” She had been used to following the rules since she was a little girl. She always did what she was told. She’s been taught that it was her job as a constitutional monarch always to stick to the program, to follow the Government’s advice, to adhere to the timetable, to act according to precedent. For most of her life she’d done that, and been rewarded for it . . . Playing by these rules, however, had not saved her from the disasters that had befallen the monarchy at the time of the breakup of the Prince and Princess of Wales. ” (Part III, 119)
Mrs Queen Takes the Train imagines The Queen stepping outside of her royal life on a spree to an impromptu visit of the Britannia in Edinburgh. On a rainy December afternoon, feeling bored and disconcerted, provoked by the song My Favorite Things, Her Majesty reflects on some of her happiest memories before they were marred by family troubles and disasters. Also sadly provoked by the recent decommission of the royal train, she toys with the idea of making a solitary trip to see the yacht.
Then Diana had died in Paris and the little boys had been pulled, against The Queen’s will, by public demand, into the midst of media circus. The orgy of public grief was, in The Queen’s eyes, not Britain’s finest hour. If she’d only wept then, perhaps everything would have been all right. But The Queen’s tears were internal. (Part IV, 173)
A visit to the Mews where she feeds her favorite horse, Elizabeth, cheddar offers an opportunity to slip outside Buckingham Palace. With the help of a cheese-shop clerk, she boards an Edinburgh-bound train to fulfill her nostalgia for the lost era embraced by the yacht. Fellow passengers don’t recognize her since she was wearing a hoodie borrowed from the stable girl. Soon the retinue of servants in the royal household has discovered her missing, flummoxed. In pursuit of Her Majesty is a motley group that would never have mingled under ordinary circumstance: a lady-in-waiting left with a small legacy, a seamstress-dresser sworn to never marry, a gay butler whose impeccable service invokes Stevens from The Remains of the Day, a military equerry traumatized by Iraq, and a Britain-born, Eton-educated son from wealthy Indian family who never fit in, and the stable girl. Together the servants keep their eyes on The Queen from a tactful distance, while the equerry strives to keep The Queen’s absence from the palace a secret lest it erupts into a full-blown scandal.
She knew she was struggling with some kind of indefinable grief, but she had been only half conscious of what she was doing up to now. She felt so unhappy that a bit of cheese and a visit to Britannia had seemed like good ideas. She’d not anticipated being at a table discussing a film that troubled her, no matter how sympathetic its portrayal of her had been. (Part V, 245)
Sharing much in common with Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, Mrs Queen Takes the Train applies insight, wit, originality, and a touch of humor to the remarkably restricted universe of The Queen, to whom “life beyond the palace walls was foreign.” (Part V, 273) Kuhn is careful to steer clear of and not claim too much knowledge of her life, but he does present a story that tweaks the pomp of monarchy and reveals, beneath its rigid formality, permeating from Her Majesty down to the servants, the human heart of a woman. It touches on how The Queen internalized her grief about Diana trouble and tragic death. The book also gives an intimate portrait of the complex relationships between The Queen and her staff, illuminating the British class system that is still at work. Most charming of all is how the odd group of servants has sealed into more than a camaraderie under the peculiar circumstance in which The Queen makes an impromptu sidestepping of her routine.
374 pp. Harper. Hardcover. [Read/
Skim/ Toss] [Buy/ Borrow]