The writer is a historian and professor emerita of history at the University of Roehampton

The late chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks described how, on January 27 2005, Queen Elizabeth II met with a group of holocaust survivors at St James’s Palace to mark the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. “When it was time for her to leave, she stayed. And stayed.” To each survivor in this large group she gave her “focused, unhurried attention. She stood with each until they had finished telling their personal story.”

“One after another, the survivors came to me in a kind of trance, saying, ‘Sixty years ago, I did not know if I would be alive tomorrow, and here I am today talking to the Queen.’ It brought a kind of blessed closure into deeply lacerated lives.” This semi-sacral encounter with a listening sovereign allowed the survivors a kind of release — a kind of healing.

In many ways, the 10 days of national mourning in Britain for the death of the Queen offers such an opportunity. With dignity and spectacle, the life of one monarch will be marked and the reign of another made. It is a moment to think about who we were and who we will become.

The mourning is not mandatory. Government advice has been very clear: “There is no expectation on the public or organisations to observe specific behaviours.” There is no obligation to suspend business. Again and again, the guidance repeats that it is “entirely at the discretion” of each individual or organisation.

This is quite at odds with the Lord Chamberlain revoking theatrical licences until after Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901. While the romanticism of the early 19th century had exaggerated the culture around displays of grief — such was the crush of people thronging to attend the lying-in-state of the Duke of Wellington in 1852 that two women died — ostentatious mourning and enforced grief can be traced further back.

For several weeks in early 1695, after the death of Queen Mary II, all theatrical and musical events were closed. One Russian visitor to London in February 1772 complained that there were “No diversions! No anything! All shut up! Very dull!” Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, married to the son of King George II, had just died. The Adelphi Theatre tried to claim back their losses sustained during an enforced three-week closure, following George III’s death in 1820, from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office.

Even in the still-deferential society of 1952, in the period immediately after George VI died, theatres and cinemas closed and, while restaurants and hotels remained open, they were advised not to play music or allow dancing.

We are quite a different people today and mourning will not be for everyone — a robust debate has already begun on social media, which includes condemnation of the Queen for the atrocities of the British empire.

And yet, when the Queen Mother died in 2002, the UK government greatly underestimated the public response. Her lying-in-state attracted hundreds of thousands of mourners, queueing despite the bitter April weather, to pay their respects. Opening times had to be extended to 22 hours a day. The crowds for Queen Elizabeth II are expected to be far greater.

For some, the Queen represented all our mothers and grandmothers. For others, her death will serve as a chance to mourn the traumas of the past few years — a palatable excuse to draw on that deep well of sadness that built up during the pandemic. But many who mourn are grieving the passing of an age, a tone and a character.

The Queen belonged to a generation who prized reserve over outward shows of emotion. How paradoxical then if we mark her departure in a manner that has had to evolve to a more demonstrative age, with tears — perhaps it is her one last gift of restoration and release.



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