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How I Researched My Biography of Her Majesty the Queen

Acclaimed author Matthew Dennison shares his process for researching his biography about Her Majesty the Queen, including the problem with anecdotes, variability of private papers, and other nonfiction resources available to biographers.

Windsor Castle, late afternoon. In St. George's Hall, surrounded by guests, Her Majesty the Queen catches sight of something shiny beside her shoe. She bends down and retrieves it.

"A drawing pin!" she tells the small group of people close to her, with her trademark smile.

"Yes, indeed, Your Majesty," comes the reply.

There is a pause.

"Very sharp, drawing pins," the Queen offers.

"Yes, very."

The Queen struggles to find something else to say on the subject of drawing pins, does so and is again greeted with monosyllabic agreement. Again, a pause follows.

You get the picture.

Three years ago, I had only recently embarked on my biography of Elizabeth II when, in the bar of one of London's old-fashioned gentlemen's clubs, a friend told me a number of anecdotes—this one among them—of his own encounters with the woman who, through seven decades, has reigned over the United Kingdom and her 15 Commonwealth realms: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and a clutch of states in the Caribbean, the Pacific, and the West Indies. What does it show us? 

The difficulty—indeed the oddness—of a royal world in which only the Queen can initiate conversations, in which only she can ask direct questions and in which the pressure to put people at their ease, make them feel better about themselves and ensure that an encounter they will remember for the rest of their lives is happy and fulfilling rests solely with her. And obviously, sometimes, inspiration fails the world's longest-serving head of state. Who can't sympathize?

(How to Write a Biography of a World Leader.)

But as a writer, anecdotes of this sort are of limited usefulness. One smiles, an impression is confirmed, and the narrative remains unchanged.

My biography of the Queen—and in Britain and across the Commonwealth she is always 'the Queen,' a sort of doyenne of Queens who eclipses her peers and requires no other name to distinguish her—is my fourth royal biography. I have previously written about her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, Victoria's youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, and the remarkable wife of George II, Caroline of Ansbach, Britain's queen consort during the second quarter of the 18th century. 

How I Researched My Biography of Her Majesty the Queen

The Problem With Anecdotes

What I have learned in 15 years of writing about royalty is that oral testimony and records of once-in-a-lifetime meetings can be unreliable. This is partly to do with the nature of royal encounters. The non-royal is invariably keyed up, over-excited, unrelaxed, not quite themselves. They will remember their meeting forever, frequently telling and retelling it as a dinner party anecdote, until any accurate record has been polished by repetition, in the process becoming something quite different. Memories of royals are extreme: wild devotion or virulent dislike. But they’re not necessarily either representative or trustworthy.

Nevertheless I kept on talking. For three years I badgered people—not always the people who had talked a million times before—asked questions, listened. A number of friends had worked in the Royal Household; others were country neighbors close to Sandringham or Balmoral; men of my own age, as young teenagers, had served the Queen in a ceremonial capacity as pages. 

Several asked to remain anonymous and so I conferred anonymity on all my sources, embedding their views within the text, but not leaving a trail by which their confidentiality could be rumbled. And then I looked for other sources of information.

Learn more about The Queen, by Matthew Dennison

The Queen, by Matthew Dennison

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The Elusive Private Papers

When Elizabeth II dies, an official biography will be commissioned by the Royal Family: the chosen writer will be granted access to the Queen's private papers, including her diary. I have enjoyed this sort of access before, working in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle on my biographies of Princess Beatrice and Queen Caroline. In both cases, the women's private writings revealed a lot. But Caroline of Ansbach was a forceful, hot-tempered, powerhouse of a woman, married to a buffoonish husband, with an eldest son whom she heartily detested. 

(How to Write a Nonfiction Book Outline.)

Elizabeth II, by contrast, has made reticence her watchword throughout her long reign. Among her achievements is the extent to which she has simply floated above both celebrity culture and the invasiveness of social media. She is simultaneously the most famous woman on the planet and its least known. Of her private opinions we know virtually nothing. And perhaps that will never change. 

She has indicated that her diary is a brief and straightforward record of events, rather than a compendium of reflections or the sort of vehement views that make Queen Victoria's journals such compelling reading. However, since I wasn't being offered this material, there was no point in worrying about it. I needed to find something else.

Scouring Other Sources

Much of it I found in local archives, in regional newspapers, in magazines, old Pathe news footage; in the letters and diaries of ordinary Britons reflecting on the great events of the Queen's life—her marriage, her Coronation, the births and marriages of her children; in concert programs and religious orders of service; in letters written by families close to the Royal Family, or the correspondence of soldiers, diplomats (and, particularly, diplomat's wives), couturiers, jewelers, clergymen, servants (known in royal circles as "staff"); in poems and speeches addressed to the Queen in the course of official engagements. I looked at presents she had been given, portraits painted of her, versions of the Queen made up by schoolchildren in entries to competitions organized by popular television programs.

My aim was always very clear. Biographies of the Queen can become accounts of the timespan of her reign; they discuss her prime ministers, members of her family and, as a result, royal scandals. She herself slips into the background. I was determined to write a book in which this remarkable woman remained consistently center stage. After a lifetime's unwavering service to this country and the many other countries across the globe who acknowledge her as Head of the Commonwealth, she deserves no less. 

*****

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