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The Most Famous Woman in the World

posted 22 Apr 2016, 08:26 by Fran Brady   [ updated 25 Apr 2016, 14:08 ]
Watching the celebrations for the Queen's ninetieth birthday, I heard a commentator call her 'the most famous woman in the world'. An amazing epithet when you think about it . . . 

‘The most famous woman in the world.’ Can that really be true? I suppose they mean the most famous alive today. I doubt if, in thousands of years, I will still be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. To last like that, you have to become symbolic and archetypal: Cleopatra – beauty and power ending in tragedy; Helen of Troy – inspiring men to ultimate sacrifice and countries to war; Florence Nightingale – creating systemic values and practices that transformed, indeed created, the nursing profession; Marie Curie – pushing the boundaries of science to the point of self-destruction. . . Such women deserve to have their heads on stamps and their lives studied by generations of schoolchildren.

Create your own list. But leave out the current celebrities. Only the court of history can confer the title of symbol and archetype. Who knows if J K Rowling will be as well remembered and revered as Austen and Bronte? It seems unlikely that Kim Kardashian or Victoria Beckham will last the test of time. 

I have done none of those things. Neither the fabled, unforgettable achievements of those historic figures nor the overblown, feted achievements of the modern ones. Men have not fought over me or launched battleships in my name; I have not impacted the worlds of medicine and science; I have not written six children’s books made into seven films and drawing audiences of millions of all ages; I have not even been the face of an advertising campaign or created a brand of expensive underwear. I represent ordinariness.

Yes, I know that my life of palaces and parades, official duties and worldwide travel, appearances and anthems, seems a far cry from the woman in the street. But, if we strip away the rituals and trappings, we find a life lived in a groove of utter predictability. I represent devotion to duty, dedication to role, steadfast faith in a country of increasing agnosticism, reliability in turbulence, a constant through change. And all that is only a way of saying that I have led a pretty boring life, seemingly unaffected by global tragedies, threats to civilisation and changing catwalk fashions. I am Kipling’s perfect man: I can keep my head when all about me are losing theirs; I can trust myself when all men doubt me; and I can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run. How many minutes are there in ninety years? It makes my head spin to think about it.

There was the Second World War when I was just a girl. Mother and Father were portraying bravery under fire, refusing to cut and run when the bombs came, endearing themselves to a frightened, beleaguered nation. Mummy was always an idol after that and Daddy died before the gloss wore off. Besides they both had the aura of having had greatness thrust them and squaring up amazingly to a challenge they had never envisaged. I did my best to carve out a little spot of the limelight: those photos of me in ATS uniform, tinkering with vehicle engines. But my contribution was only an accessory, fairy lights to their super-trouper.

After the war, I gave the nation what it wanted: a pretty princess falling in love with a handsome naval captain. But how many women in the country had done just that? Some had even been brave enough to leave everything they had ever known and emigrate to America. I was not even required to learn Greek! While other post-war brides struggled to make wedding dresses out of parachute silk and old lace curtains, I had dress designers queueing up to showcase their talents and provide beautiful materials. While other newly-weds squeezed into their parents’ overcrowded homes and joined an endless waiting list for one of the new houses that were being promised, once the country recovered from war, I had residences to choose from. Not for me scraped savings and utility furniture: I had an embarrassing plethora of antique treasures and heirlooms.

Thus, while the women of post-war Britain threw themselves heroically into rebuilding the country and bringing up the next generation in a make-do-and-mend culture, earning themselves a stalwart place in history, I coasted alongside, symbolising nothing more than parasitic ease and wealth. They said I was inspiring, symbolising the triumph of sweet and beautiful womanhood over the ugly legacy of Nazi ideals and intentions. But the women who procreated so abundantly in those post-war years, the baby-booming mothers who threw caution to the winds and took a great big bite out of the future, despite the shortages, ration books and slum housing: the triumph was theirs and glory should have been too.

Girlishly, I coasted along through as sumptuous a wedding as was then possible, into a delightful honeymoon and first pregnancy. Not for me a ‘Call the Midwife’ delivery in an attic with no running water and an outside toilet three floors down. I had the best of care, cutting-edge pain relief and nannies on hand to blunt the edge of a new baby’s demands, leaving me free to bless the nation with bland photographs of cooing new parenthood.

The bombshell came when my daughter, my second baby, was just a toddler. Darling Daddy died, a martyr to the cause of tobacco but probably also to the crippling burden of becoming King - the King that led Britain through one of the worst and longest conflicts in history – when he had never envisaged such a thing and was always bedevilled by a sense of inadequacy and impending failure.

Within a few short hours, as Philip and I raced home, people were calling me ‘your majesty’ and muttering about coronation dates. I should have thrown what I believe is now called ‘a strop’ and refused. I was young, I had dreams and plans for my life. Of course, from the age of ten, when Uncle Edward went off with ‘the American hussy’ – as Mummy called her – I had known, somewhere at the back of my mind, that I would one day be Queen. But I had thought that would be far in the future, when I was old, maybe in my fifties. I would have had my fun, the future that Philip and I had planned together, I would be ready to settle down and play the monarch. But that future was snatched away from me. From now on, my life, my very day-to-day existence, would be mapped out and dictated by the plans and expectations of other people and other countries. And by the remorseless round of repetitive events and duties. Even my birthday – that most personal of things – was hijacked for purposes of state. I can have a smaller celebration, although still formalised into a ritual, on the April date but I must square up to a full-scale jamboree for the June one. Sustain the legend and create the tourist attraction.

Like every other woman, I have gone through family upsets and tragedies, through births, deaths and marriages, through modernism and post-modernism, through boom and bust, celebration and mourning. I have lost my girlish figure and become a tubby old lady; my ramrod posture has crumpled and my hair has gone white. Through it all, I have smiled and nodded graciously, never showing boredom, fear or resentment, never expressing an opinion on a subject that matters.  

I arise of a morning and don the persona allotted to me for that day. Not for me impulsive reactions or plain speaking; not for me the taking of risks and the coursing of hares; not for me excessive joy or sorrow. The bible says we are all parts of the body of Christ. If this is so, I am the stiff upper lip.

I am a shadow of a person, a cipher, a cardboard cut-out queen, the real me buried deep down. Who will remember that person, that queen, in a thousand years?