Prof. Jenny Reed, Visiting Assistant Professor of English
As a British expat, I was expecting to be asked about my reaction to Queen Elizabeth’s death.
What I wasn’t expecting was my inability to answer these curious, well-meaning questions, which came, respectively, from my spouse, my friends, and my students.
I don’t think a lot about the royal family. I’ve never seen The Crown, and my family did not watch the Queen’s Christmas Day speech (a tradition in many UK households). When I became an American citizen a few years ago, I renounced my fidelity to all foreign rulers without hesitation. Despite this, when I saw the news that the Queen had died, I felt a twinge of sadness and a sort of melancholy that I couldn’t account for. In Britain, the monarch has very little to do with ordinary people’s ordinary lives, and yet they are ever-present. The Queen’s face appears on all banknotes, coins, stamps, and coins in the UK. Her features and her profile are as familiar to me as any public figure I have ever known, and her voice—which always seemed to be beamed in directly from a bygone era—is also somehow engraved on my brain. As Jonathan Freedland wrote in The Guardian last week, “she was woven into the cloth of our lives so completely, we had stopped seeing the thread long ago.” Hearing that she has died is like hearing of the death of a mythological character. Her sheer longevity means that she is familiar and shared across generations in a way that no longer seems possible to recreate.
Beyond the personal, it’s impossible not to think about the larger historical perspective. As a Brit abroad, it strikes me that last week was a time of vertigo-inducing change for Britain: on September 6, 2022 a new Prime Minister took office, and just two days later, one monarch passed and another ascended. Queen Elizabeth’s death is likely to exacerbate the feelings of global and historical disorientation that many Britons have felt since the vote on Scottish independence in 2014, which came so close to fracturing the United Kingdom, and the Brexit vote in 2016, which succeeded in removing it from Europe. While the Queen was alive, it was possible to entertain the illusion that nothing was fundamentally changing. Without her, Britain will have to grapple anew with these changes, including, inevitably, the prospect of changes to the institution of the monarchy itself.
It is hard to imagine that the new king, Charles III, will inspire the kind of affection and devotion that characterized the British response to Queen Elizabeth. Perhaps the loosening of these ties of feeling to the monarch will make it easier to think about the kinds of reforms to the monarchy that our modern moment calls for. In the days and weeks to come, Britons will process their feelings of sadness and loss over the death of the Queen. Following this somber time, we will see the UK considering its place in a post-Elizabethan world and the shape the monarchy will take after the longest reign in British history.