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Diana emotional revolutionary? Queen Elizabeth emotional wasteland?

By Helen Pringle - posted Friday, 10 June 2005

Private faces in public places, according to the poet W.H. Auden, are wiser and nicer than public faces in private places. Queen Elizabeth never shows her private face in a public place, it is often claimed. And she has been much maligned for this. In fact her critics often go as far as to imply that she doesn’t have a private face to show, that she is to put it bluntly, an emotional wasteland that is cold, arid and barren.

In this respect the Queen compares unfavourably with Diana, the late Princess of Wales. Diana is often seen as an “emotional revolutionary”, who nudged the English away from the stiff upper lip stereotype towards an open acknowledgement and display of their emotions - especially the more wrenching emotions like grief, abjection and loss. On this very popular view, the Queen has remained a willing prisoner of the English stereotype.

Elizabeth might be the Queen of England, but Diana aspired to be the Queen of Hearts. Diana put herself forward as the monarch of the broken-hearted and the vulnerable, as the sovereign of a kingdom whose citizens were accorded a moral and a political right to weep. And to weep noisily. Diana appeared spontaneous, warm and emotionally open, while the Queen comes across as wooden and stuffy.


Writing in the New Yorker shortly after Diana’s death, Anthony Lane commented, “The Queen’s idea of an intimate public gesture is to pat the steaming neck of a successful horse”. In an age when it is considered bad form to be judgmental, most people seem to have few qualms about judging the Queen as the bad mother of a dysfunctional family.

Barbara Cartland, another queen of hearts, sniffed at Queen Elizabeth as head of “a family of Germans”. In regard to emotional life, to call people German is even worse than to call them English. The Windsors are often characterised as a species of emotionally introverted and detached Huns trapped in an inflexible sense of duty and tradition. In his funeral oration for Diana, Earl Spencer said that he wanted instead to ensure the souls of the Queen’s grandsons would not be “simply immersed in duty and tradition but can sing openly”.

Queen Elizabeth is someone who is immersed in duty and tradition, and someone who takes them very seriously indeed. She suffers, if that is the word, from an almost Roman sense of duty in public service. That is, she conveys a sense that public service requires a person to subordinate her own songs and desires to something a little greater. For that I admire her.

My admiration is not for the Queen as the monarch of Australia. I am a republican. Rather I admire the Queen as one of the few upholders of the value of reticence in public life. Far too often, this reticence is read as the outward sign of a stunted emotional life, lived by a woman who has been taught from birth to repress or to silence her emotional self.

I am not sure what the Queen feels about things. When she lost her mother and her only sister in 2002, I wondered how hard it must be to bear up under such wrenching grief in the one year. But after the emotional revolution of Diana, many of us want to see public signs of that grief in order to authenticate its existence and its sincerity. We look, like Donizetti’s hero, for una furtiva lagrima, a furtive tear. Better still, we would like to see big eyes and bigger tears.

I don’t know what the Queen feels about her self and those she loves, and I am not sure I really want to know. I have never met her or spoken to her. Like most people, my sense of the Queen comes from what has been said about her, and how she appears in photographs and film. From similar sources, I have a sense of her ancestor Queen Victoria as a glum and dour old hen. But as Simon Schama has noted, Victoria’s apparent glumness might just as easily be attributed to her dislike of photographers as to a stoney heart.


However, because Queen Elizabeth does not usually put her emotions on public view, it does not follow that she has none. On the contrary, she is to me a more interesting person for being restrained in public. When Diana died, the Queen in her message to the nation said, “We have all been trying, in our different ways, to cope”.

There is something very touching and respectful in this sensibility. The implication seems to be that our intimate lives have a delicate fragility that needs some shelter of privacy in order to flourish. A further implication is that our emotions are easily corrupted by the full glare of public scrutiny, fed by those who have a passionate desire to publicise anything that comes to their mind.

At the time of Diana’s death, the London Times asked the question of the Queen, “What is the nation to make of silence and absence at a time of vocal and visible lamentation?” Clive James, in one of the more embarrassingly gushing tributes to Diana, gave the answer: “inhuman detachment”.

In James’ view, Diana had broken the repressive English silence by speaking out about her feelings and her intimate life. Diana complained often and loudly that she was unable to speak of her wounds and troubles. And yet she maintained a constant chatter of and about herself with a righteousness driven by the sense that she was being prevented from speaking. This kind of emotional exhibitionism incited, and was incited by, a media that considers respect for emotional privacy as an intolerable imposition on freedom of speech, of all things.

It is too easy to criticise the media in regard to this question. However, what is of even more concern is that we have come to gauge the emotional temperature of people like the Queen by how readily they emote in public. This seems to me to be a case of sheer emotional bullying. Public faces in private places may not be very nice, but I don’t think that private faces in public places are necessarily very wise at all.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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