The quote “well behaved women seldom make history” has become so omnipresent that its intent has been erased –a bon mot ascribed to nearly all of history’s most notorious women at some point, from Anne Boleyn to Marilyn Monroe, encouraging — when found on mugs, retro-themed greeting cards, t-shirts — women to stand out by misbehaving, as perhaps the only way to achieve something monumental.
In context, however, this was a single sentence in a piece by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich which lamented the scarcity of historical documents outlining the actions of women. Not that their actions weren’t notable, but that they — like Eliza Schuyler in “Hamilton” — tend to be erased from the narrative.
Such is the novelty and delight of a series like “The Crown,” centering the experiences of the young Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy), a woman whose long reign has had the side effect of making us forget she was ever not old.
Prior to this series, Elizabeth’s film appearances tended to be as a caricature in comedies where she’s all high-pitched voice, corgi wrangling, well-rehearsed waving. Unlike the numerous bio-pics crafted for the various Presidents and Prime Ministers the Queen has seen come and go, the very reliability and conservatism that has made her reign as successful as it has been makes for a challenging character arc.
The first season of “The Crown” highlights Elizabeth’s conventionality by contrasting her not only with her maverick husband Philip (Matt Smith), but also her rebellious sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) and disgraced uncle David (Alex Jennings). All three knew her prior to her ascension; we watch them mourn, alongside Elizabeth, the girl she used to be. Elizabeth is told early on a version of what every young woman is told, in every filmic treatment about a young royal: She must separate the girl she was from the Queen she must now become.
Elizabeth may have begun her reign earlier than anticipated, but we learn through childhood flashbacks and in the way others speak about her that she has always been a serious, mindful person whose instincts are always to do what’s expected. She is also firmly committed to the idea of domesticity, perhaps because — along with all of her subjects — she has only just lived through a devastating war.
While her strands of pearls and carefully curled bob recall TV’s most famously unhappy housewife, “Mad Men”’s Betty Draper (January Jones), Elizabeth appears content both as a wife and mother, and resigned to her destiny as monarch. While she had hoped for a few decades’ of quiet family life, when called upon to serve her country, she does not hesitate.
Margaret also defies the archetype of rebellious rich girl. Set against Elizabeth’s common-sense, stiff-upper-lip ways, Margaret is pure emotion, Kirby’s face a constantly moving mask of weeping and laughing as she dances and smokes. Her major rebellion is not to run off with her lover; the act of wanting an inappropriate man brings about her downfall. She does not run off and elope; she invites her sister for dinner and requests her blessing.
When Elizabeth, after considerable discussion with her mother and advisors, realizes she must disallow this marriage, Margaret is heartbroken but accepting. This plot line feels so minor to us now, particularly in the wake of recent news that the contemporary Prince Harry may be romancing an American divorcée of his own. But Elizabeth, still so early in her reign — and knowing the country is healing from her uncle’s romance-related abdication in the recent past — knows what she must do.
There is something quintessentially British about Elizabeth, both in this new series as well as in life. Circumstances brought her to take the crown as the country was rebuilding after the war, unavoidably making her the face of change, hope, and modernization. That she would ultimately be seen as the aged face of an out-of-date institution does not factor into the series, which is viscerally immediate, bringing us right into the first uncertain years of her reign.
We know her reign will break the record in length; that Margaret’s affair with Peter Townsend (Ben Miles) is doomed; that England will pull itself out of the postwar recession and become a player again on the world’s stage. But it’s to the series’ credit that we still feel the same uncertainly Elizabeth did.
To a contemporary lens, the idea that Elizabeth herself was anything other than entirely conventional is surprising. The length and stability of both her reign and her marriage of course mean that, like rebellious children since time immemorial, her own sons would be drawn to women more like their aunt than their mother.
By the time Camilla Parker-Bowles, Diana Spencer and Sarah Ferguson came on the scene, monarchy was no longer seen as aspirational but as the villain in each woman’s drama — Elizabeth as the scary Maleficent, scaring them off with one hand while clinging to outdated mores with the other. And now, twenty years later, the real Elizabeth is drawn largely as a kindly grandmother and great-grandmother, passing along the torch of carrying the monarchy into a new era upon Prince William and Duchess Kate.
In an era of superhero origin stories, this peek behind the curtain at what it may have been like for Elizabeth at the onset of her reign is fully engaging. For a woman who desired nothing more than to serve her country and maintain a happy family, Elizabeth has managed not only to remain in the narrative but, with this series, to take her place at the center of it.
The first season of “The Crown” is available on Netflix.