Penguin Monarchs #BitesizedHistory

The acclaimed Penguin Monarchs series: short, fresh, expert accounts of England’s rulers – now in paperback

I collected two reading copies from the Penguin Monarchs series towards the end of last year – in fact, before the Queen died on the 8th September. I forgot that I had them until I went looking for another slim book to fill the vacant position in my work backpack after finishing Finn Family Moomintroll earlier this year.

Given the almost blanket media coverage the royal family has been given since September, it felt like the right time to finally check out this series. And today, the coronation of King Charles III seemed like the most appropriate time to finally publish the post!

Title: Elizabeth II: The Steadfast
Author: Douglas Hurd
ISBN: 9780141987446
Imprint: Penguin Press
Published: 15th July 2018 (originally published 13th August 2015)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 128
Dates Read: 10th January 2023 - 20th February 2023
Origin: TBR

Elizabeth II (which I assume will have an updated timeline on the cover design when next they reprint) comes with a preface by HRH Prince William, Duke of Cambridge.

The Queen’s kindness and sense of humour, her innate sense of calm and perpective, and her love of family and home are all attributes I experience first-hand….I am privileged to have the Queen as a model for a life of service to the public.

The book itself, though, is written by historian and senior politician Douglas Hurd who as Home Secretary and then Foreign Secretary during the Thatcher & Major years, spent many, many occasions in the company of the Queen (which he wasn’t afraid of mentioning once or twice!). I suspect he was not as objective and impartial in writing this text as he thought he was. In fact, fawning is a fairly apt description of his writing style and approach to biography in this particular instance. Hurd is prone to offering up his own opinions as fact, and repeating them several times to make sure we really got his message. Post-colonialism is obviously a foreign word to Hurd as well.

There was nothing new in here for anyone who had watched the movie The King’s Speech, the first few seasons of The Crown or the blanket coverage on TV that occurred after the Queen’s death.

Hurd does tell us of the ‘wise’ choice that the young princess Elizabeth’s tutor made in schooling her in “the development of the Commonwealth following the Statute of Westminster of 1931 and the importance of broadcasting.” The Statute of Westminster of 1931, in case you were wondering, is the act of Parliament that established the relationship we, and other Commonwealth countries, currently have with the Crown. It effectively made all the Dominions (which Australia had become upon Federation in 1901) sovereign states.

Hurd finished up his puff piece by admiring the Queen’s “discretion and self-containment” and her steadfast political neutrality. One of the Royal commentators on the radio this morning discussed how this was one of the more interesting differences between Elizabeth II and Charles III – no-one knew what the Queen thought about any political and social matter, but the King has been very vocal all his life about various issues. His opinion is on public record, no matter how discreet he tries to become now, the public knows he is not neutral when it comes to concerns like the environment.

The Queen knows she will be succeeded by someone of different tastes and priorities to her own. Our sadness will be mixed with curiosity about the future and anxiety about the prospects of change.

I do hope that Clare Jackson does a more rigorous job with Charles II.

Title: Charles II: The Star King
Author: Clare Jackson
ISBN: 9780141987453
Imprint: Penguin Press
Published: 15th July 2018 (originally published 31st March 2016)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 160
Dates Read: 6 March 2023 - 28 March 2023
Origin: TBR

My knowledge of King Charles II was pretty sketchy I have to say.

I’ve read many novels set during his reign, the most memorable being Forever Amber | Kathleen Winsor and The Merry Monarch’s Wife | Jean Plaidy. I knew he had lived in exile for a number of years after the murder of his father and that when he returned, his court became famous for frivolity.

Clare Jackson in a brief amount of space admirably fills in the blanks.

Since writing this book for Penguin, Jackson has gone on to host two BBC-2 series – The Stuarts and The Stuarts in Exile and publish the award winning Devil-Land: England under Siege 1588-1688 (2021)- she knows her stuff!

Jackson framed her discussion of Charles II around the theme of performance. She claims that public perception was the key to his success. The turbulent two decades that led to his father’s execution were filled with civil wars and dissent. Charles II was very aware that his reign needed to be popular and peaceful. Jackson explained that “the Restoration generation” were “deeply traumatized…’susceptible to both nostalgia on the one hand, and nightmares on the other’.

Image was therefore important to his reign.

He recreated and reintroduced pomp and ceremony to English life, “despite promoting a majestic image…he was also one of Britich history’s most accessible monarch’s, combining the natural informality of his grandfather James I and VI with an innate gregariousness and personal magnetism.” He remade the coronation crown (that will be worn by Charles III today) after the original had been melted down after the execution of Charles I.

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, he seized the opportunity presented by this disaster to rebuild London to “reflect monarchial munificence on a grandiose scale.” It was great PR.

Although how on earth he had time to do any state business with all his mistresses. Keeping them all happy would have been a full-time job!

The two Penguin Monarch books I’ve now read confirm that they are indeed a very brief glimpse into the life and times of the monarch concerned, and highly dependent on the author. Jackson wrote with authority and expertise; Hurd wrote with personal experience and opinion.

If you were reading historical fiction set during the reign of one of these monarchs and wanted a quick summary of that time, these would be great. Quick, easy to digest and perfect for filling in the blanks. I wonder if someone is working on a new one for Charles III as we speak?

I confess I prefer the hardback covers for this series though. If I was collecting them, they would be the ones I would hunt down.

This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

19 thoughts on “Penguin Monarchs #BitesizedHistory

  1. Haha Brona, well-chosen for today. I’ve been so busy decluttering – it seems neverending – that I’d forgotten today’s coronation, even though I’ve been watching the news and did know it was today! I probably should have mentioned it in my Six Degrees!! Anyhow, I was glad to read your post but am not likely to read these books. There’s been much royal history in my life I think!


    1. Still decluttering!

      B22 & GF have found themselves a lovely little apartment to move into and he will be leaving us soon. Mr Books & I will now have to get serious about what we do next, for how long and where?
      Whatever we decide – decluttering & downsizing will be a big part of that – oh help!!!!
      Any tips?


      1. First tip… start now and keep at it. I am thinking of dong a post on it but am too tired to get coherent thoughts together. It’s a huge job – from a big family home of 26 years of living.

        BTW, thrilled for B22 – good for them and for you.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’d love to see that post Sue – but nor pressure – packin up comes first!!
          B22 flagged at the beginning of the year that he was looking to make the move by mid year,,,and here we are! So I have been doing sporadic decluttering – the freezer one day, my summer clothes just recently, plus a couple of weekends going through the TBR. But it was a bit half-hearted, until yesterday!

          The thought of packing up everything again almost makes me cry! The last move 7 years ago was hard work. I’m not sure I have it in me to do again. Which has made me pretty ruthless going through my actual bookshelves of the books already read yesterday.

          I figure if I haven’t reread something since moving to Sydney 15 yrs ago, then I’m probably not going to. As much as I loved Too Many Men by Lily Brett and the Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz and An Equal Music by Vikram Seth, I am NOT going to reread them. It’s time to stop carrying them around.
          Some will go to friends and family, some to the op shop, some to street libraries I go past regularly. They will all find a new home and a new reader one way or another. But it sure is tiring!


          1. I tend not to use the reread argument to discard but how much did I care about it! I do have some other criteria like ease of replacement etc but I lay awake last night thinking I’ve got to get tougher and redefine my image of myself among the way. That’s the hard bit but I HAVE to do it. We haven’t moved for nearly 26 years so we have a lot of stuff including that collected from all the relatives who have died! I’ll get there, and so will you!!!


            1. To be honest, I’m having to use a pretty hard line argument to help discard books. If I kept all the ones I cared about I’d make no progress at all! Special editions, signed copies, and as you say, ones that I know are now hard to replace are keepers. I also have a pretty good idea about what I like to reread and what I don’t/won’t (something I tested to a lesser degree when I made the big move to Sydney 15 yrs ago – there has been only one regret in that time). It’s not easy but it is cathartic – that sense of the load being lightened perhaps.

              Dare I ask how you are going with the kitchen cupboards?!


              1. It is cathartic, I agree.

                Kitchen cupboards … so so! Getting to the pointy end now about certain pots and pans I rarely use but sometimes do, and spare things like measuring cups cos you know sometimes it’s handy having two half-cup measures for example.

                But back to books … another issue is the TBR which is way too big.

                Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for stopping by my blog despite all the decluttering/moving B22!
    I have been very negligent when it comes to reading other blogs, commenting or even reading a book!
    I haven’ started a book 7 weeks. I find it so difficult to find a “quiet place” in my brain to just concentrate on a story without drifting off into remodelling and subsequent cleaning the house thoughts. I’ll make a reading list for May…and hope to get started with a book today. Amazon must be wondering where Nacncy is? She hasn’t bought a book since early March!


    1. Home renovations will do that Nancy! Last time I moved I had a nice little book by Tove Jansson by my side. It slipped into the pocket of my coat and didn’t require a lot of concentration, but for those times when it all got too much, I could just stop, sit for five minutes and pretend to read 🙂

      I’m now waking in the middle of the night thinking of what to clean out next!

      Perhaps I can tempt you back in with these few words – 20 books of summer.
      Cathy has jkust posted her reminder announcement. I know you love a good list.


  3. I can’t imagine what made you read these two books, especially today, with peaceful protesters being manhandled and jailed, and 15 million Britons in abject poverty. The fact that Julie Bishop was there, and in that costume, said it all for me (and I’d actually rather have a constitutional monarchy than an elected president)


    1. I always have and always will be interested in history, especially via biography.
      Books come my way at work all the time; many I choose to read so I can talk to them with our customers. This means I often read books I may not have picked up otherwise, however I still only read what is of interest to me (the topic, the genre, the author, the buzz, the longlist).

      I have been vaguely interested in the whole coronation spectacle as a moment in history – not only the pomp and ceremony, but it what it says about us as a society – the choices we make, the way we can be manipulated by govt, power and by overt displays of wealth, how different age groups have responded, how it is reported around the world etc. One thing I have observed is the increase in post-colonial concerns that this event has reignited, especially from the Caribbean nations. The Queen basically ignored the legacy of empire, which allowed many of her fellow Brits to do the same. I think this could be changing.


  4. I find it’s very rare for a biography of a living or recently deceased person to be anything other than fawning praise or occasionally a hatchet job. I think a person has to pass out of living memory before their record can be objectively assessed. And it’s pretty much an unwritten law in the UK that no one should criticise Elizabeth… 😉


    1. Most of the bio’s I read tend to be of authors, otherwise I will lean towards a memoir of a living person. Autobiographies in my limited experience have been highly dubious affairs!
      I suspect the Queen’s blind spot about the legacy of empire will be judged by history more critcally as the years go by. Although this book book reminded me that she was inculcated with the glory of Empire and Commonwealth from a very young age. It can be hard to see past those early lessons.


  5. I’m not surprised Hurd has given a rosy, even sychoohantic view of the late queen; but then I have to admit I’m biased against his politics, especially because of his close association with Thatcher.

    I also got the impression he lacked a true sense of humour while in office, which combined with his sense of absolute rightness makes me suspect every authoritative pronouncement he might make. Prejudiced – qui, moi?


    1. Ahhh that all makes sense now – thanks for the background. I was not at all familiar with his name. Humour was definitely lacking from his book; whereas Jackson’s had a spark to it I really enjoyed.

      Liked by 1 person

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