The premise of The Queen and I is something that makes me Royalist blood run cold - a politician called Jack Barker uses subliminal pictures on television to brainwash the nation into voting his party to power, and his first act is to abolish the monarchy. (Shudder!) The Queen and her family are sent off to live on a council estate in Hellebore Close - known locally as Hell Close. There they must make do with benefits or the pension, with only the possessions they can fit in their tiny houses (most of which end up getting stolen pretty quickly anyway.) The country rather falls apart with a hopeless leader in charge, but of more interest is seeing how the royals get along without any money and in surroundings which they are far from used to.
And, oh, it is funny! But more than that, it is believable - not the premise (even if we ever lose our monarchy - Heaven forbid! - it's unlikely they'd get aggressively shipped off to council houses) but the way in which various members of the Royal family would respond. Sue Townsend writes very affectionately of the royals; although it's tricky to work out whether or not she thinks the institution is a good one, she certainly has a lot of respect for certain members of it. Chief among these is, of course, the Queen. She behaves exactly as I would expect - that is, she just gets on with it. Since she spends her life seeing every imaginable culture, habits, and traditions, it's unlikely that there is anything that could wrong foot her socially. The one thing she cannot quite get used to (and this is where Townsend's social critique of Britain comes into play, one suspects) is how little money people are expected to live on, and how inefficient and difficult the system is. Here she is, chatting with a social worker...
"And what is the current situation regarding your personal finances?"
"We are penniless. I have been forced to borrow from my mother; but now my mother is also penniless. As is my entire family. I have been forced to rely on the charity of neighbours. But I cannot continue to do so. My neighbours are..." The Queen paused.
"Socially disadvantaged?" supplied Dorkin.
"No, they are poor," said the Queen. "They, like me, lack money. I would like you, Mr. Dorkin, to give me some money - today, please. I have no food, no heat and when the electrician goes, I will have no light."But not everybody is so resilient. Other royals do cope well with the move - Prince Charles is thrilled about getting to some quiet gardening, Princess Anne loves getting out of the limelight, and the Queen Mother (bless her!) finds the whole thing hilarious, so long as she's got a drink or two next to her. But Prince Philip takes to his bed and won't engage at all, Princess Margaret similarly refuses to acknowledge that her situation in life has changed - while Princess Diana is saddened chiefly by the lack of wardrobe space. It's quite odd to read a book about the royals set before Diana died - because it is impossible to think of her without that context now. In 1992, she could still be affectionately mocked as a clothes horse and a flibbertigibbet. Indeed, remembering how old all the royals were in 1992 and reformulating my view of them is quite tricky, since I was only 7 then, and don't remember (for instance) Princess Anne's days as a relative beauty.
As far as social commentary goes, Townsend obviously wants to draw attention to the plight of the poor, in the battle against bureaucracy and out-of-touch officials, but perhaps it doesn't help her cause that every working-class character is essentially kind and decent. A few rough diamonds, but they're all there to help each other at the drop of a hat, issuing generous platitudes when needed and handy at knocking together a makeshift hearse. Of course, that's better than making them all selfish, violent thugs or benefits cheats, but it might have been a more effective portrait of a working-class community had the characters and their traits been more varied, as they would be in any other community.
Which is a small quibble with a very clever, very amusing page-turner. The idea was brilliant, but in other hands it wouldn't have worked. I can only agree with the Times review quoted on the back cover: "No other author could imagine this so graphically, demolish the institution so wittily and yet leave the family with its human dignity intact."