Book Review for “The Queen’s Secret: A Novel of England’s World War II Queen” by Karen Harper.
This biographical, historical fiction novel is about the woman most of us knew as the “Queen Mother,” the woman who is the mother of Queen Elizabeth II, and who stood by her husband, King George VI after he was thrust onto the throne when his older brother, King Edward VII abdicated his crown to marry the American divorcée, Wallace Simpson to become the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. While defined mostly by those around her in her family, this book tries to get to know who she was as a person, as a woman, and how her own secrets (yes, plural, unlike the title) impacted her life, during some of the most trying times in of the British Empire – World War II.
This is the first of Harper’s books I’ve read, and I have to say that I was really looking forward to reading this. I mean, right up my alley, right? Historical – check! Biographical – check! Women – check! WWII – check! I’m certain that’s why the publishers approved me for this book. Moreover, I’ve a fascination with the Royal family, and basically, anything British (including my London born husband). However, I’m afraid this didn’t totally live up to my expectations.
This doesn’t mean it wasn’t good, because there is a whole lot going for this book, but there were some elements that bothered me with this novel. For example, as hinted in the title of this review, apparently Elizabeth had several secrets, not just one. In fact, right at the beginning of the novel, we learn about one of these secrets. Then it takes practically the whole rest of novel for her to reveal to her husband, the King. This means she obsesses both about the chance of her secret getting out and of her need to tell her secret. This isn’t a very attractive quality, I’m afraid, and it makes Harper’s portrayal of the Queen as being someone anxious and self-centered exactly when she’s needed to be calming and caring for her subjects.
On the plus side, we do learn a good deal about her helping her husband, her advice to Winston Churchill, the things she did as part of the war effort, such as visiting bombed areas of London, and the speeches she made on the radio in both English and apparently, French. We also get a bit of insight (although I’m unsure if this was fiction or fact) regarding her attitude towards Prince Phillip and her daughter’s infatuation with him, which according to Harper’s narrative, was less than forthcoming. There are also some very lovely interactions with her personal maid and other members of her family, which frame Elizabeth as being warm hearted. Finally, there was how Harper laid out the relationship between the Queen and the King. Apparently, it took some time for Elizabeth to grow fond of her own husband, but his devotion to her was total and complete. This came through beautifully in Harper’s story.
I think if I can boil it down to the at crux of the matter, it seems to me that Harper didn’t always successfully walk that fine line between just enough, and too much fact, which needed to be balanced when intertwined with her fictional portrait of this very interesting woman. And that’s the other thing. I was really looking forward to finding out more about this Queen, because all I know about her is from films and TV shows where she’s a minor character, or takes a secondary role. For example, in The King Speech, she does have a bigger part than in many of the other places she appears, but that film ends just as the war was beginning. I was very much hoping to find out more about what she did to help with the war effort, and thankfully, we did get some of that – but not as much as I was hoping for.
In short, I have to say that while I really wanted to love this book, I only liked it, and the biggest disappointment was that I didn’t have a more emotional connection to Elizabeth through this novel (so no, I didn’t shed any tears while reading this book). I guess I felt torn between the image I’ve always had that the Queen Mother was this sweet, loving, and devoted woman who was the epitome of the WWII slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” to help her subjects weather the storm of the war, and the woman who was almost paranoid about her own past – both regarding things she did herself and things she had no control over. For all this, while I still recommend it, I think I will give it three and a half stars out of five.
Harper Collins released “The Queen’s Secret” by Karen Harper on May 19, 2020. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), or Thriftbooks.com, as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.