Aloof and cautious, Queen Elizabeth II survived 45 years on the throne without having to undergo any major tests of her character. And then Princess Diana died, which forced the monarch - for the first time - to do something beyond the normal demands of pomp and protocol.
Unfortunately, it is now obvious that she has failed the test, showing no great compassion for Diana and almost no understanding of the grieving nation.
In her chillingly impersonal television address, and in her reluctance to break with precedent over such things as flying the Union Jack at half-staff, she has proven herself a queen in name only.
The tragedy of Queen Elizabeth's failure of leadership is that it endangers the whole enterprise. Absorbed in the mundane comforts of the royal world, she has neglected all the things that justify a modern monarchy - the entertaining grandeur and glamour, the sense of style, the show of compassion, the generosity and kindness of someone born to reign but not to rule.
So why should anyone in America care? Well, despite most Americans' pretense of indifference to royalty, the massive media attention given to Diana in life and in death demonstrates that many are still devoted to the storybook images of royal life.
Go to Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard and you will always find the crowd filled with eager faces from the grand old republic. Americans like the horses, the scarlet uniforms, the brass bands, and loved the dazzling figure of the doomed young woman who looked and acted like a fairy-tale princess.
Americans buy tons of magazines and books on the subject, and even make a fuss over the dreadfully inept and unreliable collection of gossip assembled by Kitty Kelley in "The Royals" (Warner Books. 576 pages. $27).
There is nothing rational about this fascination. People simply enjoy it.
The great Victorian student of the monarchy, Walter Bagehot, observed, "So long as the human heart is strong and human reason weak, royalty will be strong because it appeals to diffused feeling." In other words some admirers of the monarchy want it bad, though their brains can't help but protest that it is all very superficial.
And Britain is the only country that can do justice to the fantasy. The nation is no longer a world power, but it still has great $H reservoirs of dignity, tradition, and style. The English know how to put on a good show. Whatever else can be said about Diana's funeral, it was a magnificent spectacle, flawlessly carried out with grace and pride. The beauty of it was in sharp contrast to the vulgar interruptions of American television commentators, some of whom acted as though they were covering Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.
Done well, the royal act can give enormous satisfaction and cause little harm. You can see the very real pleasure on the faces of the crowds.
Indeed, it could be argued that Britain has a kind of moral obligation to keep the world entertained with this last surviving piece of medieval pageantry. After all, the country profits from it handsomely in the dollars and yen that pour from the pockets of millions of tourists.
Diana, the self-styled Queen of Hearts, knew the value of these things and made the most of them. She proved that royalty could still make a difference in the world, combining the charm of a storybook image with the everyday example of good works. This was a considerable achievement for which Queen Elizabeth - resolutely dowdy, generally unsmiling, coolly remote - showed scant appreciation.
It was not the media that killed Diana. If her life was endangered by anything beyond the drunken stupidity of her driver, it was the neglect shown her by the House of Windsor. The queen and her family pulled Diana into their orbit, found her wanting and then cast her adrift, stripping her of her royal title as a final insult.
It was petty, and it set Diana on the independent, unprotected course that would eventually place her life in jeopardy. Having helped to create the phenomenon of Her Royal Highness, Diana, Princess of Wales, the Windsors could not simply cut her loose take care of herself. Without proper security and the usual privileges afforded a royal princess, Diana was a sitting duck for assassins, deranged fans, greedy photographers and rich playboys hoping to impress her with yachts, private jets and fast cars.
The hard truth is that Queen Elizabeth blew it. Displaying profound indifference to the possible fate of her former daughter-in-law, she never seems to have understood that putting Diana in harm's way would have devastating consequences for her grandchildren William and Harry and would undermine confidence in the monarchy itself.
As queen, she was obliged to do everything in her power to
protect the fragile woman who had assumed the greatest burdens of royalty. In Britain the extraordinary outpouring of public grief over Diana's death perhaps reflected some vague sense that the nation had failed the princess, that its leaders-from the queen on down-had not done enough to prevent the tragedy.
The world should have seen this disaster coming. Ben Pimlott's scrupulously researched "The Queen: A Biography of Queen Elizabeth II" (Wiley. $30) tries to take a sympathetic view of the monarch, but what emerges from its 650 pages is a portrait of an astonishingly dull woman whose greatest passions are reserved for race horses and little dogs.
After nearly half a century of watching the queen mechanically wave from trains, cars and public platforms - frumpy hats glued to her head, a big glossy handbag defensively clutched at her side - we should not be surprised by the unavoidable tedium of Pimlott's story. It is the tale of an ordinary English girl growing up to be an even more ordinary English woman, except for the fact that daddy happened to be king.
Diana was also headed for mediocrity until chance and necessity transformed her. The same thing might have happened to Elizabeth; but after ascending to the throne at the tender age of 26, life lost its challenges. There was no one around to make her do anything she did not want to do. She was the Head of State of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and various other countries, not to mention Defender of the Faith.
Who could darken her day? Yet this kind of power and prestige could inspire a certain kind of person to rise above her natural inclinations and limits - to earn the titles by noble deeds as well as to claim them by some divine right.
As Pimlott shows, however, Elizabeth rarely aspired to anything but domestic comforts. You see her sort scattered throughout the English countryside, the upright but unambitious aristocratic lady who nods serenely to retainers and minor acquaintances as she makes her way to the village post office or the local church.
Here is a typical slice of Elizabeth's life, as described by Pimlott: "Her 'normal' pleasures (that is, the ones normal people shared) included doing jigsaw puzzles, playing scrabble and watching low-brow comedy on television. Her abnormal ones were riding, stalking and walking across the moors at Balmoral." No wonder the lively, modern Diana did not find a welcome place in the queen's private Victorian universe.
Despite the recent troubles, the monarchy will not soon disappear. It will survive because no one will want to pack away the crowns and carriages, empty the guard houses, and turn the palaces into dusty museums. Enthusiasts will want to keep the dream alive, just in case Prince William or his bride or some royal child yet unborn turns out to be a winner. In the meantime Diana has taken to her grave almost all the magic of the fairy world in which our best ideas of royalty are shaped.
What is left is a plain granny in sensible shoes surrounded by an incredibly dysfunctional family.
Michael Shelden has been an American contributor to the Dail Telegraph of London since 1989. He has written biographies of British novelists George Orwell and Graham Greene.
Pub Date: 9/28/97