Today concludes the Diamond Jubilee festivities of Britain’s Elizabeth II, which has commentators looking back at the queen’s coronation sixty years ago. My colleague Ruth Feingold, something of a coronation specialist, notes that A. S. Byatt’s novel The Virgin in the Garden explores the symbolism of the event.
Byatt’s novel is set in 1952, and Ruth uses it to point out that the coronation occurred at a time when England was just beginning to dig out of the devastation wrought by World War II. Many found comforting the fact that Elizabeth shared a name with England’s greatest monarch, whose victory over the Spanish Armada can be seen as the beginning of Great Britain’s rise to global greatness. Here’s Byatt pointing to the images of renewal that the coronation of the 26-year-old Elizabeth II conjured up:
In this springtime above all the primeval imagery should have for us its richest meaning; for the Coronation is the nation’s feast of mystical renewal. We have passed through a grey and melancholy winter, dark with natural disaster, darkened also in the symbolical-personal orbit wherein our society revolves by the recent loss of a beloved Queen. But the spring comes with its annual message that all disasters and losses can be transcended by the unconquerable power of new life. As a nation, as a Commonwealth, we take as our supremely representative person our young Queen, and in her inauguration dedicating the future by the ancient forms, we declare our faith that life itself rises out of the shadow of death, that victory is wrested out of the appearances of failure, that the transfiguration of which our nature is capable is not a denial of our temporal evanescence but the revelation of its deepest meaning.
Then Byatt quotes from The Faerie Queene (written to Elizabeth I) with a passage that speaks to ritual’s victory over change:
Then over them Change doth not rule and reign;
But they reign over Change, and do their States Maintain.
Different characters in Byatt’s book have different responses to the coronation. Here’s a sampling:
The Ellenbys were delighted and reassured as though the whole world wore, briefly and significantly, a Sunday aspect. Felicity Wells was in a state of cultural ecstasy, seeing the vaults of the Abbey, imitating the inhuman perspectives of the reaches of Heaven, and the Queen’s little white human face over her emblematically embroidered robes, as a promise of renovation. [T. S.] Eliot had said, and she remembered, that the “English unbeliever conformed to the practices of Christianity on the occasions of birth, death, and the first venture in matrimony . . .” Now a whole Nation was conforming to an ancient national Christian rite. It was a true Renaissance.
There’s even a character, a psychologist, who interprets the coronation as society’s way of handling its anxieties about powerful women:
Ah, said Wilkie, the Crown was O.K. because it was hereditary and at the top of a chain of symbolic parentage, as the first Elizabeth had cleverly known. The Commons were the parents of the people, and the Lords of the Commons, and the Monarch of the Lords. If the Monarch could manage to believe in God then the chain extended conveniently to infinity and was quite safe and stable. Thus, said Wilkie . . . the myths of the Dying God and the Eternal Monarch are still at work in our own culture at this juncture. The Queen protects us from the fear of Woman because she is a good, distant, unthreatening parent, and so we have our democratic monarchy.
Ruth’s own research into what was written about Elizabeth at the time of the coronation affirms Byatt’s observations about the event’s significance. Apparently Elizabeth was held up as a model for young mothers as a way to keep the home fires burning. Here’s a passage from one of Ruth’s articles:
In all the publicity that surrounded Elizabeth, this conjunction of symbolic power and domestic family virtue was stressed by everyone. In newspaper and magazine articles, souvenir books, and speeches, commentators repeatedly remarked on her youth and femininity, the way she married the tremendously historic significance of the British Crown with the commonplace responsibilities of marriage and family.
Women were encouraged to identify with their queen as a daughter, wife, and mother, just like themselves. As one book stated, “Elizabeth the Homemaker [is] a Queen…who has given a lead to women everywhere; who knows that in a world of changing values, some things remain constant; and the greatest of these, is the home.” Values might be changing, but it was up to the Queen, and to women everywhere, to preserve the social structures needed to keep the world from chaos: the family home, with mother at the heart, and the former empire (now commonwealth), with the Queen and Britain at its heart.
As Elizabeth floated down the River Thames this past weekend, another literary passage came to my mind: the scene where a much younger Belinda (the rival of the sun’s beams) does the same in Pope’s Rape of the Lock:
NOT with more glories in the ethereal plain,
The sun first rises o’er the purpled main,
Than, issuing forth, the rival of his beams
Launch’d on the bosom of the silver ‘d Thames.
Fair nymphs and well-dress’d youths around her shone,
But every eye was fix’d on her alone.
Belinda’s barge, it so happens, is headed for the royal palace at Hampton Court, which at the time of the poem was presided over by Queen Anne:
Close by those Meads for ever crown’d with Flow’rs,
Where Thames with Pride surveys his rising Tow’rs,
There stands a Structure of Majestic Fame,
Which from the neighb’ring Hampton takes its Name.
Her Britain’s Statesmen oft the Fall foredoom
Of foreign Tyrants, and of Nymphs at home;
Here Thou, great Anna! whom three Realms obey,
Dost sometimes Counsel take-and sometimes Tea.
Pope brilliantly juxtaposes the momentous with the trivial. He wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that, according to one poll, 92% of viewers found BBC coverage of the Diamond Jubilee “lamentable” and “mind-numbingly tedious.” But Queen Elizabeth looked classy as always so we should let her have her day. Happy Anniversary, your majesty.