Looking Back at Princess Elizabeth

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As Matt this morning covered for us, Queen Elizabeth II celebrates the big 9-0 today—“another milestone in her record-breaking reign”:

Last September, Elizabeth supplanted Queen Victoria as Britain’s longest-reigning monarch and the longest-reigning queen in world history. Among the major European monarchies, only Louis XIV’s 72-year reign surpasses hers.

Elizabeth on Aug 17, 1943. (AP) Alan has more photos.

Back in 1943, The Atlantic published a profile of the queen back when she was simply Princess Elizabeth. (The piece was written by Wilson Harris, then editor of the magazine The Spectator.) At the time, Elizabeth was just a few months shy of another milestone birthday—her 18th. And Britain was at war.

Surprisingly, little was known of the 17-year-old princess: “The people of Britain are beginning to take it a growing interest in the personality of their future Queen—only beginning, because so far Princess Elizabeth’s life has most rightly been spent in her home rather than in the public eye, and her future subjects know relatively little of her,” Harris wrote. He compared her education and upbringing to Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901: “It is more than a century, though not much more, since a girl of seventeen stood first in succession to the Throne.”

Apart from the fact that World War II limited Elizabeth’s ability to travel abroad, she had “the advantage” over Victoria, according to Harris:

First and foremost, she is far more fortunate in her parentage and early surroundings. The Duke of Kent, Princess Victoria's father, had his qualities, but all his associations were German, and his wholly German wife was a well-meaning but limited woman. The secluded household at Kensington, then well outside London, was permeated by the influence of the German Fraulein Lehzen, the German Prince Leopold (the Duchess of Kent's brother), and the half-German Baron Stockmarnot—not the happiest atmosphere for the nurture of a Queen.

Princess Elizabeth was born in a house in a London street, and spent most of the first ten years of her life in a house in another London street, Piccadilly, with cars and buses and taxis—all that makes up the swift and shifting life of London speeding ceaselessly past its windows day and night. It was the comfort of an English home like a thousand others, rather than the luxury, or imagined luxury, of a palace. There the Princess was taught to read by her mother.

By 17, Elizabeth had read an impressive amount of literature:

The Princess’s explorations in the field of English literature are of greater interest and perhaps of greater significance. Time for reading at large is limited, for the formal educational regimen is treated seriously. But in or out of “school hours” she has read most of Shakespeare; The Canterbury Tales; a good deal of Coleridge, Keats, Browning, and Tennyson; some of Scott, Dickens, Jane Austen, Trollope, and Robert Louis Stevenson; while in lighter moments she turns to Conan Doyle (I hope The White Company as well as Sherlock Holmes), John Buchan (I hope Montrose as well as Greenmantle), and, before he brought dishonor on his name, P. G. Wodehouse (whose hold was as potent over a Prime Minister of seventy as over a Princess not seventeen).

Aside from reading, she also rode horses, served in “the girls’ equivalent of Boy Scouts”, swam (“finds water—with pennies to dive for and the crawl stroke to practice—a hardly less natural element than air”), and listened to the radio (“follows the war news closely”).

Harris concludes that the mystery around the princess was actually a good thing: “That relatively little has been known of the Princess hitherto is matter for satisfaction rather than regret, for it means that her childhood has been wisely guarded and sheltered, and her personality allowed to develop as it would, unstrained by any undue consciousness of status.” Whether she assumed the throne soon, or spent years as the presumptive heir, Princess Elizabeth was prepared:

The Princess may have years of service as heir-presumptive before her. She may at any moment by the caprice of fate be summoned to the most exalted position in the greatest Commonwealth in the world. Enough is known of her upbringing to show how well the preparation for either lot has been achieved by a training that has never threatened to dim the freshness or mar the simplicity of her girlhood.

And so she did, as predicted: Elizabeth assumed the throne nine years later in 1952, at the age of 26—well-prepared for her long, historic reign.