Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Fictional Dismantling of the British Royal Family


The Queen and I by Sue Townsend


In a fictional 1992, the Republican Party sweeps the general election and their first act is to dismantle the monarchy and put the entire royal family into a Midlands' welfare housing project in a place the locals call "Hell Close." Throughout almost all of the rest of this book, Townsend shows us how the Winsor/Mountbatten/Teck families adjust to this new, impoverished lifestyle.

Sue Townsend's "Adrian Mole" books are for the YA market, but this seems to be more of an adult novel. However, as you can imagine from the plot summary, this is hardly a serious piece of dramatic literature so both young and old may enjoy it, especially since the language is simple, making it a particularly fast read.

On the positive side, the basis of the story is unique and interesting. Putting not just the queen, but the entire royal family "out of business" so to speak, makes possibilities of humorous situations almost endless. Townsend uses several varying situations in this book, and seems to have picked ones that would cause the most trouble for the immediately deposed group. For instance, fitting their large and precious carpets into the tiny flats, or suddenly having to do the simplest of things like taking public transport, making tea or going shopping. Of course, how each of the royals cope with their lower-class, cramped, physical surroundings, seems to bring about the more amusing personality comparisons and circumstances. What's more, the colorful people that get these unexpected new neighbors are both funny and endearing.

That the main 'characters' are actually real people always makes writing fiction about them difficult, and when they from the well-known House of Windsor, this is even more difficult. Still, Townsend seems to have succeeded in creating a mostly believable, newly impoverished Elizabeth, with Ann and Margaret acting pretty much true to form. Even the Queen Mother seems about right, although I have my doubts about how she portrayed Diana, Phillip and Charles, who I found just slightly off kilter. Unfortunately, reading this in 2007, and not in 1992 does make many of the other family members' actions a bit on the inaccurate side. Hindsight, of course, is part of the problem here, and certainly, if Townsend were writing this now, she would need to change quite a few of her characterizations, and several of the situations.

The question is just how much of a leap of faith do we really need to take with this book. Suspending disbelief to accept that Diana would get involved in DIY redecoration or that Charles' horticultural abilities would blossom in this shadowy environment is basically allowable. The biggest problem I found was Townsend's getting into the head of Elizabeth's pet corgi, Harris. I'm sorry, but I really don't think that this story benefited from this sub-plot of a pampered dog turning into a street mongrel, and I certainly don't want to read what he is thinking about as he has his experiences! I mean, even in fiction we need to be just a bit realistic, don't we? I don't mind stories where all the characters are animals; but this is a book firmly situated in the human world - mixing the two just got on my nerves.

I also felt that Townsend took on a bit too much considering the length of the work. Because this is such a large group of people, some of the royal family got only cursory attention, and others were barely footnotes. This isn't necessarily a bad thing but she lost her concentration with Elizabeth by the damned dog story, and then by trying to mention as many people as possible. I really think this would have been a far more solid book if we had seen it all through Elizabeth's perspective, instead of changing focus all the time. However, to do this, Townsend probably needed an additional 150-200 pages, making this book too long for the "light reading" genre market.

Still, one shouldn't take a book like this too seriously. It is a fantasy-comedy with a unique and interesting, if badly dated, concept that will make you giggle if not guffaw at times. Despite some iffy characterizations, loss of focus and a terribly predictable ending that borders on the cliché, the writing style is easy and quick to read, and suitable for younger audiences as well as adults. I can't give it more than three stars but if you're looking for a fun, fast read, I can recommend you give this a try.




  

"The Queen and I" by Sue Townsend is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Alibris or Better World Books.  (This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared in 2007 on the site Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)