Elizabeth, the last matriarch
The missing queen was able to exercise her power so skilfully as to make it invisible. A profound influence that has never produced repercussions. Wisdom, an iron sense of duty, pragmatism, emotional control and no narcissism: these are the traits of a sovereignty that make her a model of female authority

Share this article

Gaby Hinsliff for The Guardian

Stop all clocks. Unplug the phone.

For once, the opening lines of WH Auden's poem, Funeral Blues, they seem appropriate for the moment. Like it or not, much of public life will stop on days of mourning while the broadcasters suspend their programs and the state funeral is prepared.

Long predicted as it may have been, the death of the longest-reigning monarch in British history is a significant and worrying moment for the life of the nation. And never more, perhaps, than when it coincides with the arrival of a new Prime Minister in the midst of an emerging economic crisis. There was something terribly touching about his insistence, even in what we now know were his days of life, in having wanted to personally commission Liz Truss.

The queen was one constant and stable presence against the background of millions of lives for 70 years, one reassuring voice in difficult times. But it's there depth of wisdom accumulated over decades that perhaps only now can be fully appreciated. Those good-natured, grandmotherly ways belied a sharp and occasionally caustic intelligence.

His era a form of female power wielded so skillfully that it is almost invisible. The broad nature of the constitutional powers it held – dissolving parliament or withholding consent to legislation – were tolerated within a modern democracy precisely because they were used sparingly. He helped shape and guide governments through his weekly audiences with 14 previous prime ministers, who took turns gingerly stepping over sleeping corgies in his study at Buckingham Palace. But her political opinions accompanied her to the grave (…)

The Queen represented the rare female ability to exert profound influence without triggering a reaction, and the extent of that influence has thus remained shrouded in mystery. It didn't so much normalize the idea of a woman in leadership as it largely made the nation forget that that was what it was, while still maintaining the ability to freeze grown men with a look.

As Tony Blair noted in his autobiography, describing a G8 summit dinner of world leaders where some were fooled by the relaxed atmosphere: “You don't make friends with the Queen. She can be your friend from time to time, but don't try to reciprocate or you will get it in return The Look“.

The actress Olivia Colman who played Elizabeth II in the Netflix series The Crown, he once called it “L'last feminist “. But the queen would never claim such a thing for herself, even if all the money is there on her face. There's more to feminism than being a woman who wields power, and although he approved legal changes that prevent the first-born daughters of future monarchs from being overtaken by their younger brothers in the line of succession, did not strive to leave a legacy for women. When he highlighted his genre – as he did so fabulously in 1998, choosing to personally drive his Land Rover during the Saudi Crown Prince's visit on the Balmoral estate – at a time when Saudi women were not allowed to drive – her female solidarity was all the more striking, being so rare.

She treated feminism largely as a political issue on which she remained neutral, while in recent years he has given his daughter-in-law Camilla license to speak on issues such as domestic abuse or sexual violence against women. But if she wasn't a feminist icon, perhaps she has become the definitive matriarch, a word that denotes not only a position within the family but a specific phase of life.

Matriarchal power is the kind of power wielded by older women who have managed to gain recognition for their wisdom and experience, and are not cast aside when their youth fades; who have earned the right to be self-satisfied, yet choose to offer comfort and advice to younger generations. A true matriarch is formidable, but mature enough to put aside petty vanity. The role of the monarch as Victorian constitutional expert Walter Bagehot defines it – to encourage and warn one's government, while having the grace not to impose one's views – could have been written for a matriarch. But if the queen's power lay in what her daughter, Princess Anne, he called once his pragmatism, the new king may prove a little less inscrutable.

Perhaps this represents a sign of the times. The The Queen's ironclad sense of duty and emotionally restrained manner resonated deeply with older generations, but younger women increasingly see the suppression of feelings as unhealthy. Its apparent reluctance to show his feelings publicly for the death of her daughter-in-law Diana, Princess of Wales, marked one of the few times the monarch appeared to lose touch with her country (…) 

In the biography of Prince Charles, Jonathan Dimbleby described the Queen as a mother "not so much indifferent as rather detached". But if she may have seemed distant when her children were young, perhaps it was because she had had no choice.

Princess Elizabeth was only 25 years old and her children Charles and Anna were three and one respectively when the death of her father in 1952 catapulted her into the all-encompassing role for which she had been prepared since childhood, but she never expected to have to take on so much. Soon. Any maternal regret for those early years of heavy expectations and long trips abroad perhaps expressed itself in the determination to allow Prince William to enjoy time with his young children before taking on the workload of a future heir, and in the evident joy for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The queen had become fragile recently, particularly after the death of her beloved Duke of Edinburgh, but the sense of time running out probably intensified his moral authority. Recommended by doctors to rest avoiding attending the COP 26 climate conference in 2021, in video message that sent in his place had expressed a quiet urgency. “None of us live forever” she said, with a photograph of her late husband next to her. “But we are doing it not for ourselves, but for our children and our children's children." 

Stop the clocks, indeed.

original article here, translated by Marina Terragni


Share this article
Scroll to Top