Sunday February 17, 2013
Right royal tale
Review by SHARIL DEWA
Here’s a funny modern take on those old stories of royalty who don disguises and mingle with their subjects to tap the wisdom of the man in the street.
Mrs Queen Takes The Train
Author: William Kuhn
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins, 374 pages
THE premise of Mrs Queen Takes The Train, author William Kuhn’s debut novel, is a simple one: Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is not feeling quite so happy but she cannot put her finger on what is causing her to feel blue.
She is feeling every single one of her 86 years and rather out of touch with the modern world, and thus her people. Wondering just when that happened, The Queen (as she’s referenced throughout) spends most of the first part of this novel wondering what would make her smile, lighten her heart, and put a bounce in her step. And Kuhn has her pondering this while seated in front of a computer, which, naturally and cleverly, links her to the social media of today: Google, Facebook and Twitter.
You would not look for such humour from Kuhn; the historical biographer’s previous books dealt with Britain’s most royalist prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli; the royal family during the Victorian era; and two key albeit obscure figures in Queen Victoria’s court. Here, though, he injects a healthy dose of humour in Mrs Queen, as the octogenarian makes her way around the World Wide Web as well as around Britain.
With wry humour, Kuhn writes: “Camilla had described herself as ‘Future Queen of England: One does like to chat with the public ... but from a safe distance. Lover of Horses and Gin.’ All that was true enough, thought The Queen to herself, except the ‘Future Queen of England’ bit. She didn’t think it was very wise of Camilla to write about the gin, however.” With this masterful little scene, Kuhn humanises one of the most powerful women in the world, reminding us that, when you get down to it, The Queen is like any pensioner and senior citizen trying to keep up with the gadget-crazy modern world.
The Queen eventually settles on the cause of her blues: she recalls how the Prime Minister (Kuhn cleverly does not mention which prime minister, leaving it to the readers’ imagination) informed her that the economic climate of Britain and the world being what it is, certain royal means of transportation deemed extravagant by the general public will not be renewed – in other words, no new royal yacht to replace the decommissioned Britannia, which has long been moored as a tourist attraction near Edinburgh.
And right then, The Queen has an epiphany: she will make her way, on her own, from Windsor Castle in London to Edinburgh to visit her beloved ship one last time.
Wearing the unlikely disguise of a hoodie with a cross and skullbone motif, The Queen rides taxis and trains to Edinburgh encountering her public en route, most of whom think of her as an ordinary elderly woman – though one person thinks she’s Helen Mirren! Kuhn even has three travelling companions discuss the film The Queen that starred Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II. Of course, the late Princess of Wales’ death comes up and the three companions ask The Queen for her opinion of Diana, “the people’s princess”; one gets the impression that Kuhn was trying to inject some humour into this discussion but the end result is more poignant and sad than anything else.
Supporting The Queen in Mrs Queen Takes The Train are six very varied characters. Anne, The Queen’s lady-in-waiting; Shirley, the dresser; Luke, the equerry; William, the butler; Rebecca, a girl from the mews, at the royal stables; and Rajiv, a clerk from Paxton & Whitfield, the shop that supplies Her Majesty’s cheese. These six people who realise the monarch is missing from Windsor form an uneasy alliance to track her down quietly.
Kuhn spends as much time with these six characters as he does with The Queen, providing all six with back stories that span the ordinary as well as those that are intertwined with the royals.
Mrs Queen Takes The Train is not the first novel to deal with the relevance of the British royal family in the 21st century. Sue Townsend’s The Queen And I is more of a satirical take on the monarchy than Mrs Queen Takes The Train; the book that Kuhn’s novel has been compared to is Alan Bennett’s cheeky The Uncommon Reader (in which the queen discovers a raging reading habit), a fact that Kuhn even cheekily references in his novel (he has one of The Queen’s travelling companions mention the book).
Mrs Queen Takes The Train is not a weighty tome about the relevance of royalty and Kuhn does not spend much time discussing the pros and cons of having the Windsors ruling a nation that is torn between wanting to be a republic and wanting to keep a queen as its figurehead. Instead, Kuhn injects racism, homelessness, terrorism, animal rights and mental illness as social commentaries. Being American, Kuhn wisely sidesteps the age-old British chestnut, class struggle.
Mrs Queen Takes The Train is not about being for or against the monarchy; rather, it is a lovely, poignant and comical tale about a woman named Elizabeth who happens to be queen of England. A good read, even for those who are anti-establishment.