A common plot in today’s successful novels portrays a graying woman who wakes up and walks away from a life of supposed satisfaction. Often the impetus is divorce, life-changing illness, challenges by adult children or loss of intimacy, job or relevance. Unexpectedly a protagonist decides to deviate, or haphazardly slides, onto another path. William Kuhn, a noted British biographer and historian, in his debut fiction novel delivers a wry, socially conscious tale of rounding up one such straying octogenarian-the Queen of England, Elizabeth II.
In “Mrs. Queen Takes the Train,” Elizabeth II is not so gracefully descending into old age. She has realized that after years of what she considered “endless lessons,” she is still required to constantly learn new material-computer technology, social media parameters, even the ever changing jargon of her own English subjects.
She recalls that learning Chinese for a state visit was easier than handling her own mobile phone. The Queen is tired and, “No one had warned her that she might lose confidence as she grew older.” At first glance one might worry that this novel will degenerate into a sad, cautionary tale about how society dismisses aging females but with a queen as a protagonist, Kuhn exercises options.
Her Majesty jumps a train to Scotland to visit the retired yacht Britannia, now a tourist attraction, yet a place where the Queen harbors many happier memories.
Rapidly a truer spirit of the novel emerges-that of a smart exploration of the negotiated spaces shared by servants, Old Guard Royalty, and all things new. The Queen walks away from her stables wearing a borrowed hoodie with a skull stenciled on the back, pumps muddied by cutting through hedges and her handbag over her arm. She doesn’t intend to go off grounds but the anonymity of the hoodie and a freshly painted side door that can’t be opened provide the accidental opportunity that so often initiates a haphazard quest. So, instead of turning towards the front door of the palace, she is elated to slip out onto a rainy side street, determined to walk alone to a customary cheese shop to purchase some favorite cheddar for a special horse.
As she continues to wander, regardless of her odd apparel, her imperial manner asserts itself. While riding the Great North Eastern Railway, sharing a table in the dining car with a blind man, his wife and service dog, and a young man with many piercings, the Queen has come too close to revealing her true identity.
Fellow passengers laughingly insist she looks familiar-is she Helen Mirrer? Judi Dench? She looks like the Queen! She covers by joking “Oh, yes! Queen of all I survey!” Her Majesty blandly adds, “People tell me that all the time.” She can’t keep her hands off the blind man’s dog, surreptitiously tugging its ear throughout the journey. Kuhn’s revealing the humanity in this old lady’s heart makes for sweet moments in this novel.
Meanwhile, several little people discover her missing and pair up to follow her, a stable girl with a salesclerk from the cheese shop, a ladies maid and a dresser and a butler with an equerry. Playing counterpoint to the Queen’s narrative, these select few represent the vast numbers required to support the monarchy. As each traveler shares their story with their impromptu partner, an odd flavor of Canterbury Tales is created. Overall, the round up is as funny and fast-paced as the determined puncturing of pomposity is sure and astute.
Also, Kuhn’s familiarity and experience with the ways of the British and their monarchy allow for the development of a very authentic voice. Like every old lady the Queen wonders if perhaps she has more regrets than acknowledged or, as her nanny taught her, should she just keep soldiering on? She does this thinking as she washes dishes alone in the galley of the Brittania late at night. In her hoodie, a guard mistakes her for one of the night cleaning ladies and waves her on board. Being ever practical and following her nanny’s direction to always stay busy, she cleans the galley even while acknowledging that Princess Diana had it right about depression and the need for prescribed medications.
This sly, clever interweaving of the Queen’s personal thoughts and real moments of British history make this novel a delight. While Kuhn is affectionate and sympathetic towards his character, he also offers a sharper view of British social, political and generational issues.
One shortcoming of this novel is the ending. A natural low-key ending arrives when the Queen is found standing in a line of homeless people waiting for free hot tea from a social services van. However, Kuhn burns another 30 to 40 pages making sure that everyone involved in the quest has some kind of solution-oriented happy ending. Regardless of the contrived wrap up, many more than just Anglophiles will love this novel.
Carolyn J. Kelly is a Manhattan resident.