I moved on to her biography, which is a mighty tome that I have yet to finish; I’ve read as far as the birth of her third son, Andrew.
To this point, my opinion of the Queen is that she is a lady to be admired and emulated, for her character, strength, and intelligence. Yes, it’s probably un-American for me to like her so much. After all, we fought a whole war to prove how much we didn’t want the Crown to boss us around. But there’s more than one way to view the world and the people in it, and both the Netflix series and the biography got me thinking about inherited wealth, privilege, and duty.
Is it a blessing to envy? Or a trap to pity?
Those of us in the lower classes look up to people like the Queen or even just a celebrity and assume that they’re better off. They live lives of luxury, high above us mere mortals. They’re snooty and incomprehensible.
Such a position can be earned, such as by the self-made millionaire, the Hollywood starlet. Or it can be assumed at birth as a member noble or aristocratic class or the second or third generation inheriting old money.
It takes no effort whatsoever to hate such people. But the tragic reality is, normal people have something precious, which may be the most important thing in life–more important than money.
The option to choose your own path.
Mon Petit Chou, Lillibet, My Queen
“Regular” people have choices. They can choose whom to marry. Where to go to school and what profession to pursue, their friends and where they live. They can be themselves, owning and expressing their emotions.
I’m well aware that “The Crown,” while based on real history, is a dramatized version of it. Elizabeth II’s true thoughts and feelings are her own. But the character of Elizabeth II, the fictionalized version, is fair game for interpretation.
The first few episodes of “The Crown” depicted the young Queen–suddenly thrust into her royal duties after the death of her father–holding on to the choices her former life allowed her. She wanted to keep her married name. Live in the home she and Phillip had spent the early years of their marriage renovating. Choose her personal secretary. But those weren’t her choices to make.
The series also explored Elizabeth coming to terms with a sobering fact: that she can’t be Lillibet anymore, with all her personal desires, emotions, and former loyalties. Not entirely, at least. Those must be cast aside, to make way for the Queen’s duties. And in performing those duties, she has to shed her former self and make cold decisions that hurt the people she cares about. She has to think like another person.
In the show, Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, was asked a favor by a friend, as a friend. And the king’s answer was heartbreaking: Albert is dead, I am the King. And then, he gave the King’s answer, not his own.
Perhaps he no longer knew what Albert’s answer would be.
I have a hard time imagining this transformation. To be yourself is a natural and expected thing. But if you’re a called to fulfill a role–like Albert when his brother abdicated — everything you were doing at that moment, all of the plans you had for the future, your expectations for your life, and your habitual ways of behaving, must be abandoned.
Albert killed who he was, in order to become King George VI.
It seems very much to me like a tragic and sudden death. Something that completely alters what has become normal and that you take for granted. And there’s no going back.
We all find ourselves having to play roles, putting aside our true selves to fill expectations. On a less grand and consequential scale, perhaps, but it is certainly something all of us can relate to.
With Great Wealth, Comes Great Expectations
Imagine living your entire life with the world closely watching. And not just watching, but expecting something very specific from you.
“Regular” people are answerable only to themselves and their families, friends, and co-workers. That circle is very small. We still feel pressure, however, as we fulfill our own chosen or inherited duties. To become a doctor like our father, or try not to be an alcoholic like everyone else in our family, or choose a path that the people we love reject.
What if the duty you inherit requires not just immense sacrifice, but it’s something you’re obligated to fulfill and comes with grave responsibility? You may not even be convinced you’re qualified. You may spend your every waking moment questioning your decisions, or in terror of their consequences.
The Queen was tasked with such a duty–God given, she believed, to protect her country and the people in it. That’s no small task, and she can’t very well quit, not when the lives of her people are in her hands. Her job is done when she dies. There is no retirement.
I’ve often wondered if she wanted to breed horses instead. In the show, she declared that she would’ve rather have lived the life of a simple English country woman, something I doubt the real Queen would admit openly. Giving all of that up in the name of duty and service is incredibly noble and selfless and in its own way, heartbreaking.
Life in a Bubble
Someone with such a life cannot live it normally. They must remain in a cocoon, separate from the outside world. In it, but not a part of it.
People often wish they were “normal,” feeling as though their qualities, whether strange or rejected or simply unlikable, separate them from other people.
Being a Royal isn’t normal and it’s most certainly a quality that separates you from other people. In an episode of “The Crown,” the Queen Mother flees to Scotland to be alone with her grief–the loss of a husband, a position, a daughter–and meets a man, from whom she keeps her identity a secret. She does so just to feel like anyone else in the world.
For “normal people,” reality is a very specific thing, so humdrum and routine that it isn’t in the least bit special. It’s a quiet and anonymous life of working, raising children, going grocery shopping, paying bills, watching TV….
Living in a community of others who do the same things is a kind of comfort. People relate to and bond with each other over shared experiences. But who shares the Queen’s experiences? Or any other person like her, past or present?
Such a person must truly an island to herself. The strength required to live such a life is superhuman.
Given what I’ve read about her character–the real Queen Elizabeth II, that is–she wouldn’t feel sorry for herself or pine for what she could’ve had. She is an example to all of us, poor and rich alike, of how to rise to overcome life’s struggles with dignity.
Do you often wish you had the wealth and privilege that people like Queen Elizabeth II or your favorite celeb enjoy? Or would rather keep your humdrum, normal life? Why?