William Kuhn on ’Mrs. Queen Takes the Train’
Monarch and Melancholia
If the Queen of Kuhn’s imagination is a little sad, it’s understandable. She’s entered her ninth decade of life, her children’s marriages have collapsed, and her own marriage, while functional and satisfactory, has never been a grand passion. Indeed, her entire life has been scheduled, approved monitored, and orchestrated down to the minute for far too long.
Events of the not-so-distant past also weigh on her. In the 1990s Buckingham Palace burned, and then there was that dreadful business with Diana. The new century brought the death of the Queen Mother, and a sharpening of the general sense that the monarchy has been sliding into irrelevancy... a process that has chipped away at the comforts the Queen has long enjoyed, such as her beloved Britannia.
A little adventure outside the walls of her royal residence might do her good, and if Her Majesty happens to have hit upon an ideal disguise in a borrowed hoodie with a skull emblazoned on the back... well then, so much the better.
"The Queen was born in 1926, and my father was also born in 1926," Kuhn told EDGE. "This story takes place soon after The Queen turns 80, and one of the things I observed about my father after he turned 80 was that, even though he’d had a successful career and he had enough money to retire on and he was living very comfortably and driving around in his own car, he began to experience depression more. I think that was because after 80 your body breaks down more; it’s hard to keep up enthusiastically with politics or things in the media, or deal with things like computers."
Naturally, the first thing the staff at Buckingham Palace wonder is whether Her Majesty might not have gone a bit barmy. But senile dementia is only one possibility, and rather an extreme one at that, Kuhn noted. "Even if you don’t have dementia, you begin to feel out of it. The idea for the Queen turning 80 and being a little saddened by that was something I had seen from somebody who is her exact age.
"On top of that, I would say that most of the people I know of who have met the Queen or had something to do with her talk about her shyness, talk about her inability to connect in a very warm way," added the newly minted novelist.
"I started to think of that as possibly an outcome of some kind of depression. That’s why the book begins with her being kind of discomfited by her computer, her relationship with the Prime Minister, her own sense that she can’t control the history of the Monarchy even though she’s devoted her life to it -- and she’s losing a major perk or two, including one that she was really attached to," namely, the use of Britannia.
"You sort of feel, ’Oh, how can you feel sorry for the Queen because she’s lost her yacht? Here’s a woman of incredible privilege,’ " Kuhn allowed. "But I saw a picture of her at the decommissioning of the royal yacht, and you can see on her face that she’s struggling to control herself. She’s sad about it. I think any time you see another human being trying to control sadness, you have some kind of fellow feeling for them. That was one of the kernels for the story."
Birds of a Feather
One crucial element of the story turns out to be a hunk of cheddar cheese of a sort available (in the novel) only at a (real life) store located nearby. Her Majesty’s impromptu adventure takes her to the shop, where she meets Rajiv, a young man who, coincidentally, is a paparazzo responsible for some of the most unguarded photos of the Queen to hit the tabloids in recent years.
Though he’s lived in England his entire life, as have his parents before him, and he sees himself as English through and through, Rajiv must tolerate racism and epithets on a daily basis. But neither his status as a racial minority nor his background as a freelance photographer matters when Rajiv’s path crosses that of the Queen; Rajiv instantly assigns to himself the role of protector to Her Majesty.
As it happens, Rajiv is passionately in love with Rebecca, one of the stable hands at the royal mews. (It’s the Queen’s favorite horse that loves the special cheddar she’s seeking.) Rebecca regards Rajiv with suspicion -- she’s had bad experience with men before, and generally gets along better with horses than people anyway -- but when she realizes that she’s accidentally played a part in the Queen’s flight from the palace, Rebecca joins forces with Rajiv to look out for the monarch and, if possible, gently guide her home.
Rajiv and Rebecca are not the only pair to be brought together by Queen Elizabeth’s wanderlust. Shirley, the Queen’s Dresser, and Lady Anne, Her Majesty’s Lady in Waiting, have long been at odds (there’s more than a touch of antiquated class consciousness in the palace’s inner workings), but the two women put their differences aside in order to help with the search. In so doing, they discover the many points they have in common.
"Each of those couples are in some awkward way trying to form a relationship with one another," Kuhn explained. "In the case of Rebecca and Rajiv, it’s a conventional romance; they are two young people who you’d expect to be trying to get together. But Lady Anne and Shirley are [a different story]. One is in her 60s, the other is in her 70s, and they are in different social strata; why would these two women want to form a relationship?
My Heart’s Tonight in... Scotland?
"Some of this comes from a friend of mine who retired from the British Foreign office, the equivalent of our State Department," Kuhn revealed.
"He retired onto a corner of the Balmoral Estate, where he owns property. So you can see Prince Charles’ place two miles in the distance, and the Queen sometimes drives by his place. He is, himself, from a working class background, and he knows some of the retired servants who live around there, and he tells me the most amazing stories.
"Most of them are quite guarded about what they’ll talk about," Kuhn said of royal staffers, "but they will talk about mending sheets and having these embroidered emblems on the sheets from the different reigns, and the retired ladies’ great pride in taking care of these things.
"They didn’t think of this as menial labor; they thought of it something to be very proud of, and they invested some bit of themselves in mending those sheets and having them starched and folded in such-and-such a way. Hearing these stories about the ladies who were retired on the Balmoral Estate gave me some of my ideas for Shirley."
There’s one more couple on the Queen’s trail: William, who serves as Her Majesty’s butler, and a new equerry named Luke, freshly returned from service in Iraq where his closest male companion (an American, no less) lost his life.
William is openly gay, though too busy for romance; Luke isn’t as yet willing to label himself as gay, but the loss of Andrew, his American mate, has knocked him off his emotional center. The two men have more differences than commonalities (indeed, William is closer to Shirley than to anybody else in the royal household), but they quickly find that they work well together in a crisis.
"I let a British former boyfriend of mine read this book. He doesn’t really like the monarchy, but he said, ’I’ll read it juts to make sure you got the British stuff right.’ The first thing he did was send me back an email saying, ’You’re in love with Luke, aren’t you?’ " Kuhn related, laughing heartily.
For Queen and Country
Luke, he added, was modeled on the surge of young men who "in the wake of 9/11 wanted to do something patriotic for their country, so they joined up with the Army and quickly found themselves sent to the Middle East in a way that they didn’t anticipate.
"Luke is a career officer in the British Army, so he could have anticipated being sent to Iraq," the writer said. "While he’s out there, he meets somebody who’s very different from him, but they are thrown together and they have to work together. I have never met anybody like Luke, but I have met some of his American equivalents.
"William the butler becomes romantically interested in Luke, but he can’t really allow himself to admit to it," Kuhn continued. "He’s older than Luke, he comes from a different stratum inside the palace. There are pretty clear lines there, and you don’t cross them.
"William, if anything, is somebody who would be more like me in that he sees Luke from a distance and he would be more comfortable having to deal with Luke from a distance rather than having to work together one on one. It’s hard for William when here’s the hunky major, decorated for service abroad, and he has to work with him while being attracted to him at the same time."